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Bystander Scenarios

What is a Bystander?

A bystander is someone who is present at an event or incident but does not take part. A bystander might be someone at a bar who sees a drunk person being taken advantage of, someone who notices a family member’s bruises, or someone who hears screaming coming from a neighbor’s home.

In situations of domestic violence or sexual assault, bystanders may think “it’s not my problem” or “it’s none of my business.” A bystanders might rationalize their decision not to take action in a situation by telling themselves that they don’t have to act because someone else will. And some bystanders feel overwhelmed and unsure of what they can do to help.

However anyone can become an active bystander. Here are some tips to help you to take an active role in safely preventing and interrupting sexual assault and domestic violence.

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Real-Life Bystander Scenarios

You think a friend or family member is in an abusive or unhealthy relationship. What do you do?

Once you recognize the warning signs that a situation might be abusive, you can then identify how to respond in a way that feels appropriate and comfortable.

Talk privately with the victim, and express concern by saying you’ve been worried 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.

TIP→  Allow the victim/survivor to make their own decisions. Personal style, culture, and context of the survivor’s life may affect their reactions. A victim/survivor may not be comfortable identifying  as a victim or with naming their experience as abuse or assault, and it is important to respect each person’s choices and style of coping with this traumatic event. – via RVA

Listening without judgment may make them feel comfortable opening up, and if they do disclose abuse, let them know you believe them. You can reassure them that they are not alone, this is not their fault and you are here to help. Some useful things to say might be, “No one deserves to be treated this way,” “You are not to blame,” or simply, “What’s happening is not your fault.”

TIP→  Remember that although you may be having a strong reaction to what happened, it’s important to focus on the feelings and reactions of the survivor rather than your own. Try not to outwardly judge or confront the abuser, as it may make the situation worse or more dangerous for the victim, and could put you in danger too.

Offer options by letting them know free, confidential resources are available and that you are here to support them in whatever choices they make. National hotline services include the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.7233 (www.thehotline.org) and loveisrespect 1.866.331.9474 (www.loveisrespect.org or text ‘loveis’ to 22522) – both can offer you guidance and point you to local resources in your area that will help keep them (and any children that may be present in the home) safe.

TIP→  Offer to let them use your phone or computer to look up local resources or contact someone that can help them and any children involved. – via NNEDV

Your friend tells you that he/she thinks they were raped. What do you do?

The support survivors of sexual assault receive from the people they love and trust can be invaluable to their ability to cope with and heal from sexual assault. The following are some helpful suggestions from the Rape Crisis Center.

Listen

Allow your friend to talk about what happened and control the direction of the conversation. Do not ask a lot of questions or focus on the attack itself, but rather on how they are handling the trauma.

Listen Without Giving Advice or Trying to “Fix” Things

When we care for someone, we often try to give advice, solve their problems or fix things for them. While it comes from a place of caring, our instinct to try to problem-solve or give advice can sometimes leave a survivor feeling as though their emotions are being dismissed. Sometimes, the issues a survivor is having will not feel fixable to them or to you, and it’s much more helpful to just be there to listen to whatever a survivor wants to share with you.

Let the Survivor Have Control

Allow survivors to make decisions for themselves and assure them that their decisions are supported. You don’t have to agree with their decisions but it is important to give them the authority to decide how they will handle things.

Believe Them

It is important that the survivor knows you believe what happened.

Normalize A Survivor’s Feelings

Every survivor will react to their experience differently. Survivors may experience many upsetting, conflicting, confusing feelings after an assault. Survivors often re-experience the event through flashbacks, may feel on-edge all the time, or may be prone to sudden outbursts, which can feel especially upsetting and leave a survivor feeling even more disempowered. Some survivors may blame themselves for and feel frustrated by these intense feelings. It’s important to remind a survivor these feelings and responses are out of their control and are the body’s way of responding to a traumatic event. Something helpful you could say would be, “You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.“

Provide Unconditional Support

It will help your friend to hear that they are not to blame for the assault. Regardless of an individual’s choices prior to the attack, no one ever asks to be or deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted.

Be Patient

Healing takes time, and every survivor copes with trauma differently. Don’t pressure or rush your friend to be “normal” or to “just move on.” Instead, reassure your friend that support will be available throughout the healing process, however long it may take.

Let The Survivor Know that Help is Available

If they are interested and open to receiving assistance, tell them about the National Sexual Assault Hotline, or offer to help find local services for them.

Some helpful statements include:

  • I believe you.
  • This is not your fault.
  • I am so sorry that this happened.
  • You did not deserve this.
  • I am happy that you are safe and that you are here to talk with me.
  • Thank you for being brave/comfortable enough to talk with me.
  • How can I help you right now?

Supporting A Survivor

Supporting a survivor can feel challenging for a number of reasons: you may be worried about upsetting the survivor, you may have other personal experience with this issue, or you may feel you don’t know what to say at all. The most important things you can do for a survivor are to listen, validate, ask how you can help, know where to refer a survivor for further help, listen without judgment, and care for yourself.

Make Sure You Are Getting the Support You Need

Watching a friend or loved one work through the aftermath of a sexual assault can be an extremely difficult and painful experience. Common feelings of those supporting someone who has been assaulted include helplessness, frustration, anger and guilt. It can be helpful to talk with someone other than the survivor about these feelings.

TIP→ You understandably may be experiencing discomfort, shock or uncertainty, and have a lot of questions. To respect the survivor’s discomfort and give yourself the space you need to process your own feelings, wait until you’re away from the survivor and call the National Sexual Assault Hotline for free, confidential support.

Your male friend tells you that he had an unwanted sexual experience when he was younger with someone he looked up to. He questions if it was sexual assault because he was sexually aroused during the interaction. What do you do?

Some possible options (depending on your comfort and his openness to further discussion) include:

  • Offer encouragement for his willingness to consider a challenging question,
  • Listen neutrally. Ask him what factors make him think it might have been abusive. Avoid defining what happened for him.
  • Explore whether he feels there was a power imbalance in the relationship
  • Offer to help him find resources to learn more about unwanted and abusive sexual experiences for males and why it might be difficult, but important for a man to address it.
  • Do a safety check. See if he has healthy strategies to manage negative feelings when he starts thinking about this question. If not, help him find a hotline or local crisis service should he start to feel overwhelmed.

You’re at a party or out drinking. Someone nearby has had a lot to drink and is being harassed or manipulated by someone you think may do something physically harmful to them. What do you do?

Identify why you’re worried: If you see something that makes you uneasy, identify the behavior that worries you. Is the person you are concerned about drinking too much, and are you afraid they might not be able to say no? Are you afraid that they won’t really be capable of giving consent?

Consider whether to intervene: A situation doesn’t have to be dangerous for you to step in. Ask yourself: How might the situation affect the people who are involved? What’s the possible outcome?

Enlist allies: This is key. There’s comfort in numbers. Enlisting allies, like a mutual friend, the bartender, party host or a bouncer can be much more productive and safer than trying to go it alone. Some ways you might handle the situation:

  • Consider asking if the potential victim needs help.
  • Don’t leave. By remaining present as a witness, the potential perpetrator is less likely to act.
  • If you know the potential perpetrator, ask the him/her to leave the potential victim alone.

IMPORTANT: If you think intervening will put you in danger at any time, call 911 instead.

You are in the lunchroom with your friends and a group of students nearby start making sexual gestures and comments to one of your friends that’s sitting with you. Though trying to ignore the comments, you see that your friend is upset. What do you do?

  • You could tell the group making the comments to stop their sexually harassing behavior, or ask them to imagine how they’d feel if someone made that comment about one of their family members or someone else they cared about.
  • You could ask your friend if they want to leave and talk to a teacher or counselor.

Whatever you choose in the moment, you should tell an authority figure about the harassment and ask them to intervene. While it’s not physical violence, these types of harassing behaviors help foster an environment that condones domestic and sexual violence in our society.

A co-worker starts talking about a recent high-profile rape or domestic violence case and blames the victim for what happened. What do you do?

  • Tell them that regardless of what they think happened that it’s never the victim’s fault.
  • Give them resources that explain the realities of domestic and sexual violence.
  • Contact your human resources representative or immediate supervisor and ask that the staff receive training on these issues.

A teen in your life tells you their boy/girlfriend is hurting them, harassing them and/or forcing them into sexual situations. What do you do?

  • Assure the person that what is happening to them is not right, it’s not their fault and everyone deserves a healthy, respectful relationship.
  • Offer to help them look for local resources to keep them safe.
  • Check in with them to see if they are safe and offer to help them involve individuals resources to help make the abuse stop.

The guys on your team are constantly making lewd, rude or degrading comments about women and girls or calling each other names that imply they are “weak like girls.” What do you do?

  • Speak up that their comments are degrading to their teammates and to women in general and it’s not cool with you.
  • Talk to teammates individually about the situation and ask that they not join in those behaviors.
  • Ask the coach to talk to the team, or individual, about how harassment and the degradation of women and girls is not okay.

You wake up in the middle of the night hearing screaming, crying, yelling and banging from a neighbor’s house, apartment or from a dorm room. What do you do?

  • Call 911 and report what you hear.
  • If you know the neighbor and can find a time when it is safe to talk to the victim, let them know that resources are available locally to help them.
  • Offer to let them use your phone or computer to look up local resources or to contact someone that can help them.

A man you know tells you he was introduced to sex by a female teacher when he was 12 years old. He’s confused because he thinks the experience may have affected his ability to have a healthy relationship, but some people have told him he was “lucky”. What do you do?

Some possible options (depending on your comfort and his openness to further discussion) include:

  • Offer praise for his courage to question the “common wisdom” about being “lucky”
  • Listen neutrally. Ask, as an adult, what ways he thinks it would or wouldn’t be healthy for a teacher to interact sexually with a 12-year old student
  • Ask him what he thinks a healthy relationship would look like in his current life.
  • Offer to help him research what impacts on him the experience might have had if it was abusive.
  • Help him find local resources to explore his feelings about the experience.
  • Do a safety check. See if he has healthy strategies to manage negative feelings when he starts thinking about this question. If not, help him find a hotline or local crisis service should he start to feel overwhelmed.

Additional Bystander Engagement Resources

Campus Resources

Know Your Power Developed by researchers at the University of New Hampshire,this campaign is a nationally recognized program focused on reducing sexual and relationship violence and stalking on college campuses.

Green Dot Campaign is based on the idea that peer influence often predicts behavior. In instances of harmful or violent words, actions, or behaviors, each person has a choice to ignore or accept (a red dot) or intervene to address it (a green dot).

Loyola University in Chicago Program The Coordinated Community Response Team (CCRT) at Loyola University Chicago brings together students, staff and faculty to create a campus culture where gender-based violence of any kind, specifically domestic/dating violence, sexual misconduct and stalking is not tolerated. Through our commitment to education, training, increased accessibility to services, and promotion of accountability and justice – our diverse campus community is safer and more supportive of survivors.

Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) This curriculum focuses on student athletes and student leaders as “popular opinion leaders” to influence their peers. There are separate curricula available for high school females, high school males, and college males. The playbooks contain scripts and scenarios for folks to practice bystander skills; can be used without formal training.

The Red Flag Campaign This is a public awareness campaign for college campuses that urges bystanders to “say something” when they see a red flag of dating violence, stalking, or sexual assault. There is a planning guide for interactive pieces but a large component of this program is a poster series. The campaign does not require training but the posters must be purchased.

Bringing in the Bystander This campaign is part of a marketing and social research project from the University of New Hampshire. The site provides tips and resources that are directed at the students at UNH but can be useful for similar audiences. Additionally, there is a very well designed and developed poster campaign that can be purchased called Know Your Power.

Who Are You? This media project from New Zealand focuses on how bystander intervention can help prevent sexual violence. There is a 8-minute video that follows a young woman out at bar with her friends and a potential alcohol-facilitated sexual assault. In the video we meet characters — the best friend, the flat mate, the employee, and the stranger — who could intervene at different points in the story and change the outcome. This media project emphasizes small actions that any bystander can take to help protect others and make sure they make it home safely.

Resources for Men

Online Resources for male survivors, their friends, family and community.

The Campus Men of Strength Club is based on Men Can Stop Rape’s core organizational values: prevention, nonviolence, redefining masculinity, male positivity and gender equity.

WHERE DO YOU STAND? campaign materials present compelling images of college men role modeling specific intervention strategies.

Resources for Teens and Youth

Love is Not Abuse teen dating violence tips and resources for youth to recognize the warning signs and speak out about unhealthy relationships. Teen Abuse helpline 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522.

That’s Not Cool teen focused information, video and games campaign that use the use of social media and technology as a means to discuss healthy relationships and abusive behaviors.

How to spot and report suspected child sexual abuse. Online resources for helping keep a child safe from abuse.

Resources for the Workplace

Avon Foundation for Women partnered with NO MORE to develop free workplace bystander training programs. The Avon Foundation for Women and NO MORE partnered with leaders in the domestic violence and sexual assault field to bring employers new tools and programs aimed at educating employees on how to recognize and respond to abuse. The See The Signs & Speak Out training programs include online-based tools and downloadable tools to conduct in-person trainings:

Intervene As A Bystander To Prevent Domestic Violence And Sexual Assault, Whether It Occurs In The Workplace Or The Community (via the Ohio Domestic Violence Network and the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence)

Tools For Talking To Teens About Dating Abuse (via JWI)

Stand Up, Don’t Stand By, Protect Children from Domestic Violence (via The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children)

Preventionist Training

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