Tuesday’s with Prevention: Bystander Intervention

In Prevention on October 30, 2010 at 7:45 am

Recently a woman was physically assaulted because she is Transgender. Video of the assault showed up on youtube (of course). An article about the assault can be found at http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-mcdonalds-beating-20110423,0,3336656.story

Sadly, this is unremarkable. Attacks against transgender individuals are common, far more common than we even know because of the barriers they face when it comes to reporting. Viewers of the video note that nobody did much to prevent/stop this assault from occurring. There was an employee who stood in front of the victim. However, he did a very poor job and can be seen allowing the two girls to kick and punch the victim repeatedly. An older woman tried to help but became the target of the girls as a result. You can also hear other employees laughing and the person taking the video, when one of the blow’s to the victims head causes her to suffer a seizure, advises the attackers to leave and that the cops are coming.

There are three types of people involved in an assault.  The first two are obvious, the perpetrator and the victim.  The third is the bystander.  This person(s) plays an important role in the way the perpetrator responds and how he or she treats the victim.  The bystander can either support the perpetrator or the victim.  Unfortunately, sometimes bystanders are afraid and don’t wish to get involved, so they do nothing.  Research shows that an individual is less likely to intervene if there are other bystanders present. In emergency situations, many things prohibit bystanders from intervening:

  • If no one else is acting, it is hard to go against the crowd.
  • People may feel that they are risking embarrassment.
    (What if I’m wrong and they don’t need help?)
  • They may think there is someone else in the group more qualified to help.
  • They may think that the situation does not call for help since no one else is
    doing anything.

Are you a good or poor bystander?  Your actions can make a difference in someone’s life. In some cases, sexual assault can be prevented when people take responsibility for each other and get involved when someone is at risk. When you see someone who looks like they could use assistance do you respond in a helpful or hurtful way? You don’t have to confront the perpetrator if you are concerned that you may be in danger.  You may ask the victim to come and join you and your friends.  You may report the situation to an adult or the police.  Or, if you are willing and able, let the perpetrator know in a non-threatening manner that what is being done is unacceptable and it should stop.  If someone doesn’t recognize trouble, do something to intervene and prevent the situation from becoming worse. We all have a responsibility to look out for each other.

Some Bystander Strategies are*:

“I” statements

  • Three parts: 1. State your feelings, 2. Name the behavior, 3. State how you want the person to respond. This focuses on your feelings rather than criticizing the other person.
  • Example: “I feel           when you               . Please don’t do that anymore.”


  • Reduces the tension of an intervention and makes it easier for the person to hear you.
  • Do not undermine what you say with too much humor. Funny doesn’t mean unimportant.


  • Snaps someone out of their “sexist comfort zone.”
  • Example: Ask a man harassing a woman on the street for directions or the time.
  • Allows a potential target to move away and/or to have other friends intervene.
  • Example: Spill your drink on the person or interrupt and start a conversation with the person.

Group Intervention 

  • There is safety and power in numbers. It is much easier to avoid/ignore one person but difficult when it is several people.
  • Best used with someone who has a clear pattern of inappropriate behavior where many examples can be presented as evidence of his problem.

Bring it Home

  • Prevents someone from distancing himself from the impact of his actions.
  • Example: “I hope no one ever talks about you like that.”
  • Prevents someone from dehumanizing his targets.
  • Example: What if someone said your girlfriend deserved to be raped or called your mother a whore?”

We’re friends, right….?

  • Reframes the intervention as caring and non-critical.
  • Example: “Hey Chad…..as your friend I’ve gotta tell you that getting a girl drunk to have sex with her isn’t cool, and could get you in a lot of trouble. Don’t do it.”

When a situation makes us uncomfortable, we may try and dismiss it as not being a problem; “I’m just overreacting.” When in doubt, trust your gut! You have the responsibility to intervene. When you fail to act, you condone the bad behavior.

Bystander Intervention is a successful strategy because it discourages victim blaming behavior which contributes to the perpetration of violence and the silence of its victims. It also changes social norms, attitudes and behaviors that contribute to the occurrence and acceptance of violence. Interviews with convicted rapists reveal behaviors that began in early childhood that went unquestioned. While it is not accurate to say that bystander intervention would’ve prevented all of the crimes these men committed, it is likely that their behavior would have set off red flags and intervention could have occurred, thus reducing the likelihood of future offenses.

*adapted from Virginia Tech’s ‘Stop Abuse’ page http://www.stopabuse.vt.edu/bystander.php#strategies


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