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Being an Engaged Bystander

Engaged bystanders can and often do prevent sexual misconduct and other serious crimes. By learning about becoming engaged bystanders we can directly impact others' lives for good.

My favorite engaged bystander experience comes from that of a close friend. She was at the gym when an abusive ex showed up and started harassing her. She felt trapped and afraid, feeling as if the situation may become violent. Suddenly, another woman looked to her and said "Oh there you are!" with a huge smile. This other woman continued, "I was looking for you, I just finished up, ready to go?" The ex immediately stopped his harassment and the two women left together. My friend had never met this other woman, but because of her, was able to leave a potentially violent situation.

This other woman at the gym was there as an engaged bystander for my friend. This woman observed the situation, saw it was escalating, and chose to take action. I admire this woman's courage in stepping into the situation and helping my friend get out. This woman was a bystander to the argument between my friend and her ex. A bystander is a person who is present at an event or incident but isn’t directly involved. This woman became an engaged bystander when she took action in speaking to my friend.

Do you think you would do the same as a bystander? Would you step in if you saw this situation unfold? Studies suggest that despite your best intentions, you might not. There are many reasons you may not choose to step in- your personal safety, feelings of inadequacy, or simply misunderstanding the situation might well prevent you from stepping in. However, a psychological concept suggests that people are also far less likely to engage as a bystander without legitimate reason if part of a group. This is called the bystander effect. The bystander effect is linked to the diffusion of responsibility. Essentially, the concept of the diffusion of responsibility states that people do not intervene because they believe someone else will take responsibility for the situation and engage. Unfortunately, this diffusion often leads to no one taking responsibility, therefore allowing the situation to continue or escalate.

An example of the diffusion of responsibility concept in an extreme case is that of Deletha Word. If you have been to an engaged bystander training, you may have heard her name before. Deletha was stuck in heavy, stopped traffic on a Detroit bridge. A man in a fit of rage pulled Deletha out of her car and stripped her then began attacking and beating her. She was able to briefly escape when her attacker returned and began beating her with a crowbar. In an effort to preserve her life, and believing it a safer option than staying on the bridge with the attacker, she jumped into the water where she drowned. It wasn't until Deletha had already jumped that the police were called. The attack lasted twenty-five minutes.

Bystanders to this event were later interviewed. These individuals express deep feelings of remorse and regret that they did nothing. Deletha's mother expresses in her interview that she wishes someone would have engaged with the attacker or at least called police. The bystanders express the same regret that they did nothing. These bystanders, like many others, fell for the diffusion of responsibility trap, believing someone else would intervene.

Thankfully, we can combat diffused responsibility by taking personal responsibility for the safety of those around us. We must recognize that it is our personal responsibility to care for and help others. As we learn to employ the strategies discussed below, we can find ways to intervene which help provide safety to those around us while keeping ourselves safe. Before we discuss these strategies, however, it might be helpful to discuss situations in which it might be necessary to intervene. It is important to recognize these situations as ones in which you are capable of helping so you can use the tools below. The following scenarios provide only a few examples of scenarios in which intervening is appropriate:

  • You see someone nearby is being harassed or attacked by someone.

  • You wake up in the middle of the night hearing screaming, crying, yelling or banging from a neighbor’s house.

  • You see two individuals engaging in a heated, public argument you think may turn violent.

  • Your friend is angry and seeking to find someone.

  • You see a road hazard on the street without warning.

The engaged bystander training in which I have participated uses the acronym C.A.R.E. to offer tips on how to engage. This tips apply to both violent and non-violent confrontations you may encounter.


C- CREATE A DISTRACTION- Do what you can to interrupt the situation. A distraction can give the person at risk a chance to get to a safe place. Ways to do this include cutting off a conversation, making yourself into a physical barrier, suggest another activity, or simply engage on of the parties in separate conversation. If you don't know the individuals, you might intervene by asking a simple question to the parties such as the time or the date. These strategies allow the parties a moment to cool off and helps bring them away from their confrontation and back to reality.

A- ASK QUESTIONS- Talk directly to the person who might be in trouble. Asking the person who may be in trouble what is going on and if they need help allows you to best assess how you might help. You can find out more about the situation and determine whether you should stay with the individual, enlist the help of others, find an authority, or offer other help. Asking questions can also help the aggressor to back off simply because their actions are not going unnoticed.

R- REFER TO AN AUTHORITY- Sometimes the safest way to intervene is to refer to a neutral party with the authority to change the situation. Referring to an authority is an easy, go-to method of intervention. Something as simple as calling the police or 911 is a safe way to intervene without allowing harm to yourself or another. Authorities may vary from a party host to school authorities to a bartender or even to emergency services. While you may feel it is unnecessary to involve these authorities, it is always better to take preventative action than for these parties to get involved only after it is too late. You may also choose to video or otherwise record the situation before authorities arrive in order to document the encounter for authorities.

E- ENLIST OTHERS- It can be intimidating to approach a situation alone. Enlist another person to support you. This is especially applicable in social situations or in situations in which help may be necessary immediately. In social situations, you could simply ask another person to check in on someone with you. In urgent situations, you may enlist the help of others to physically intervene and ward off an aggressor (but please remember to only do so if you can safely).

Of course in order to apply these strategies we must be observant of what is happening around us. We must be able to notice situations in which our intervention may be necessary. One way to improve our bystander observation skills is to attend bystander trainings. Universities and other institutions provide this training frequently. If you are unable to attend a training, there are numerous resources online for bystander training. You can even practice intervening in seemingly minor situations (such as calling the police regarding road hazards, speaking up against social issues, etc.).

Being an engaged bystander may not come before or during an event occurs, it can come after. If you were told of an event after it occurs, you can become engaged by helping care for the victim. You can reach out to the individual and offer your help. In this way, you help ensure another's safety and well-being.

Like being an engaged bystander can prevent other crimes, it can and often does help prevent sexual crimes and misconduct. While the only person responsible for committing sexual assault is a perpetrator, all of us can look out for each other’s safety. Intervening before, during, or after any event which promotes or may lead to sexual misconduct (including harassment) is one way you can help directly prevent sexual assault and mitigate the harmful effects for survivors.

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