Are You a Bystander?

A bystander is someone in a crowd who sees a potentially dangerous situation and does nothing. A bystander does not protect the values of safety, trust, and honor that are central to our community.

Everyday, we witness situations in which someone makes an inappropriate sexual comment or perpetrates sexual harassment. Sometimes, we say something or do something, but at other times, we choose simply to ignore the situation. How do we make those decisions? Is there a safe way to increase the number of times and situations in which we might choose to act, and could that way also make sense for others?

Banyard, V.L., Plante, E.G., & Moynihan, M.M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology, 32, 61-79.

I don’t want to be a bystander. What can I do?

  1. Be on the look-out for potentially dangerous situations. Learn how to recognize indications of potentially dangerous situations. Here are some examples of “red flag” behaviors related to sexual assault:
    • Inappropriate touching
    • Suggestive remarks
    • Testing boundaries
    • Disregarding set boundaries
    • Inappropriate intimacy
    • Attempting to isolate someone
    • Pressuring someone to drink
    • Violent behaviors
    • Targeting someone who is visibly impaired  
  1. If I were in this situation, would I want someone to help me?
    • If a situation makes us uncomfortable, we may try to dismiss it as not being a problem. You may tell yourself that the other person will be fine, that he or she is not as intoxicated as you think, or that the person is able to defend themselves. This is not a solution! The person may need more help than you think!
    • When in doubt, TRUST YOUR GUT. Instincts are there for a reason. When a situation makes us feel uncomfortable, it is generally a good indicator that something is not right.
    • It is better to be wrong about the situation than to do nothing.
Many people feel reluctant to intervene in a situation because they are afraid of making a scene or feel as though a person would ask for help if it were needed.  

  1. You have the responsibility to intervene.
  • You may be thinking: 
    •  No one else is helping; it must not be a problem.
    • People who are sober don’t think this is a problem, maybe I’m wrong?
    • Jim’s really responsible and he’s not intervening…why should I? 
  • Approach everyone as a friend. Do not be antagonistic. Avoid using violence. Be honest and direct. Recruite help if necessary.Many people do not intervene in a potentially dangerous situation because they are looking to others for cues on how to act or they believe someone else will intervene.
  • But IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to act- as a member of the campus community and as a friend to all other students


  1. You have the skills to act!  
    • Learn effective intervention techniques!
    • Watch out for other students & friends!
    • Come up with a plan beforehand!
    • Talk to your friends about how they would want you to intervene if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.
    • Choose the intervention strategy that is best for the situation.
    • Take a break and make your move!

Berkowitz, A. Understanding the role of bystander behavior. US Department of Education's 20th Annual National Meeting on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention in Higher Education, Arlington, VA
Darley, J.M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.
Cialdini, R.B. (2001) Influence: Science and Practice. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon
*The information on this page was used with permission from the website of William & Mary College on Sexual Assault Resources & Education*