What You Need to Know about Bystander Intervention

By | September 3, 2014

The following information on Bystander Intervention was submitted by PSO Karen Noffsinger.


Ending sexual assault/violence is the collective responsibility of all members of our community–students, faculty, and staff.  Whether you are first-year student or a tenured professor, you can commit to fighting sexual assault/violence as an active bystander.

What does it mean to be an active bystander? An active bystander is someone who steps in, speaks up, or reaches out in situations that are, or could be, harmful to a specific person or a group of people.

To be an active bystander against sexual assault/violence means to combat sexual assault/violence through words and actions.  Active bystanders intervene in situations in where sexual assault/violence is threatened, enacted, perpetrated, condoned, or made light of.  They see themselves as willing to intervene for the safety and well-being of those around them.

Although being an active bystander may seem daunting, it can include a wide range of actions and incorporate a wide range of personal skills and preferences.  Being an active bystander doesn’t look the same for everyone, but everyone can do something to fight sexual violence.

What can I do?

The first step to becoming an active bystander is recognizing situations in which intervention is warranted.  This means taking action in situations that others condone, overlook, or actively ignore.

Factors that may increase the risk of sexual violence include: heavy alcohol consumption, isolation from friends and peers, and cultural pressure to hook-up.  It is important to note that none of these factors causes or excuses sexual assault/violence, but each can increase the likelihood of sexual assault/violence occurring.

Examples of sexual assault/violence that you may observe include: cat-calling, name-calling, and other forms of verbal harassment; unwanted touching (grabbing or fondling); sexual contact being initiated with someone who is too intoxicated to consent; someone adding drugs to a drink to give to a potential victim; and stalking or cyber-stalking.

You may also detect sexual assault/violence is occurring through auditory cues:  screaming, yelling or other indications that someone is in trouble.

The second step is determining the level of involvement with which you are comfortable.  Once you have decided that a situation calls for intervention, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is it safe to intervene?

Does the situation pose a significant physical threat to you or others involved?  If so, you should immediately call Campus Police (843-953-5609) if you are on campus, or the City of Charleston Police Department  (911).

2. Can I handle this on my own?

Even if a situation does not pose significant physical threat, you may still want help.  If you don’t think you can handle a situation on your own, see if you can locate other bystanders who might help you intervene. In the case of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), you can contact any of our Campus Police, Victim Services or People Against Rape.   Turning to campus and community resources can be particularly helpful when you are trying to intervene in an ongoing problem.

The third step is deciding on an appropriate intervention and carrying it out.  Interventions can range significantly in their intensity and directness.  The goal is to DISRUPT, DISTRACT and REDIRECT the situation.

In some situations, bystander intervention may be as simple as redirecting attention or creating a distraction.  This kind of an intervention may feel comfortable to people who recognize a risky situation but don’t want to attract a lot of attention or don’t want to be confrontational.  Some examples of intervening include:

– You notice a friend is flirting too aggressively with someone (or initiating sexual contact with someone who is too intoxicated to consent), distract your friend by inviting them to go somewhere else with you.

– You notice that a friend looks uncomfortable while talking to someone on campus or at a party, join the conversation and/or help your friend exit the situation.

– You think that a friend has had too much to drink at a party or bar, say that you are heading home and offer to walk them home.

– You are with a group of students making jokes about a known or suspected incident of sexual assault,   change the subject and consider reporting the incident to police.

Other instances of intervention will be more direct.  These kinds of actions can go a long way toward addressing the culture that supports sexual violence.

– You notice a friend is leaving a party with someone who looks too intoxicated to consent to sexual activity; you can pull your friend aside and share your concern with them.  You can remind them that they are dealing with someone who is too drunk to be a fully informed and willing sexual partner.

– You notice a friend talking in a disrespectful way to their significant other, you can pull your friend aside and have a direct conversation about their behavior.

– You overhear a classmate joking about rape, say that you don’t find it funny and explain why.

The most important part about being an active bystander is making the commitment to notice and respond to sexual violence.  Whether you decide to intervene in ways that are subtle or direct, your actions are sending the message that you have taken a stand against sexual violence, and this is essential to fighting sexual violence. Utilizing campus and community resources will sometimes be the best solution, particularly if you feel like you aren’t equipped to address the issue.

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