It’s On Us: Bystander Intervention Training

AUTHOR: Ashley Benedict

Presenters: Betsie Schoedel, Vawa Graduate Assistant; Draya Garrett, Women’s Center Graduate Assistant; Candace F, Women’s Center Graduate Assistant; Ashley Schult, Women’s Center Victim’s Advocate

During the Teach-In last week, I attended two events facilitated by Women’s Center staff consisting of both students and faculty. One discussion in particular focused on Bystander Intervention Training, which focuses on teaching college students how to (safely) intervene in situations where sexual violence can occur. It’s On Us was created as a way to address sexual violence on college campuses and encourage students to be active bystanders in these sort of situations. This blog post touches on the distinguishing factors between an active bystander and bystander, the realities of sexual assault, what consent is, tips and tricks on how to be an active bystander, as well as actual scenarios where active bystanders are needed.

What it means to be a bystander

“LEARNS, but does not act; WITNESSES but does not act; HEARS but does not act; OBSERVES but does not act.”

So, why don’t we intervene?

Social norms theory

This theory is based on the idea that our misperceptions of how our peers think and act influence the way we act and think of these peers. Often, these misperceptions lead into stereotypical thinking, a phenomenon where small seeds of truth are used to generalize entire groups of people. These mass generalizations are reiterated over time until people start to believe them. It leads us all to act and think in ways that are untrue.

Examples of stereotypes: black men are dangerous, Muslims are terrorists, women are fragile

In sexual assault cases, we often think of the stereotypes such as “the stranger in the bushes” or we often imagine male on female sexual assault. It’s also often assumed that sexual assault cases are rape cases, when there are a variety of other forms that sexual assault can take on. In fact, sexual assault constitutes of anything that is nonconsensual, e.g., words, touches, looks, images, and more.

“Like all stereotypes they don’t hold true…and those stereotypes hurt. We want everyone to be educated, especially when it comes to gender-based violence”


Diffusion of responsibility is the sociopsychological phenomenon where an individual is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present. In terms of sexual assault, a person may see this violence occurring, but may not do anything about it because 1) other people may be around and they may believe that someone else will intervene, or 2) they expect that the problem will be solved between the perpetrator and the victim, and place responsibility on one of those two (normally the victim) to put a stop to it. This state of thinking can be dangerous, because it can lead to victim-blaming.


We have a certain set of expectations when it comes to sexual assault. Far too often, we expect that the victim was “asking for it” or “being a tease.” We, as women, are expected to have this constant fear in us of facing sexual assault, but when it happens to us, we are expected to take responsibility for it. Because of this, many bystanders expect that it’s the victim’s fault for being sexually assaulted.


This one is self-explanatory. Many bystanders may not feel safe intervening in situations where sexual assault takes place. The perpetrator may be coming off as angry or aggressive, and it’s difficult for many to find a way to intervene safely, without putting their own self in danger as well. Due to this, they normally end up not intervening at all.

“To be an active bystander, your safety is very important to us. We do want to prevent violence.”

Individual attitudes

Thanks to the media, the general beliefs centering around sexual assault have altered to blame the victim, not the perpetrator. During the Brock Turner case, the media spun the story to emphasis what Turner would be losing if he were charged and placed in jail; the media did not focus on what “Emily Doe” (the victim) was losing – and had already lost. The victim was asked questions, apart of the “rape script” such as: What were you drinking/wearing?, Why didn’t you say no? (even though she was unconscious), Why were you there? Why were you alone? These sort of questions work to blame the victim for the assault. Our country, as a whole, is immersed in this sort of propaganda. For example, women are often taught “don’t get raped,” while men are never taught “don’t rape.” These kind of phenomena are what influence our individual attitudes and beliefs towards sexual assault, and can influence whether or not we decide to intervene.

In other forms of media, like mainstream music, many rap/hip hop song lyrics include instances where the singer brags about nonconsensual acts or ideas. These ideas become reinforced to the general population and influence the way we think about sex. It becomes “let me convince you that you want it” rather than a question of “do you want this?” This mentality is damaging, not only because it often leads to sexual assault, but because it provides people with unhealthy ways of viewing sex and relationships.





Many of our actions stem from our Attitudes and Beliefs. One of the main ways you can help prevent sexual assault from happening is to take opportunities to educate your friends, family, and/or peers when they say things that seem to perpetuate negative attitudes and beliefs. For example, if your friend makes a joke about raping a woman, you can say something like “I don’t get it” or perhaps put the responsibility on them and ask, “Why do you think that’s funny?” This method works to make them think about what they’ve said, and in trying to explain “what’s so funny,” they may realize that it’s really not funny at all. Don’t confront them with accusations by calling them horrible people or saying “That’s not funny!” Take these moments as opportunities to educate your friend on why saying something like that isn’t funny, and how it perpetuates harmful attitudes and beliefs. Education is the best way to dismantle the pyramid.

Stop, take a breath, and take the opportunity to educate. You will find that this method works far better than forcing your values onto your friend or making them feel like a horrible person. A lot of people hold these beliefs nonconsciously, and may not think that they behave in ways or think in ways that are harmful. Be their friend and educate them. If we can effectively change these attitudes and beliefs in our peers, it can help prevent future instances of sexual assault. Changing the way that people think helps change the way that they behave as well.


  • Out of every 1000 assaults, 994 of perpetrators walk free
  • Every 109 seconds, an american is sexually assaulted
  • 90% of sexual assault victims are women and 10% are men – 17.7 million women and 2.78 men have been assaulted since 1998
  • Ethnicity of the perpetrator – 57% white, 27% black, 15% mix or unknown (don’t hold up to stereotypes)
  • 3/4 (75%) of rapes are committed by a person known by the victim perpetrator, 43% of the time it is a friend or acquaintance, 21% of the time it is a current or past romantic partner – huge reason perpetrators walk free
  • LGBTQ individuals have more risk than women who identify as straight and POC trans woman have the highest likelihood of facing violence- not just true in US, holds true worldwide
  • Accessibility to seek help and treatment is difficult + you need to take exam within 5 days after traumatic event – that’s why statistics are so low
  • Without “real evidence,” this leads to a “They said, they said” argument

“White men have received the message that they can get away with it. They’ve been empowered.” – “If black men were committing this crime, would we see the same percent of those not convicted?”

One word: Intersectionality!


  • Consent has to be clearly and freely given and the absence of “no” is not consent
  • Silence, passivity, or a lack of active resistance does not imply consent
  • Consent cannot be obtained by intimidation, threat, coercion, force, or when the assailant knows or has reason to know that the survivor is mentally incapacitated or when the survivor is physically helpless
  • Consent can be revoked at any time – women are never told that
    • Example: “Go give grandpa a hug.” What if I don’t want to? Subliminal messages at a young age that you don’t have control over your body; having power over your own decisions and body isn’t okay; no harm in WANTING to give grandpa a hug, but there is a harm in not learning you don’t have control over giving consent

Video: Consent is like Tea and Consent for Kids

Ways to talk about consent without being awkward but being empowering between partners:

  • “Is this okay?” or “Does this feel good?”
  • Text messages where meaning is clear
  • Partners talk about what consent will look like in your relationship
  • Grabbing protection + showing interest
  • We aren’t socialized to talk about it or ask permission or respect boundaries, so it’s important to train ourselves to ensure that our partners are responding positively to sexual advances


Low Level:

  • Challenge stereotypes/harmful jokes/micro-aggressions (often benign but harmful)
    • Ask the person to explain: What Do You Mean By That?
    • Try and turn them into a learning moment; it’s these attitudes and beliefs that can lead to aggressive action
    • Many people aren’t aware of these attitudes and beliefs they have; doesn’t have to be aggressive or confrontational

Mid Level:

  • When you hear the more aggressive/harmful statements
    • If possible check in with the person/have them explain
    • Educate why those sort of statements are harmful/forms of misconduct
    • Report it!
    • It’s not about punishing the person, but educating them
      • “As their friend I think you kind of owe them something to be like, ‘Hey that wasn’t okay.'” Those teaching moments are really important.

“Kids are never taught about sexual assault; if we taught this to kids, maybe this would be such a problem.”

High Level:

  • Intervene if you feel you can do so safely
    • E.g.,”Hey, do you wanna go for a walk?” etc. to try and get them out of that situation
  • Call for additional support
    • GVPD, RA, Supervisor, 911

“You can be an active bystander after an event happens!”

If you respond to someone reporting sexual assault to you, your response (positive or negative) is important, just as important as before something happens.

“We want to prevent violence but we can’t always do that.”

Other ways to be an advocate:

  • Join a protest
  • Hold an educational event
  • Promote awareness and advocate


Scenarios are multifaceted and sometimes it is hard knowing what is the right choices. It is key to remember choosing to act is always better than inaction.

Scenario 1: Imagine that your close friend has just come back to your dorm from a party. She is crying and tells you that she was sexually assaulted while at the party. What do you do?

  • Focus on them – Don’t ask relentless questions about what happened and who did it. This can often force the victim to relive the experience, which can further their trauma.
  • Ask what they need – Don’t assume what’s best for the victim during this time. Ask them questions like what they need, what they want, and where they want to go from here.
  • What if they want to do nothing? – If they don’t want to go to the authorities, don’t push it onto them. However, you can suggest what you would do in this situation, and provide them with the resources they need, should they decide to report it.
  • Let them know you’re there – If they go to the hospital, go with them. If they decide to report it, offer to drive them and ask to be in the room with them. Let them know that you are a shoulder to lean on during this difficult time. Let them know that you are there to support them.

Scenario 2: You’re at a party and you see a girl you don’t know cornered by a guy who’s trying to force a beer into her hand. She looks uncomfortable in this situation, but the guy continues. What do you do?

  • Distract, distract, distract! – Find a way to get her out of there. Even if you don’t know her, find a way to lead her away so you can assess the situation. This can include walking up and saying, “I’ve been looking for you everywhere! Can you help me find the bathroom?” Anything that gives them an excuse to leave should work.
  • Assess the situation – Before you go over, it’s important to pay attention to body language. If the guy seems to be acting aggressively, and you don’t feel comfortable or safe going over there, try and find someone else to intervene for you.
  • Ask questions – If you successfully get them away, ask them what’s going on. Ask whether they feel safe, if they need to get out of there, if they need a ride, etc. Check in with them and make sure that they are okay.
  • Don’t start a scene – This is especially important if the perpetrator is visibly acting aggressive. If you approach the two and call him out for it, this could be dangerous, not only for yourself and the girl, but for everyone else. He may decide to walk away from the situation, but that does not mean he won’t take out his aggression on someone else later in the night. Be cool. Be calm. Don’t start a fight.

“Education on social issues is one of the best ways to hone in on your Active Bystander Intervention Skills”


Victim Rights Advocate, Ashley Schulte, Women’s Center: Call (616) 331-2748 or email

Co-Advocates: Sharelle Arnold, Women’s center (, Jen Hsu, LGBTQ Center (, Jessica Jennrich, Women’s Center (, Salvador Lopez (, and Marla Wich, LGBTQ Center (

Title IX Coordinator: Theresa Rowland, Zumberge Hall: Online Reporting Option ( or make an appointment

University Counseling Center, STU: (616) 331-3266 or stop by the office at 204 STU. They offer same-day urgent consultations.

YWCA: YWCA 24-Hour Confidential Crisis Line (616) 776-7273). For all other YWCA Sexual Assault Services: (616) 459-4652 (business hours only)

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

GVPD: (616) 331-3255 or 911

Living Center Directors, Resident Assistants, Faculty/Staff

Speak Up Against Bias (report online):

All information retrieved through attendance to Bystander Intervention Training. 

The next Bystander Intervention Training is on Tuesday, February 21 at 6 – 8 PM in Kirkhof Center 2215/16

I recommend that everyone go.


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