Bystander Intervention Technique: Steps To Take As An Active Bystander

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Your actions matter, whether or not you were able to change the outcome, by stepping in you are helping to change the way people think about their role in preventing sexual assault. Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual assault. There are many different ways that you can step in or make a difference if you see someone at risk. This approach to preventing sexual assault is referred to as “bystander intervention.” If you suspect that someone you know has been sexually assaulted, there are steps you can also take to support that person and show you care.

The key to keeping friends and family safe is first of all recognizing that you can play a significant role in situations that are threatening, and learning how to intervene in a way that fits the situation and your comfort level. Having this knowledge on hand can give you the confidence to step in when something isn’t right. Stepping in can make all the difference, but it should never put your own safety at risk.

Bystander intervention can play a significant role in a comprehensive approach to sexual violence prevention for the following reasons:

  1. Bystander intervention discourages victim blaming and makes sexual violence a community problem, rather than an individual problem.
  2. When bystanders are approached as allies in ending sexual violence, rather than as potential perpetrators or victims, they are less likely to become defensive.
  3. Bystander intervention plays a role in helping to change social and community norms.

Bystander intervention is also influenced by the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB). The TPB addresses the intention of a bystander to effectively intervene in a sexual violence situation. According to the TPB, active bystander behaviour will be influenced if the bystander:

  1. Has individual attitudes and beliefs that oppose sexual violence,
  2. Perceives that the social norm is to intervene when sexual violence occurs,
  3. Believes that he/she has the knowledge and skills to effectively intervene, and has the intention to intervene.

Bystanders are more likely to “engage in pro-social behaviour” when they are aware that there is a problem and they see themselves as a responsible party in solving the problem. This theory is demonstrated by the situational model, developed by Latane and Darley, which is the most commonly used bystander intervention model. The model outlines the following five steps:

  1. Recognize signs that an act of sexual violence may occur or is occurring.
  2. Identify that the potential victim is at risk and that intervention is appropriate.
  3. Decide whether or not to take responsibility to intervene.
  4. Decide the most appropriate and safest way to intervene.
  5. Implement the decision to intervene safely to diffuse the situation.


Direct: Step in and address the situation directly. This might look like saying, “That’s not cool. Please stop.” or “Hey, leave them alone.” This technique tends to work better when the person that you’re trying to stop is someone that knows and trusts you. It does not work well when drugs or alcohol are being used because someone’s ability to have a conversation with you about what is going on may be impaired, and they are more likely to become defensive.

Distract: Distract either person in the situation to intervene. This might look like saying, “Hey, aren’t you in my Spanish class?” or “Who wants to go get pizza at Dominos?” This technique is especially useful when drugs or alcohol are being used because people under the influence are more easily distracted than those that are sober.

Delegate: Find others who can help you to intervene in the situation. This might look like asking a friend to distract one person in the situation while you distract the other (“splitting” or “defensive split”), asking someone to go sit with them and talk, or going and starting a dance party right in the middle of their conversation. If you didn’t know either person in the situation, you could also ask around to see if someone else does and check in with them. See if they can go talk to their friend, text their friend to check in, or intervene.

Delay: For many reasons, you may not be able to do something right in the moment. For example, if you’re feeling unsafe or if you’re unsure whether or not someone in the situation is feeling unsafe, you may just want to check in with the person. In this case, you can combine a distraction technique by asking the person to use the bathroom with you or go get a drink with you to separate them from the person that they are talking with. Then, this might look like asking them, “Are you okay?” or “How can I help you get out of this situation?” This could also look like texting the person, either in the situation or after you see them leave and asking, “Are you okay?” or “Do you need help?”

Many bystander intervention campaigns and programs focus on shifting the social norm to create active bystanders. Steps that organizations can take to change social norms include “encouraging help-seeking behaviours” among bystanders, adopting policies to encourage bystander engagement, and providing positive feedback to bystanders who effectively intervene to prevent sexual violence. After a successful intervention, the bystander can go a step further to privately support a victim who is upset, talk with the inappropriate actor privately, and/or report the incident – with or without names.

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