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Bystander Intervention and Risk Reduction


How Can You Help Someone Who Has Experienced Sexual Violence?

Supporting someone who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence can help him/her cope and recover. Many times we do not get involved because we are not sure what we can say or do to make a difference. Below are some tips on how to respond to someone who has disclosed his/her circumstances to you:

  • Actively listen, keep eye contact and focus on what the person is saying. Be in the moment and don’t interrupt. Sometimes repeating back what s/he has said helps to show that you are understanding and that you have listened.
  • Respond compassionately, showing empathy. Below are some examples of safe, supportive responses:
    • “I’m sorry you are going through this.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
    • “It’s not your fault.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that s/he is not to blame.
    • “I care about you and I’m taking you seriously.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions and investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is take them seriously and assist them in getting help.
    • “You are not alone.” Remind survivors that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience.
    • “Are you open to seeking medical attention?” The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. You can support the survivor by offering to accompany him/her to get medical treatment and to get more information. It’s OK to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?”
    • “This doesn’t change how I think of you.” Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially their romantic partners. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about him/her.
  • Be patient. Realize his/her recovery will take time and that coping is different for everyone.
  • Encourage the person to seek further help. Share resources.Keep in mind that following through is entirely his/her decision.
  • Offer to go with the person if s/he wants to see a counselor or get medical attention. This further shows that you are willing to provide support.
  • Do not blame or judge. Don’t analyze his/her experience and don’t criticize his/her actions or choices. A survivor is never at fault for what happened.

Bystander Intervention

Who is a bystander?

A bystander is someone who observes or witnesses conditions that perpetuate violence. Although not directly involved, s/he has the choice to discourage, prevent or interrupt the incident or additional incidences.

What is bystander intervention?

Bystander intervention is the act of feeling empowered with the knowledge and skills to effectively assist in the prevention of sexual violence with safe and positive options that may be carried out by an individual or individuals to prevent harm or intervene when there is a risk of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Effective and safe bystander intervention does not put the bystander in danger.

What is the goal of bystander intervention?

To change passive bystanders into active bystanders who feel confident in their ability to discourage, prevent, or interrupt before, during or after an incident of sexual violence.

In other words, everyone is a bystander and we all have a responsibility to help ensure the safety of the whole College community.

Active Bystanders are effective because:

1. They recognize a situation that may lead to an incident of violence and are aware intervention could stop or prevent the incident. They are alert and they recognize signs or red flags. Examples of things they notice include:

  • How much alcohol their friends are consuming
  • Their friends’ interactions with strangers
  • Unexplained bruises or other injuries
  • Marked change in a friend’s behavior or demeanor

2. They make a commitment to safely intervene after weighing the risks and benefits.

Factors to consider before intervening include threats to personal safety, negative consequences for friendships and the potential to change the outcome

3. They decide a safe way to intervene. Options include:

Distracting the victim or the aggressor by asking a question, directing the aggressor to stop the behavior or delegating the intervention by calling the police or seeking assistance from another authority.

4. They implement their decision to intervene.

Learning and thinking about what you can do in advance of a situation will enable you to be more confident to act if the situation arises.

Risk Reduction Tips

While non-consensual sexual acts are NEVER a survivor’s fault, the following suggestions may help reduce the risk of experiencing a non-consensual sexual act:

  • If you have limits, make them known as early as possible.
  • If you are able, tell a sexual aggressor “No” clearly and firmly.
  • Try to remove yourself from the physical presence of a sexual aggressor.
  • Find someone nearby and ask for help.
  • Take care of your friends and ask that they take care of you.

If you find yourself in the position of being the initiator of sexual behavior, you owe respect to yourself and to your partner. Carefully consider these suggestions before engaging in sexual activity:

  • Clearly communicate your intentions to your sexual partner and give him/her a chance to clearly relate his/her intentions to you.
  • Understand and respect personal boundaries.
    Someone’s sexual availability
    Whether a person is attracted to you
    How far you can go
    Whether s/he is physically and/or mentally able to consent

If there are any questions or ambiguity, you DO NOT have consent.

  • Mixed messages from your partner are a clear indication that you should stop and communicate better because you may be misreading each other. Your partner may not have figured out yet how far s/he wants to go with you.
  • Don’t take advantage of someone’s drunkenness or drugged state. The choice to use alcohol or drugs is NOT a choice to engage in sex. A person who is incapacitated cannot give consent.
  • Realize that your potential partner could be intimidated or fearful of you because of a power advantage simply because of your gender or size. DO NOT abuse that power.
  • Understand that consent to some form of sexual behavior does not automatically imply consent to other forms of sexual behavior.
  • Silence and passivity cannot be interpreted as an indication of consent. Read your potential partner carefully, paying attention to verbal and nonverbal communication and body language.