Child Abuse

Be An Active Bystander: Your Role In Preventing Sexual Assault

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The only person responsible for committing sexual assault is a perpetrator; however, everyone has the ability to look out for one another’s safety. Whether it’s giving someone a safe ride home from a party or directly confronting a person who is engaging in threatening behaviour towards someone else, anyone can help prevent sexual violence.

A bystander is an individual who is present when a violent incident, such as sexual assault, takes place but isn’t directly involved. Bystanders might be present when rape, harassment or abuse occurs—or they could witness the circumstances that led up to these crimes, and thus potentially are in a position to discourage, prevent, or interrupt an incident.

You may have heard the term “Bystander Intervention”. This is the act of feeling empowered and equipped with the knowledge and skills to effectively assist in the prevention of sexual violence. The intervention act doesn’t have to jeopardize the safety of the bystander. The majority of different forms of sexual assault 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.

Stepping in to prevent a potential sexual crime against a victim can change the outcome of the incident. It may give the potential victim a chance to get to a safe place or leave the situation entirely. You don’t have to be a hero or even stand out from the crowd to make a big difference in someone’s life; you only need to recognize the role you can play as an active bystander in situations that could negatively disrupt the course of a person’s life for a long time to come. 

Whether you’re taking home a friend who has had too much to drink, explaining to a crowd of fellow men and women that a rape joke isn’t funny, or getting security involved when someone is behaving aggressively toward another, choosing to step in can affect the way those around you think about and respond to sexual violence.

Diffusion of Responsibility

Latané & Darley developed a model that describes a bystander’s decision process that informs whether they will provide help or not. According to this model, a bystander goes through a five step decision tree before help is provided. Helping responses can, however, be inhibited at any stage of the process by various factors and no help is provided.

  1. The bystander needs to notice that an event is taking place, but may fail to do so and therefore not provide help.
  2. The bystander needs to identify the event as some form of emergency. The situation may be ambiguous, thereby, preventing help from being given.
  3. The bystander needs to take responsibility for helping, but might avoid taking responsibility by assuming that somebody else will. (Diffusion of responsibility).
  4. The bystander needs to decide on the appropriate helping response, but may fail to intervene by not believing they are competent to do so.
  5. The bystander needs to implement that response, but this may be against their interest to do so, especially in dangerous situations.

In the diffusion of responsibility in stage three, each bystander notices the event and recognizes that help is required, but fails to act because they assume that somebody else will take responsibility. This can be viewed as a means of reducing the psychological cost of not helping. The cost (e.g. embarrassment and guilt) are shared among the group, reducing the likelihood of intervention.

Bystander inaction amongst a victim’s peers can be attributed to a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect.” Responsibility among bystanders is dispersed among all people around them so these individuals are more likely to be a passive rather than an active bystander, creating this effect. Latane and Darley coined the term “diffusion of responsibility” as the social psychological phenomenon where people feel less of an inclination and less of a responsibility to take action or intervene in an emergency situation when there are other people present. Diffusion of responsibility lays the foundation for the “bystander effect.” Bystander intervention approaches seek to address the “bystander effect” phenomenon by demonstrating how bystanders can be effective in the primary prevention of interpersonal violence.

Bystander intervention gives responsibility to all members of a community to help ensure the safety of all members within that community. The intervention may be as simple as providing words of support to a friend or colleague or it may mean more involved behaviours to let people know that action will be taken. The goal of bystander intervention is to change passive bystanders into active bystanders who feel confident in their ability to “discourage, prevent, or interrupt” a sexual violence incident. Bystander intervention helps grant people the self-efficacy to stand up and speak up when a person is being harassed, or to support a family member when confronting an abusive relative. It is highly important that we learn to take steps to protect someone who may be at risk in a way that fits our comfort level.



  1. RAINN:
  2. WRAP: – Embracing and Empowering Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence



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