April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is all about raising awareness, education, and working to prevent sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. One of the ways to help is by understanding bystander intervention: when a person recognizes a potentially harmful situation and responds in a way that helps change the outcome. Bystander intervention plays a key role in preventing sexual assault — plus, it discourages victim-blaming and can change social and community norms. Here’s the breakdown of what bystander intervention is, and how to help if you witness a potentially harmful situation on campus or in your community.
What is a bystander?
Bystanders are people who witness and recognize a potentially harmful situation but are not directly involved. They can help prevent sexual violence by intervening to deescalate a potentially harmful situation. Often, bystanders can be friends, classmates, colleagues, teammates, or strangers who witness potential harm happening to someone else. An active bystander witnesses an incident and chooses to take action to keep a situation from escalating.
Bystander intervention can be something as direct as telling your friend that their language is offensive or calling the police if you witness a potentially harmful situation on campus. Regardless of your level of intervention, there are safe ways to prevent sexual violence. Below are six bystander tips that can help if you witness something that’s potentially harmful. Keep in mind that every situation is different, and there is no “right way” to respond, but these tips can help you get started.
- Be proactive
When it comes to sexual assault prevention and understanding bystander intervention, being proactive is key. You may want to rehearse or role-play a conversation with friends and family and explore how you might respond to a potentially harmful situation. Know that these scenarios can feel uncomfortable, but being proactive and prepared will help you feel more confident if and when a challenging situation arises.
- Understand the role privilege plays in your ability to intervene
The truth is, your age, race, gender, and other personal characteristics may make it safer (or less safe!) for you to speak up and be vocal in potentially harmful situations. Consider how these factors may impact your ability to speak up. It’s especially important to consider this if you’re not representative of the target group.
If you witness someone being harassed, threatened, or experiencing a potentially harmful situation, creating a distraction can be an effective way to redirect the people involved. For example, if you see someone being followed, you might say something like, “Hi, can you show me where the bathroom is?” or “I think your friend is looking for you!” This creates an opportunity to create distance between the person being followed and the harasser.
If you witness a potentially harmful situation, you may choose to address those involved directly. Keep in mind that it may not be safe or effective to directly confront someone in every case, but being respectful, direct, and honest can sometimes be an effective form of intervention, especially during situations when a person has verbally said something harmful. For instance, if you hear someone make an inappropriate joke, you can respond by saying, “What you said isn’t funny” or “This type of behavior isn’t okay.”
In some cases, it can help to ask others to get involved and help in risky situations. This is called “delegating” — in other words, don’t act alone! If you witness a potentially harmful situation and don’t feel safe intervening, you may find a friend, resident advisor, or another person who can help. You can also contact on-campus police, security, or another professional — and remember, in any emergency situation, always call 911.
- Focus on the needs and experience of the person being targeted
As a bystander, it’s important to be supportive of the person being targeted before, during, and after the incident. Depending on the situation, it may be helpful to express your support by saying something like, “I saw what they just did — are you okay?” or “I heard what that person said to you. I’m so sorry.” Affirm to the person that they didn’t do anything wrong and that what happened was not their fault. This is a key tip for bystander intervention and plays a huge role in combating victim-blaming in our society and culture.
During Sexual Assault Awareness Month and beyond, it’s important to understand bystander intervention in case you ever witness a potentially harmful situation and need to step in. It’s also important to note that the behaviors that make up sexual violence exist on a spectrum; so catcalling, sexual comments, sexist jokes, and other behaviors, no matter how subtle or overt, shouldn’t be tolerated. Being an active bystander is an important way to take steps in the right direction for all — no one should feel unsafe or threatened, no matter what. Remember: if you see something that looks like a potentially harmful situation, it probably is. Always trust your instincts.