Can a Bystander Make a Difference in Sexual Assault Prevention?


Image source: Flickr user bitsorf: Thank you 1,500,000 times on Flickr, under Creative Commons

By Amy Zavadil , PhD (Associate Dean for Equity and Title IX Coordinator at Barnard College)

Federal law now requires colleges and universities to provide bystander skills training to all new students and employees.  Teaching bystander skills to all students and employees in college or university settings is necessary, but not sufficient to shift culture.  The current focus is on campus sexual assault, but sexual assault happens outside of college communities.  Society beyond campuses also needs to recognize factors that contribute to sexual violence, and commit to bystander intervention to shift culture.

An extension of Latane and Darley’s (1970) work in understanding the bystander effect, why individuals may not be inclined to help in emergency situations, bystander intervention is an increasingly common prevention approach focused on the steps that lead to helping.  In response to campus sexual violence, Victoria Banyard and colleagues have been working to research effective campus bystander intervention efforts to reduce campus sexual violence (Banyard, 2013; Banyard & Moynihan, 2011; Banyard, Moynihan, & Plante, 2004; McMahon & Banyard, 2012).

Bystander intervention acknowledges there are five steps that need to happen for help to occur:

  • Notice the event
  • Recognize it as a problem
  • See personal responsibility to assist
  • Know what to do
  • Take action

Bystander skills training includes recognizing the common barriers at each step, as understanding the barrier can then increase the likelihood that intervention will occur.  It is also important to focus on safe intervention, including both direct intervention to disrupt behavior or indirect intervention to seek help from a friend or professional.

In campus and community settings there is a disconnect, students who have learned to speak up, if they see something to say something, are often being shut down or dismissed by adults, many who may not have been exposed to the decision making steps of bystander intervention.  This may be further complicated by differences in perspectives of issues of identity and sexuality.  Instead of validating efforts to intervene or speak up, some minimize concerns that may be raised – particularly when intervening at the low risk level of addressing insensitive or biased language.

Bystander intervention can be used as primary prevention – intervening at early stages of concerning behavior to reduce the incidence of violence.  It might also be used as secondary prevention, disrupting adverse behavior that has already begun.  And, finally, bystander intervention can be tertiary prevention, or how one responds to assist someone who discloses their experience or sexual violence.  At each of these levels, it is important that we do not limit this education solely to students and school settings.

Although there is increased commentary on sexual assault in the media and elsewhere, there remain stereotypes about victims and perpetrators of such crimes. Media reports tend to focus on what a victim could have done differently, rather than highlighting facts such as the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by an acquaintance and the importance of understanding consent.

It is my hope that we expand our conversation to consider how each of us can contribute to the culture in which campus sexual violence is making headlines.  We each have the potential to learn about intervention, and barriers to intervention, to assist in the culture shift that seems to be just beginning.  One way to increase our own personal responsibility for bystander intervention is to consider:  What would you hope others would do for you?


Banyard, V. (2013). Go big or go home: Reaching for a more integrated view of violence prevention.  Psychology of Violence, 3(2), 115-120. doi: 10.1037/a0032289

Banyard, V., & Moynihan, M. (2011). Variation in bystander behavior related to sexual and intimate partner violence prevention: Correlates in a sample of college students. Psychology of Violence, 1(4), 287-301. doi: 10.1037/a0023544

Banyard, V., Plante, E., & Moynihan, M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal Of Community Psychology, 32(1), 61-79. doi:10.1 OO2Jjcop.10078

Latane, B., & Darley, J. (1970). The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.

McMahon, S., & Banyard, V. L. (2012). When can I help? A conceptual frame-work for the prevention of sexual violence through bystander intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 13(1), 3–14. doi: 10.1177/1524838011426015

Image source: Flickr user bitsorf: Thank you 1,500,000 times on Flickr, under Creative Commons


Amy Zavadil is Associate Dean for Equity at Barnard College.  In this role she oversees community standards and serves as the Title IX coordinator, working with students, staff and faculty.  Amy earned a Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision.  Amy has presented to college counselors, prevention educators, student affairs staff, and Title IX coordinators at national conferences on sexual harassment in higher education, college student development, bystander intervention, and campus climate.  She has worked in higher education for eight years, as well as having prior work experience in law enforcement and project management.

Filed under: Culture, Violence Tagged: advocacy, culture