Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual assault and there are many different ways you can step up to make a difference, 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.

Studies show that being an active bystander is the most effective way to decrease sexual misconduct. When we make prevention a community responsibility and everyone does their part, we are more likely to present problematic behavior from occurring.

How can I be an active bystander?

Ask directly

This involves asking an individual directly if they are at risk and can help you determine if an action needs to be taken immediately to ensure a safe environment. For example, if you see a friend being led away at a party by someone you do not know, you can address the individual at risk directly. You can ask the following: “Do you need help?” or “Would you like me to stay with you?” or “Would you like to get out of here and go somewhere else?”

Make sure to ask the question when the potential perpetrator is not listening or nearby in order to de-escalate the situation from turning into a crisis. Asking them if they need any support or assistance at the moment can help you determine if an authority needs to be contacted. If the answer is yes, proceed to contact a safe emergency personnel.

Please note: Do not get directly involved if your safety is at risk. If you are witnessing acts of violence or an individual making violent threats, do not risk your own safety. Please use an alternative bystander technique.

Create a distraction

Distracting is a subtle and innovative way of intervening. The purpose of distraction is to interrupt the incident, safely, 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. At this moment, make sure not to leave them alone. This technique 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.”
  • Tell the individual that someone outside is looking for them or that their car is getting towed.
  • 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, a debate, or a dance party.

Delegate

It can be intimidating to approach a situation alone. If you need to, enlist another person 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 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, bartender, Public Safety, Nightwatch, etc. This option will allow you to have others on your side and can offer additional safety from the potential perpetrator.

If the situation has escalated and involves imminent danger and actual harm, the best intervention technique that can be used is to call 911. When calling, be prepared to identify yourself, your location, and the nature of the situation. Be sure to stay present when help arrives and near the individual that was harmed. Remain calm, friendly, and supportive.