Bystander intervention or being an active bystander is stepping in to help someone in a difficult or threatening situation, if it is safe for you to do so.
An active bystander is someone who witnesses something harmful happening, recognises it as causing harm, and does something to address it before, during or after the situation occurs. Bystander intervention challenges problematic social norms and beliefs within our communities and interrupts behaviours that are causing harm.
Sexually harmful behaviours are perpetuated and reinforced by societal conditions which operate on multiple levels - from cultural and social norms, to structural factors, to relationship practices. When our community challenges sexually harmful behaviours we are challenging the social norms that contribute to them. We are making it clear that these behaviours are not okay.
Bystander intervention can include calling out sexist jokes, challenging sexually harmful attitudes, and interrupting sexually harmful behaviours that occur in our communities.
Active bystanders contribute to safer communities where we behave with respect and empathy towards each other. Everyone can be an active bystander, everyone can be the change they want to see, and everyone can contribute to respectful communities.
Why we don’t intervene
The Bystander Effect is a theory which suggests the more people who witness something harmful happening, the less likely it is someone will take action. One reason for this is that we all think someone else will step in.
Another common reason people don’t take action when they witness sexually harmful behaviours occurring is they don’t think it is serious enough to intervene. However, we know that even lower level sexually harmful behaviours such as jokes or inappropriate remarks perpetuate societal conditions and norms that result in harm. They lead to acceptance of and support for sexism and inequality which is harmful for everyone in our community.
A further reason that people don’t intervene is that they don’t know what to do. It takes courage to step-in or check-in. We need to take action to overcome the Bystander Effect and intervene when we see harmful behaviours. If there is harm occurring we all have a responsibility to do something, so that we can live and learn and socialise in a society that is safe for everyone.
How to intervene
Your safety is important. Part of being an active bystander is about considering how you can intervene in a way that makes sure you’re not putting yourself or someone else at risk of harm. If there is a risk of physical violence or escalation, you should consider strategies other than direct intervention. This could include calling for help, contacting police, campus security, or another community member.
You should also consider any social or power imbalance that exists, and make sure you are comfortable with your actions or whether you need to involve someone else.
Being an active bystander
- Notice what is happening around you
- Realise it is a problem
- Decide to take responsibility
- Take action: Be an active bystander
How to take action
- Directly address the situation: “It’s not okay to talk to people like that” or “leave them alone”
- Distract the person behaving problematically: Create a diversion – make a joke, ask a question
- Delegate by asking someone for help – your friends, a member of the community, security or police
- Delay: Check in later with the person the behaviour was directed at or follow up with the person behaving problematically to talk to them about it
- Document: You can talk to the person the behaviour was directed at to help them understand their options for reporting and support.
The Student Interest and Conflict Resolution Team is available to provide information and options for reporting and support regarding sexually harmful behaviours.
Take violence seriously. If you suspect that someone is being hurt or that there is a weapon on campus, call the police on 111.
Your own safety should be your top priority—you can remove yourself from the situation and call for help at any stage.