The only person responsible for committing sexual assault is a perpetrator, but all of us have the ability to look out for each other’s safety. Whether it’s giving someone a safe ride home from a party or directly confronting a person who is engaging in threatening behavior, anyone can help prevent sexual violence.
A bystander is a person who is present when an event takes place but isn’t directly involved. Bystanders might be present when sexual assault or abuse occurs—or they could witness the circumstances that lead up to these crimes.
On average there are over 293,000 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the U.S. The majority of these crimes are committed by someone the victim knows. Given these circumstances, it’s important to recognize the role bystanders can play in preventing crimes like sexual assault.
You may have heard the term "bystander intervention" to describe a situation where someone who isn’t directly involved steps in to change the outcome. Stepping in may give the person you're concerned about a chance to get to a safe place or leave the situation. You don't have to be a hero or even stand out from the crowd to make a big difference in someone’s life. Take steps to protect someone who may be at risk in a way that fits your comfort level.
Whether you’re taking home a friend who has had too much to drink, explaining that a rape joke isn’t funny, or getting security involved when someone is behaving aggressively, choosing to step in can affect the way those around you think about and respond to sexual violence.
It’s not always easy to step in, even if you know it’s the right thing to do. Some common reasons bystanders remain on the sidelines include:
- "I don’t know what to do or what to say."
- "I don’t want to cause a scene."
- "It’s not my business."
- "I don’t want my friend to be mad at me."
- "I’m sure someone else will step in."
It’s alright to have these thoughts, but it's important to realize that your actions can have a big impact. In many situations, bystanders have the opportunity to prevent crimes like sexual assault from happening in the first place.
Whether or not you were able to change the outcome of the situation, by stepping in you are helping change the way people think about their roles in preventing sexual violence. If you suspect that someone you know has been sexually assaulted, there are steps you can take to support that person.
- Learn more about steps you can take to prevent a sexual assault and show you C.A.R.E.
- Identify ways to help someone you care about.
- Learn more about how to respond when someone discloses sexual assault or abuse.
(Source: Rape, Abuse& Incest National Network)
This section provides background and general information on the bystander approach to sexual violence. Advocates, perfectionists, and community members can use these resources to learn about bystander intervention and how it is an effective approach to preventing sexual violence.
- Bystanders: Agents of Primary Prevention (16 p.)by Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (2010). This newsletter is entirely devoted to the bystander intervention approach to primary prevention and explores various campaigns.
- Research on Bystander Programs Highlighted in Journal (webpage) by David Lee (2011). This web post discusses research on bystander intervention programs. Listen to the accompanying podcast of the article.
- Bystander Approaches: Responding to and Preventing Men’s Violence Against Women (20 p. https://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/issue/i17/issues17.pdf]) by Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (2014). This article discusses the bystander approach to sexual violence prevention, an overview of successful programs and best practices, and includes a discussion of challenges to implementing a program.
- Encourage. Support. Act! Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (29 p.) by Paula McDonald &Michael Flood (2012). This report discusses how the bystander approach can be used to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Stop Sexual Violence: A Sexual Violence Bystander Intervention Toolkit (36 p.)by New York State Department of Health(2013). This toolkit describes the bystander approach and provides information unengaging with different populations such as youth, men, adwomen. An extensive list of resources and bystander campaigns is also available.
- Moving Beyond Individual Level Bystander Intervention Strategies: Why & How? (2 p.) by Hannah Larson, Jennifer Rauhouse &Shana Tobkin (2011). Through work with the STAND& SERVE initiative, these preventionists discuss making bystander intervention an action-oriented approach to prevention.
- A Different World is Possible: Promising Practices to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls (66 p.) By Maria Baños Smith(2011). This report discusses15 innovative case studies of promising prevention programs in the United Kingdom. Programs highlighted include workshops with boys, programs working with drama groups and girls at risk, and training bystanders to intervene to challenge the attitudes of their peers.
- Sexual Violence Prevention Through Bystander Education: An experimental evaluation (19 p.) by Victoria L. Banyard, Mary M Moynihan, and Elizabethe G. Plante(2007). This research article presents the results of a study evaluating the effectiveness of a bystander education program. The study found that both men and women who participated showed positive changes in behaviors over time.