What is Bystander Intervention?

Bystander intervention has been gaining popularity on college campuses in recent years because of its potential to reduce gender violence.  The idea behind bystander intervention is basically that from time to time we all find ourselves in situations where we witness troubling and potentially harmful behavior, and at that moment we have the choice to either interrupt the problematic behavior or remain complacent and allow the situation to escalate.  The decision to act is not always straight forward and we’ll see how different factors can make “real life” interventions complex.  However, the more you learn about bystander intervention the more prepared you’ll be the next time you find yourself witnessing a potentially harmful situation.

While bystander intervention can be implemented as a strategy to reduce a range of social problems, our focus is on how it can be implemented to interrupt gender-based and sexual violence.  When it comes to sexual violence on college campuses we believe that bystander intervention complements prevention (link to risk reduction/prevention page) efforts that focus on potential perpetrators (as they are the only ones, who through making the conscious choice to not perpetrate can truly prevent sexual violence) and risk reduction strategies which focus on potential victims.  If we were to make a spectrum of anti-violence strategies it would look something like this:

While some colleges and universities are heavily invested in bystander intervention it’s important to remember the limitations of this approach.  Many times sexual and gender-based violence occurs when there aren’t any bystanders around, and when there were other people present the perpetrator doesn’t exhibit any behavior that would be a recognizable precursor to perpetration.  In addition, many bystander intervention programs rely upon and reinforce a type of masculinity that can make for problematic interventions (more on this in a couple paragraphs).  With that said, bystander intervention can still be a useful anti- violence strategy in conjunction with prevention.

What Makes Us More/Less Likely to Intervene?

There are many different forms of gender violence including victim blaming, sexist comments, and physical violence.  There have been times in all of our lives when we’ve heard a harmful remark and wanted to say something, or saw a couple’s argument escalating and felt uncomfortable.  Why do we sometimes intervene and other times do nothing?  It’s important to remember that each situation is different given the context, number of other people around, likelihood of physical violence, and relationship you have to the people around you.  However, there are several concepts that we can take a look which will hopefully help you make your decision when you’re in the moment.

Intervening and Group Think

The first concept is called “diffusion of responsibility” and it basically means that an individual feels more personal responsibility to intervene if they are the only one around.  The more people around, the less likely someone is to take action because they think someone else will take care of it.  This is part of what makes it possible for a hundred people to witness a mugging and no one does anything because they all think that someone else will handle it.

Another important concept is “pluralistic ignorance” which means that we generally base our reaction to events off of how other people are reacting.  So if someone is getting mugged we’re likely going to be standing around looking at each other to gage how we should react.  If one person reacts and tries to interrupt the situation others are likely to follow.


Intervening and Social Norms

Social-psychologist Solomon Asch ran a series of experiments to determine how group norms pressure individuals into conformity.  The experiment asked a group of participants to identify which line (A, B, or C) most closely resembled the line on the far left.  Pretty simple, right?

Well, all of the participants except one were being paid to say that the correct answer was line B.  When it came time for the unknowing participant to answer, an overwhelming majority of the time she/he answered “line B”, even though she/he individually believed the correct answer was line A (which is was).  What the study demonstrates is the strong tendency for individuals to question their own beliefs when they do not align with that of the majority.

Asch ran the experiment again, but this time one of the paid participants was instructed to answer “line A”.  Asch called this person the “visible ally”, and what he found was that when one visible ally deviated from the norm (of answering “line B”) the unknowing participant was much more likely to go with what she/he believed and answer “line A”.

These studies should be an affirmation that when we believe something is not right we should trust ourselves, not base our beliefs off of how other people are reacting (or not reacting).  And, that if one person speaks up it makes it much easier for others to do the same.

This is especially true when it comes to men and bystander behavior.  According to surveys on college campuses, 74% of college men would intervene to prevent a sexual assault and 81% of male college students report some level of discomfort when men use terms like “bitch” and “slut” to refer to women.[1]  However, men are often hesitant to hold other men accountable for their behavior because of the belief that they’re the only one that thinks something is wrong.


Men and Bystander Intervention

Because most perpetrators of gender violence are men, many bystander intervention programs focus on the ways that men can intervene when they see other men committing gender violence.  This can be an effective approach but it’s important to take masculine socialization (link to men and masculinity page) into consideration as to not encourage a strategy that will cause more harm.  Most men have been socialized to protect women (think about all the movies you’ve seen where a woman is in a state of helplessness and a man swoops in to save her), and it’s not a bad thing necessarily to want to make sure people are safe (regardless of gender).  The problem is that guys are not very good about checking in with women to see if they want and/or need a guy to intervene.  Men often make the mistake of assuming that women need the help of men.  Sometimes women would appreciate some help, other times it’s unwarranted.  Putting on a superhero cape and swooping in takes agency away from the person who is being “saved” and can sometimes make the situation worse by escalating the conflict.

For men, there are plenty of ways to intervene that don’t involve a superhero cape.  The organization Men Can Stop Rape offers some suggestions for men who want to intervene in a way that doesn’t take agency away from the person on whose behalf you’re considering intervening.  Note that these tactics involve things like checking in with that person, using low-key methods like calling her cell phone, and generally keep the intervention fairly covert as to not escalate the situation.


Broadening Bystander Intervention

It’s not just men who intervene; women act as bystanders all the time.  And it’s not just women who can benefit from bystander intervention.  Men are subject to other men’s harassment as well and bystander intervention can be a really great tool to defuse any of these situations.  So when we think of how bystander intervention can be used it’s important to think of a range of scenarios that involve people of different identities.

Some of the most clever and effective tactics that we’ve heard of have come from the experiences of students.  Most of the time they rarely involve direct confrontation or heroism.  Here are a couple suggestions of ways to intervene that some students have shared:

-Texting your friend to check in and see if they’re cool with the situation.
-Having a conversation beforehand and agreeing upon secret “cues” that will let your friend know that it’s time to go.
-Using humor.  In some situations humor can be a really useful tool to defuse a situation because it can be perceived by the aggressor as less threatening than direct confrontation.
-The dance floor swoop.  When your friend is getting grinded on (instead of grinding with) smoothly roll in and become the new dance partner.  If you’re looking like you’re just having a good time things usually smooth over nicely (meaning the dude doesn’t flip out).


Want to Learn More?

National Sexual Violence Resource Center: Bystander Intervention Resources

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