In the news this week was the story of a Chick-fil-A employee who thwarted a carjacking of a young mother in the parking lot of the restaurant. He was hailed a hero for putting himself in harm’s way to protect this woman and child. So often we see videos on social media of traumatic crime happening, but instead of intervening to help, most just video the event. When someone recognizes a potentially harmful situation or interaction and chooses to respond in a way that could positively influence the outcome, this is called bystander intervention. It’s not always safe or helpful to step into a violent situation so we need to know how to best react. How do you know when and how to do this safely? Let’s examine bystander intervention situations and strategies.
Scenario: You are at a party. Across the room you see a friend who appears to have had too much to drink and is clearly intoxicated. Next to her you see a man trying to convince her to leave with him. What do you do?
Scenario: You are at work in the break room with several coworkers. One person tells a joke that is sexually degrading to women. The room goes quiet but nobody speaks out. What do you do?
Scenario: You are at a social event and you notice a friend who is talking to someone you do not know. The man keeps reaching out to stroke the friend’s arm and she keeps stepping away from him but he continues to get closer. You can tell she is anxious and uncomfortable as he invades her personal space but she doesn’t seem to know how to get out of the situation. What do you do?
Scenario: Your sister cancels your lunch date. She says she is busy and can’t talk when you call. Finally you drop over unexpectedly at her house and when she answers the door, you notice bruises on her arms and cheek. What do you do?
These questions are at the core of what’s known as bystander intervention, a violence prevention strategy. “It is common for people to witness situations where someone makes an inappropriate sexual comment or innuendo, tells a rape joke, or touches someone in a sexual manner. Bystanders who witness these behaviors can intervene in a way that will help create a safer environment,” Tracy Cox, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Bystander intervention is when someone disrupts a potentially harmful situation. That includes stopping actions or comments that encourage sexual or domestic violence. That could mean making sure that friend who has had too much to drink gets home safely. It may involve challenging a work environment that makes telling demeaning jokes acceptable or even just sharing information about available resources. Sometimes you may feel uncomfortable directly challenging an aggressive person or intervening in an intimate situation. Instead of confronting, you may create a diversion such as starting a new conversation or accidentally spilling a drink on your friend so they have a reason to step away, or even posting local resources for domestic or sexual violence victims on a bulletin board. Once you recognize warning signs that a situation might be abusive, you can then identify how to respond in a way that feels appropriate and comfortable.
When you suspect abuse, you may be able to talk privately with the victim, letting them know you have been concerned about them. Listen without judgment and if they don’t want to talk, then let them know that you’ll be there for them if they ever do want to talk. If they do divulge abuse, let them know you believe them and reassure them that they are not alone and you are there to help. You can also share information about local resources that may be able to assist them.
These are just some tactics you could consider – you could probably think of others for any given situation. Use your judgement and common sense. The most effective time to act may be later, not on the spot, and you may want to get advice before taking steps. You should always choose a course of action that does not put you or anyone else at risk or harm.
Crisis Services offers services to assist victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. You may reach us locally at 256.574.5826 or our 24/7 HELPline at 256.716.1000.