What is Bystander Intervention?
Bystander intervention is one of the forms of violence prevention with empirical backing to support its use. Violence typically occurs within a spectrum; along the way, there are numerous people who have the potential to notice a red flag or warning sign that violence is occurring, but often, nothing is done about it. These warning signs could look like: a friend not attending group hangouts anymore, a drunk person being carried into a closed room, a classmate getting anxious when they see someone waiting for them every day after class, along with a variety of other possibilities. By doing nothing, we allow the violence the chance to continue. We cannot be expected to intervene 100% of the time, but throughout the spectrum of violence, numerous people have the chance to do something, and often, it only takes one person to make a difference. Bystander intervention tries to educate and empower everyday people to understand the warning signs and know how to intervene when they see something wrong.
Often, we like to think we are the exception to the rule. We tell ourselves, even if other people would stand by and watch, we would be the hero that intervenes and saves the day. The reality is, most of us are the passive bystanders that do nothing. This is only confounded by the reality that, when we are in groups of people, our likelihood of intervening decreases even further. In order to become active bystanders, we need to take time to evaluate ourselves and think about what our own obstacles are to intervention. We have listed some common obstacles below, but please think about your own unique barriers as well.
- I don’t like conflict.
- I don’t want to cause a scene.
- I don’t want to “cock-block”
- If I am wrong, I will look stupid
- I don’t want to be a party-pooper
- They are strangers. I don’t know them well enough to say anything.
- They are speaking a different language and I can’t really put the whole story together.
- I don’t want to make an assumption about who is “right and wrong” in the argument.
- They are my friends. I don’t want them to dislike me if I say something.
- I don’t want to lose my job, position, or grade by doing something.
- I don’t want the violence to be turned on me.
- I am shy.
- I want to be seen as cool.
- I am probably just over-exaggerating.
- Someone else will do something.
- A woman is helping a drunk guy into a room and shuts the door behind them—she isn’t going to assault him. Female-to-male violence isn’t common enough to raise my personal alarm.
- A woman is helping a drunk woman into a room (or a guy is helping a drunk guy into a room)—non-heterosexual violence isn’t common enough to raise my personal alarm.
There are innumerable options when it comes to intervention. The goal is to find a way to do something while also acknowledging the obstacles that make it hard. If you are shy—great! Be shy. You don’t want the violence to be turned on you? Me either! You don’t want to annoy your friend who is speaking with a crush? That is nice of you. We can keep those obstacles intact, while also finding a way to intervene.
- You want to be cool? Cool. You don’t need to start posting about violence prevention on all your social media (but you can, if you want). You can have conversations with friends and family about their relationships and normalize checking in with them about how everything is going.
- Are you shy or afraid you will look stupid if you are wrong? Find your loud friend who has no problem being the center of attention and have them do something instead. Or, get a group of shy people and all of you address the situation together.
- Never get involved with a situation where you think the violence could be turned on to you. Call the police or find someone more trained and qualified to help.
- Don’t want to ruin your friend’s chance with their crush by telling them they are being creepy? Just check in. “Hey, is this what you want?” or “Hey, how are things going over here?” Maybe they start giving you “the look” and you know it is time to get them out of there. Or, maybe they tell you they are having lots of fun and both parties are enjoying themselves. Cool. Now you know!
- Are they speaking a language you don’t understand? Again, get someone else involved who is better equipped to help them. A police officer, one of their friends, etc.
- Not sure what you are seeing or hearing is violence? Check in. “Does that look okay to you?” “Everything alright over here?” “Would you like any help?”
The list can go on and on. The important thing is to recognize the power you have to help keep people safe, and then act upon it in a comfortable manner. Every little act can help.
A model for intervention
Step 1: Notice the event.
In order to react, we need to first see or hear the incident.
Step 2: Interpret it as a problem.
After we notice the event, we need to understand something bad is happening; otherwise, we aren’t going to do anything.
Step 3: Assume Personal Responsibility.
There is a potentially violent act occurring and I believe I should help stop it.
Step 4: Know how to help.
Not only do I feel as if I should help, I know how to do it.
Step 5: Implement the help.
I intervene and prevent an act of violence from escalating, or occurring altogether.
If we only react to problems as they arise, violence will keep happening. We need to also be proactive in our efforts. The following are some examples of proactive intervention:
- Make a post on social media to showcase an act of bystander intervention or violence prevention. Show people what you care about.
- Set up plans with your friend group. “I am totally good to dance with this person or this person, but don’t let me dance with anyone else!” Of course, you should always check in throughout the event, but this helps give you an idea right off the bat.
- Normalize talking about your relationships among the people you care about. When you know how people function on a more intricate level, they are more likely to trust your opinion when you try to point out warning signs.
- Normalize talks of consent among the people you care about. If a friend shares a story with you about wanting to hook-up with someone (or having already done so), your level of concern for all parties involved will decrease if you know what consent means to your friends and family.
- Set up an email signature that includes a message about violence prevention.
- Have a research project for a class, or a group presentation? Find a way to educate others on violence prevention and bystander intervention through a new and interesting format.
- Get involved! We have a student group at the Wellness Center: the Violence Prevention Educators, who host bystander intervention trainings and educate the community through programs and events. Contact Tiger Simpson (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.