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We all know the saying, “If you see something, say something.” There’s no instance when this rings more true than when your gut tells you to speak up about something that you think is wrong. But sometimes it’s hard to take action: we think we should mind our own business; we worry we don’t know the whole story; we wonder if we could end up hurt ourselves by getting involved; we think someone else must be stepping in already.

But when it comes to violence—especially sexual violence—and preventing it or stopping it from escalating, it’s always right to speak up in the moment and do what you can to diffuse the situation.

Scope of the Issue

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reports: “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the U.S.”

Sexual Violence, Defined:

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

Sexual violence refers to physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent due to the victim’s use of drugs or alcohol. An individual also may be unable to give consent due to an intellectual or other disability. A number of different acts fall into the category of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.

The Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention notes, “Up to 25 percent of college women may experience completed or attempted rape by the end of their college careers; an estimated one-third experience physical violence by an intimate partner; and 13 percent are stalked.”

A 2007 study on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that about 6 percent of undergraduate men will experience a sexual assault during college.

According to the National Institute of Justice, 90 percent of sexual violence on college campuses involves people who know one another. About half of all assaults occur in students’ rooms or homes after a party or date.

Recognize Warning Signs

There are often signs before an assault occurs that someone is disrespectful of other people’s boundaries, pushes their own agenda despite other people’s protests, or acts in a way that is coercive, pressuring, or aggressive.

Signs of Disrespect and Coercion

When a person behaves in the following ways, they may be showing signs that they don’t respect other people’s boundaries:
  • Constantly interrupts or talks over people in conversation
  • Makes insensitive or offensive jokes and comments
  • Focuses on physical attributes or objectifies people
  • Intrudes on personal space
  • Makes suggestive jokes or comments, even when the response isn’t positive
  • Makes people uncomfortable with gestures or touching of his/her own body
  • Gestures about or touches another’s body without encouragement and consent
  • Edges someone into a private area or out of the main social space
  • Encourages someone to consume alcohol or other drugs
  • Isolates someone from their friends
  • Makes you feel anxious for any reason

As Jeff Wolfsberg, a drug education specialist in private practice in Memphis, Tennessee, explains, “The first step in sexual violence intervention training is increasing a person’s understanding of what is sexual violence, being able to say, ‘That’s wrong, that’s not right.’ A person has to be able to interpret the behavior as a problem before they can intervene.”

Deborah Feller, LCSW, PC, a New York psychotherapist focused on alcohol and substance abuse, explains, “No one likes to face the reality of how people hurt each other. When one does notice, there’s the issue of responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility to intervene, directly or indirectly, when becoming aware of harm being done to another.”

Be an Active Bystander

Unfortunately, Wolfsberg explains, “When everyone witnesses the same behavior—let’s say sexual harassment at a college party—but no one reacts, the individual concludes that the behavior is socially acceptable in that group. This is called social influence.” He notes that often, people don’t intervene in difficult situations because of something called “diffusion of responsibility”. “The more people who witness the offense, the less likely [it is that] someone may intervene because everyone is waiting for someone else to react,” he says.

So, how do we counteract this tendency and send a clear message that sexual pressure and violent behavior are unacceptable? As Albert Einstein said, “The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything.”

Speak up and be clear when you hear or see something that is inappropriate. This can be done through relatively small actions, using a technique called Bystander Intervention. This means you are taking responsibility, as a member of your community, for demonstrating and expecting respectful behavior. By doing this, collectively, students have the power to influence others’ behavior in a positive way.

Wolfsberg cites the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s suggestions for being an active bystander. This can be as simple as “distracting someone, saying something, [or] checking in with a person. [These] can stop the momentum of something bad.”

Feller emphasizes this point: “In assessing the situation, one might find that just an announcement of one’s presence as a witness is enough to scare off the assailant,” she says. As a Student Health 101 student survey respondent notes, “You have nothing to lose, while someone else might have the world to lose.”

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey of more than 1,900 college students around the United States and Canada, there are many ways to do this. As one student explains, “I would tell them they were behaving inappropriately and that they need to change their actions or leave. If they didn’t, I would take the other person with me and leave the situation.”

Jen E.*, a second-year law student at the University of Texas at Austin, says she remembers intervening when a group of drunken male students were rowdy on the porch of her sorority house.

“I ran inside and got our House Mom to come with me,” Jen explains. “She told them she would call the campus police if they didn’t go home. [We all] stood on the porch with our House Mom until they left.” Here, Jen used the power of numbers to her advantage.

Tameisha G., a senior at Winston Salem State University in North Carolina, says she’s also spoken up. “My roommate’s boyfriend has an anger problem and is violent not only with her property, but has [also] disrespected her,” she says. “The best thing you can do is support the person on the receiving end [of the violence] and let the one administering the violence know that what he/she is doing is very inappropriate and that serious consequences may result.”

Become Confident About Speaking Up

The recent Student Health 101 survey shows that nearly 60 percent of respondents said they’ve stepped in when observing disrespect for someone else’s boundaries, and 57 percent did so when someone used offensive or disrespectful language. Nearly 50 percent stepped in when observing aggression or a verbal assault.

When witnessing sexual pressure or violence, however, only 22 and 10 percent, respectively, spoke up. The main reasons students say they are hesitant to intervene in sexually coercive situations are: “fear of getting hurt” (30 percent) and “not knowing what to do” (21 percent).

Developing skills so that you feel confident in your role as an active bystander—as a positive force within your community and empowered to actually take action—will help you feel more comfortable if a situation comes up.

More Student Suggestions About Intervening

Students all over the country have spoken up and stepped in to prevent violence.Here are some of their suggestions:
  • Be brave. The people being disrespected may not be strong enough to stand up for themselves.
  • Figure out what you can do instead of focusing on what you can’t do.
  • Basically, I usually speak up and just ask the victim if they are all right. If they say no, I address the perpetrator and ask him or her to stop. If they say no, I try to convince the victim to just walk away.
  • Say: “Hey guys, let’s do something else.”
  • Try to shift the activity or subject away from the stress-causing agents.
  • Calm the situation by attracting others. There’s power in numbers.
  • Just step in and show you don’t appreciate their actions and that they are going to stop immediately.
  • Simply say “stop or I’ll call the police,” or whatever needs to be said for it to stop.
  • Tell them to think about what they are doing or tell them to leave.
  • Speak up, even if the one you are trying to help gets mad.
  • Contact authorities before someone gets hurt.
  • Warn them that they are being inappropriate and ask them to back off. If that doesn’t work, get a security guard.
  • Remove your friends from the situation.

One way to think about intervening is the “three D’s”: direct, delegate, and distract.

Direct and Delegate
Address the fear of getting hurt yourself by assessing whether you feel it’s personally safe to intervene. It is important to protect yourself and avoid stepping into a situation where you could be harmed. Instead, call for help, or designate someone else to do so while you stay and monitor the situation. Campus security personnel, local police, and sometimes even an older student or Residential Assistant, by their presence, can cease the problematic behavior or allow the potential victim to get away. If the situation appears to be life-threatening, call 911 immediately.

As one student notes, “Get help first; don’t put yourself in harm’s way. But try to make a lot of noise or ask questions [like] ‘What’s going on?’”

Another student suggests, “It is definitely important to have someone helping you so you don’t make yourself too vulnerable. Get others involved, then get right in the middle of the situation and break it up.”

Anthony's Tips

Anthony H., a graduate of the University of Tulsa, intervened with a teammate. Here are his pointers.

Above all, step up and take charge. That could mean talking to the person, physically getting involved, calling someone for help, or all of the above.
  • Use [the] relationship you have with the person to identify ways to control the situation.
  • If you don’t know the person, try to find someone who has a solid relationship with that person.
  • Get others to help you to make your presence more forceful.
  • If you can’t find someone else to help you, it is still your responsibility to do something.
  • Be calm, confident, and clear when telling someone to stop.
  • If necessary, step in [physically] to stop what is happening.
  • Overall, use common sense, but don’t be timid or expect someone else to take care of things.

Don’t Worry About Being Perfect

If the situation does not pose a danger to you and you feel safe, don’t worry about doing or saying exactly the “right thing.” It’s more important to do something.

Deborah Feller says the best way to think about intervention is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. “Think about how you would like others to respond if they saw you being victimized in any way. Use that as your guideline,” she advises.

Indeed, a respondent to the Student Health 101 survey notes, “If you would want it done, intervene! It may be difficult, but the outcome is much better.”

Andrew M., a senior at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, explains, “I try to think about it as, if there’s any chance I could look back later and wish I had stepped up, it’s time to do so then and there.”

“Don’t worry about getting anyone in trouble,” Feller says. “People are responsible for the consequences of their behavior. When we report their misbehavior, it’s on them, not us. We’re just telling the truth, not betraying anyone. They are the betrayers, those who would victimize others.”

Emily S., a senior at Radford University in Virginia, says she agrees. “It’s important to look out for your friends, but there are consequences to certain actions, and you should intervene if you see a friend doing something wrong/inappropriate to someone. Your friend may even listen to you better than a stranger.”

Political Support for Bystander Intervention

In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan introduced comprehensive guidance to help schools understand their obligations to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault.

In 2012, Connecticut enacted a law designed to help colleges prevent sexual violence. It specifically states, “Prevention means strategies intended to prevent sexual assault and intimate partner violence before it occurs by means of changing social norms and other approaches.”

These guidelines communicate the importance of speaking up about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, stepping in to prevent violence, and reporting it when it does occur, so that aggressors can be held accountable and survivors can get the support and help they need.

Ultimately, as a member of your community, you can put this into action. Establish healthy standards on your campus that emphasize respect, consent, communication, and bystander intervention. Remember: small actions make a difference. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. That’s the time to speak up.

Take Action!

  • Support healthy behaviors on your campus: communication, respect, and consent.
  • Look for signs before an assault occurs that someone is disrespectful of other people’s boundaries, coercive, pressuring, or aggressive.
  • Speak up about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, take action to prevent violence, and report it when it does occur.
  • If something doesn’t feel right, say something and intervene.
  • Use the “three D’s” as a guideline: direct, delegate, and distract.

*Name has been changed for privacy.

Get help or find out more
Bystander Intervention at Vassar College's Sexual Assault Violence Prevention Program

Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Bystander Intervention Playbook

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