Bystander Intervention Could Save Someone from Domestic or Sexual Abuse

Man pleads with woman who wants him to leave her alone

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Jordan Lindquist
Faces of Hope Intern

Often there are times when abusive situations are triggered in a public place. In this instance, bystanders have the power to help stop the abuse before it happens. Intervening in an abusive situation sends a powerful message to not only the perpetrator but to others who witness it as well. This message conveys that the behaviors displayed, whether they be sexual harassment, yelling, physical violence, or something else, are unacceptable and must end. We have the power to make a change when it comes to domestic and sexual abuse, and it can start with you!

Active Bystander

Being an active bystander is important as they have an effective role in the prevention of a potentially violent situation. An active bystander is an individual who is aware of a threatening or inappropriate behavior and chooses to stand against it. 

The Bystander Effect

The Bystander effect is a term used to describe a common phenomenon regarding the likeliness to help. It has been found that bystanders are less likely to aid someone in need if other individuals are around. Additionally, it has been reported that the more bystanders that are around in a situation, the less likely individuals are willing to offer their help. This is due to the fact that people assume that someone else will step up, making them less inclined to do so themselves. 

We have the power to break social norms and we can start by implementing 1 of the 4 common bystander techniques to stop abuse.


  1. Direct
  2. Distract
  3. Delegate
  4. Delay


The direct approach to intervention is the most overt technique. This involves calling out negative behavior when someone sees it occurring. This can look like many different things, such as asking the perpetrator to stop what they are doing. Proceed this technique with caution as it can be risky. Remember to use this technique in a group and to avoid saying anything that will escalate the situation. 

It is important to assess the situation and ask yourself the following questions

  1. Are you safe physically? 
  2. Is the victim of harassment safe physically?
  3. Is it unlikely that the situation will escalate if you say something?
  4. Does it seem like the victim wants someone to say something? 

The answer to these questions should be a yes before you proceed with the direct approach.

Examples of phrases to use:

“That behavior was uncalled for.”

“That was inappropriate.” 

“Hey, I am here to support [name]/this person as they have asked you to leave them alone.” 


This bystander technique is a more indirect course of action but is still an effective approach to intervention. This technique involves interrupting the situation by starting a conversation with the perpetrator to provide an opportunity for the victim to escape the situation. Or, if you feel uncomfortable engaging with the perpetrator, engage with the victim. Create an excuse to take them out of the situation safely. The purpose of this technique is to deescalate the situation. Before proceeding with this approach, remember to avoid referring to the harassment itself and instead bring up a topic that is unrelated. If you do not feel comfortable with any of those options, you can always create a diversion by pretending to accidentally spill or drop something. 

Examples of phrases to use:

“Do you know where I can find ____ building?”

“Hey, I have been looking for you, can we talk for a second?”

“Sorry I am lost, can you give me directions to _____?”


The delegate technique entails getting others involved to help the situation. This approach is usually taken when one does not feel safe to intervene, but they still want to offer help to the situation. Oftentimes, venues abide by a zero-tolerance policy on harassment where staff members are to act in situations such as these. Be direct and concise when explaining the situation, you are witnessing. Especially on how you would like someone else to help. Remember that before proceeding with this approach, do not involve the police unless the victim asks you to. The reason for this is that historically, some identities have undergone mistreatment from the law enforcement and therefore the victim may be fearful of police involvement. 

Examples of phrases to use:

“Looks like someone downstairs could really use your help!”

“Would you be willing to distract the situation by standing in between the two individuals over there so that I can ask the person in the white shirt if they are okay?


Sometimes there are instances of abuse or assault that are too dangerous or happen too quickly to intervene. In this case, the delay technique suggests waiting until the situation is over and then help the victim after to discuss if they are okay and what to do about reporting the situation. It is important to know that you can make a difference in the victim’s life after the fact. With this approach, you can take the opportunity to share any resources that you may have with them. Or if the situation was documented, this is the opportunity to ask if the victim would want said documentation. Give them back the control that was taken from them by the perpetrator.

Examples of phrases to use:

“I saw what happened earlier and I wanted to say I am here for you if you want to talk about it.”

“Is there any way that I can be of support to you?”

Common Reasons Why Bystanders Don’t Intervene 

  1. They often believe that the situation at hand is not their business to interject into 
  2. After analyzing the crowd and seeing that nobody else seems concerned, they are more likely to believe that they should not be concerned as well 
  3. They do not feel confident that they understand the situation 
  4. They recognize what is happening but do not know how they should help 

What To Watch For 

  1. Comments involving sexual intercourse with someone who is intoxicated
  2. Body Language
  3. Use of touch
  4. Tone of Voice 
  5. Gestures 

Consider your own safety before you intervene. Is it necessary to put yourself in harm’s way to help, or are others around better suited to help in case things escalate? However, every person can make a difference by supporting the victim of a public instance of abuse. We need to find the courage to challenge the status quo.