Bystander Intervention: A Beginner’s Guide

I was first introduced to the concept of bystander intervention in a course on sexual violence theory that I took as an undergraduate at Yale. I would later workshop the method with students as part of the university’s ongoing efforts to shift the campus sexual climate toward one of respect and mutual desire — and away from a larger culture that normalizes sexual violence. Bystander intervention is a means through which to disrupt a troubling, potentially predatory interaction before it moves to a private space and escalates.

That so few actually intervene in troubling interactions has in some part to do with what sociologist Jaclyn Friedman has coined the women-as-gatekeeper model of heterosexual sex: that is, the cultural narrative that positions men as pushers and pursuers and women as gatekeepers, responsible for resisting sexual advances (so as to appear not-slutty, second-date worthy, etc.).

She writes about sex being treated as a commodity in our culture, saying, “This model pervades casual conversations about sex: Women ‘give it up,’ men ‘get some.’” Because of this narrative, we’re prone to dismiss interactions that we, as bystanders, witness — outside a club, at a frat party, on the subway — and know to be concerning. Still, when we’re faced with that guy at the bar who chooses to ignore our visible discomfort and hit on us, we could use someone else to diffuse the situation, to make it just a bit easier to escape.

And that’s where we get to make a choice.

If I see that a woman is stumbling-drunk and the guy with her doesn’t seem to be concerned for her well-being, if I come across someone getting hit on looking guarded and panicked, if I hear my roommate telling that new guy she met on Tinder “no” through the exceedingly thin walls of my apartment: I say something. Ask her if she’s okay, casually bump into her in the bathroom and check in, offer her cab fare it’s less the shape of the interruption that matters so much as the interruption itself. Contrary to the myth of the stranger in the dark alley, sexual assault and rape are typically perpetrated by acquaintances and friends, and they happen in scripted and patterned ways.

Along the way, my brain has thrown up roadblocks. Thoughts like:

“What if I misread the situation?”


“What if the girl doesn’t want my help and rejects me?”

Or maybe:

“What if everyone thinks I’m a weirdo for saying something?”

These are all legitimate concerns. But I’ve also felt the certainty that my fear of embarrassment doesn’t at all match what could be at stake if I didn’t intervene.

So often we feel powerless. That’s understandable: our agency stands to be compromised in very real ways. But as I watch my friends respond by taking to the streets, forming coalitions and finding new ways to uplift their communities, I’m emboldened in my belief in our power as people to fight back against the institutions and individuals who seek to endanger us.

Photo by George Marks/Retrofile via Getty Images; collaged by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Taste of France

    A couple I know was at a company Christmas party. It was at a hotel, and in other reception areas, other company parties were going on. A woman, seemingly drunk, was starting to take off her clothes. Some guys were circling her, ready to pounce, probably to guide her off to a hotel room. My friends put her in a cab, but unable to get her to give her address, they took her home and put her to bed (I thought they were nuts for that–what if she did something crazy?). She was really upset the next day, not remembering a thing, though she denied that she had been drunk, so they figure somebody drugged her drink. Moral: have an ID on you, and go to parties/clubs with a buddy.

  • Michelle

    Totally agree in being proactive in this way! When I was younger (I’m 33, 3 kids, you get the picture) I was a mama bear in the clubs. I remembering standing up to a huge dude who wouldn’t back off my sister and I made enough of a scene to chase him off with his tail between his legs. No one else was stepping in and so I did.

  • disqus_QRNYdd6B9B

    Glad this is being discussed these days. Years ago I was walking down Bleecker St. and a guy was pushing and yelling at an obviously drunk woman. Middle of the day with loads of people around. I stood there and watched/witnessed for a good five minutes thinking at least the guy would get embarrassed and stop, but no, he did not.
    Even though there were a lot of people, including able bodied young men walking by, not one stopped although all were very much aware of what was going on, you could not be aware since the guy was so loud and the woman was crying. I was flabbergasted. So I went and stood between the guy and the woman and said why don’t you push me around instead. (I am six feet tall but man, that was scary.) He backed off and then all of a sudden there were a few woman who started comforting the woman. Where were they before that? What about all the people who were walking by? And these people were not even junkies or street but middle class looking not scary at all types. Now, with all this discussion going on, perhaps people will stop and do something.

  • So glad you wrote about this!

    While it’s important to do the “big” things to combat sexual harassment and assault (protests, donating to groups, promoting awareness, etc.), it’s also on us to help out with the seemingly “little things” that happen to individuals in everyday situations.

    The more people see that men and women are willing to intervene, the (hopefully) less these things will happen.

  • Jolie

    Thank you for writing about this; it’s so important. There have been countless times where I’ve had to step in and intervene during incidents like this — skeevy guys aggressively hitting on friends, randos in the subway trying to touch or harass girls I don’t know, people in the street, etc. Sometimes, when a woman is experiencing sexual harassment or just general discomfort with a man’s behavior, it’s so hard for her to make an escape. We worry about being rude or misreading the signals.

    I’ve been a victim of this shitty behavior too many times, and I’ve always been grateful when others have intervened to help me. I’ve also never forgotten when they haven’t.

  • meme

    Thank you for this. On a strictly practical level,I’ve had doubts about how this plays out when someone is drunk. A few years ago at a friend’s wedding, two not very close friends got super drunk and instead of coming back with us, “decided” to get in a car filled with drunk frat boy behaving guys. I say “decided” because the state they were in really contradicted any ability for consent, in my opinion. We tried to reason with them but it was impossible. They seemed into the guys, and mostly excited about the attention. We knew the guys but still I felt really unsettled. They ended up leaving with them and as far as I heard (or not heard) nothing happened.
    However the horrible feeling stayed with me. I asked my closer friends what they thought and we agreed that had it been one of them, I would have not allowed them to go, whatever the case. If their safety is at risk, then we can assume losing a chance for sex one night is not so bad. But in the actual case, the line between not slut shaming them and acting momish and actually protecting them from something I (not drunk) saw as potentially dangerous continues to be blurry. What do you think I should have done?

  • Kelly

    I seriously love this post and I want to create a movement around it, we all can totally have agency to not make this type of behavior normal, to make it finally be what it is, sexual assault! I would love to see more posts about this subject on Man Repeller, so so so important