Being an Effective Bystander

By Jana K. Sabo
Coordinator/Equity Officer – Florida SouthWestern State College

Being an Effective BystanderOne of the most effective ways to prevent a sexual assault from occurring is to be an effective bystander.  Most people have heard of the Bystander Effect (or Bystander Apathy) which is the theory that the likelihood of someone intervening to offer assistance to a victim greatly decreases when others are present.  Typically, the more people present, the less likely it is that someone will intervene to help.  To teach someone to be an effective bystander takes time and effort.  A skillset must be built for effective bystanders so they are able to be effective at diffusing situations while keeping themselves safe. states the basic keys of being an effective bystander as being:

• Awareness – A key first step is to strengthen awareness so individuals and groups are better able to identify instances of sexual violence.

• Sense of responsibility – A sense of responsibility gives the bystander motivation to step in and take action.  Bystanders are much more likely to help friends than strangers and are more likely to help strangers if they see them as part of a group they identify with (like supporting the same sports team).

• Perceptions of norms – Perceptions of peer norms about helping (whether you think your friends are likely to help) and perceptions of authorities’ (like teachers’) attitudes are related to bystander attitudes.  People often mistakenly think others are less supportive of doing something to address sexual violence than they actually are.  Studies show links between willingness to take action as a bystander and perceptions of helping, trust, and commitment among community members and trust in campus authorities. Weighing the pros and cons – People weigh the costs and benefits of getting involved in a risky situation.  These include threats to their own safety, negative consequences for their relationships with others, and the potential to change the outcome of a risky situation or to help a victim.

• Confidence – People who feel more confident in their ability to help are more likely to take action.  Research consistently finds that prevention programs, particularly in-person educational and skill workshops, increase an individual’s confidence in his/her ability to take effective action.
• Building skills – Population survey data shows that many people are at a loss for specific ways to help.  Survivors tell us that friends and family do not always do things that are useful or supportive, and these negative or unhelpful responses make coping with, and recovering from, abuse much harder.  Bystander intervention training can give motivated community members skills to intervene in ways that protect their own safety and be truly supportive to victims.
• Context – Bystanders also need safety nets for themselves – resources they can call upon and community policies that support intervention (

It can be difficult to think of how to intervene in a safe way that is not obvious.  Some ways to effectively intervene in a potential situation are:
• Ask the potential victim where the bathroom is.
• Constantly call or text the potential victim.
• Ask the potential victim if they are ok.
• Cause a distraction, drop something, or spill a drink.
• Tell a funny joke or do a silly dance.
• Tell the potential victim their friend needs to talk to them right away.
• Tell them you think you hear their car alarm.
• Tell the potential victim you feel sick and need them to take you home.

Effective bystanders are not only instrumental in preventing sexual assaults. The same principles can be applied to preventing bullying, harassment, and discrimination.  Teaching bystanders to effectively intervene in situations can start as young as elementary school and reinforce efforts already in place to prevent bullying. These can be lifelong skills that the effective bystander can use to help many potential victims throughout their lifetime.

Florida Southwestern State Collage

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