Don’t Lose Sight of What’s Right – The Bystander Effect

Written By: The Women's Center Staff

April 4, 2023

(Adapted from RAINN)

Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual assault and there are many ways you can step up to make a difference, most notably through bystander intervention. An active bystander is someone who interrupts a potentially harmful situation, especially when it comes to sexual violence. They may not be directly involved but they do have the choice and opportunity to speak up and intervene.

Everyday events often have the potential to become unsafe situations. When this happens, everyone has the power to play an important role in addressing and preventing interpersonal violence. Intervention signals to the perpetrator that their behavior is unacceptable. If we as a community collectively and consistently reinforce this message, we can shift the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable.

Safely stepping in can make all the difference, but you should never put your own safety at risk. Below are some tips on how you can be a safe and effective bystander. While engaging in any of the below activities, be sure to be aware of your surroundings and listen to your intuition.

Create a Distraction

Distracting is a subtle yet effective way of intervening. The purpose of distraction is to safely interrupt the incident by communicating with the individual at risk and giving them an opportunity to safely exit the potentially dangerous situation. Try creating a distraction as early as possible.

This technique can be used to de-escalate the situation and re-direct the attention of the aggressor or the individual at risk to something else. For example, creating a conversation with the individual at risk is helpful and can also provide an opportunity for you both to safely leave the situation. Distraction can be used to dilute the tension before it escalates to further danger.

Other ideas include:

  • Cut off the conversation with a diversion like, “Let’s get pizza, I’m starving,” or “This party is lame. Let’s try somewhere else.”
  • Bring out fresh food or drinks and offer them to everyone at the party, including the people you are concerned about.
  • Start an activity that draws other people in, like a game, or an engaging discussion or debate.

Ask Directly

    Directly asking the individual at risk if they need assistance may help you determine if action needs to be taken to immediately ensure a safe environment. You can address the individual at risk directly by asking the following:

    • “Do you need help?”
    • “Would you like me to stay with you?”
    • “Would you like to get out of here and go somewhere safe?”

    It’s important to ask the question in a safe place away from the perpetrator in order to de-escalate the situation from turning into a crisis. Asking them if they need any immediate support or assistance can help you determine if an authority needs to be contacted.

    Rally Others

    It can be intimidating to approach a situation alone. If you need to, enlist others to support you:

    • Ask someone to come with you to approach the person at risk. When it comes to expressing concern, sometimes there is power in numbers.
    • Ask someone to intervene in your place. For example, you could ask someone who knows the person at risk to escort them to the bathroom.
    • Enlist the friend(s) of the person you’re concerned about. “Your friend looks like they’ve had a lot to drink. Can you check on them?”

    Sometimes the safest way to intervene is to enlist an authority figure like a resident advisor, supervisor, bartender, bouncer, or security guard. This option will allow you to have others on your side and can offer additional safety from the perpetrator.

    If the situation has escalated and involves imminent danger and actual harm, the best intervention technique that can be used is to call 9-1-1. Be sure to stay present when help arrives and near the individual that was harmed. Remain calm, friendly, and supportive.

    Extend Support

    After experiencing such a tense situation, the individual at risk may feel panicked and unsure about what to do next. Extending a helping hand and an empathetic ear can make a huge difference. Offer them appropriate resources and options for how you can support them.

    Supportive things you can say can include:

    • This is not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.
    • I’m here for you.
    • I’m sorry this happened.

    If they want resources, you can share The Women’s Center’s 24-Hour Hotline – it’s free, confidential, and available 24/7. Extending support is an important part of bystander intervention because it allows the individual at risk resources to help them on their journey.

    Your Actions Matter

    Whether or not you are able to change the outcome, by stepping in you are helping to change the way people think about their role in preventing sexual assault.

    Your voice has power!

    To learn more about how to support a survivor or speak with one of our Advocates, call our 24-Hour Hotline at 262-542-3828.