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How to be an active bystander

Four ways to intervene with misconduct safely

While no one wants to witness problematic or dangerous situations, it’s important to recognise what inappropriate behaviour looks like and how to intervene safely if you ever see it. 

Events unfold around us every day. While many times these events are ordinary, sometimes they may not be. Sometimes an event or situation just doesn’t feel right. It might be hearing inappropriate comments from a friend or witnessing harassment or intimidation at a bar. 

When we witness these situations, we can choose to intervene (be an active bystander), or to let it go (remain a passive bystander). 

Being an active bystander isn’t always easy, and there could be many reasons why someone may hesitate or choose not to intervene, for example, to avoid confrontation or misjudging the situation, or fear of harm. 

However, where possible to intervene safely, choosing to be an active bystander can make a positive difference. When we intervene, we make clear to the perpetrator that their behaviour is problematic and unacceptable. In fact, research shows that active bystanders play a key role in discouraging and/or preventing acts of violence. 

When we continue to call out unacceptable behaviour and intervene when we see it, we can help shift the boundaries of what is considered acceptable and stop acts of violence before they occur. 

Being an active bystander won’t always look the same. Depending on the situation, you may choose to take a direct approach to addressing the situation or delegate intervention to someone else. As an active bystander, here are four ways you can intervene safely. 

How to intervene safely

Having a direct approach to intervening safely could involve calling out inappropriate behaviour, asking the perpetrator to stop, or asking the victim if they are OK. If possible, it’s best to do this in a group. 

While the situation may frustrate or upset you, it’s important to remain calm and clearly explain why the perpetrator's behaviour is unacceptable. Here is an example of taking a direct approach to intervention: 

You’ve just seen a gig at Manning Bar, and you are outside waiting for an Uber when you see a friend of yours, Jess, also waiting for an Uber. You know Jess had a lot to drink at the gig, and she is struggling to stand. Another friend of yours, Hamish, approaches Jess and stands next to her. You see him touching Jess’s lower back and you hear him offer to drive her home. Jess declines, but Hamish keeps insisting. Jess’s Uber arrives and you see Hamish telling the Uber driver to cancel the trip. 

You approach Hamish and Jess. Jess has said she wants to get an Uber. "It's not cool to hassle her mate”, you say and open the Uber door. Jess gets in the Uber, and you text her housemate to meet her from the Uber. When you go and get food with Hamish, you speak to him about his actions, and let him know you think his behaviour was not OK. 

Interrupting a situation by starting a conversation with the perpetrator or coming up with an idea to move the victim away from the perpetrator can distract the perpetrator, stopping harassment or assault in its tracks. Here is an example of distracting a perpetrator to allow the victim to escape the situation: 

Tom and Linda met at a mutual friend’s party. They left the party around the same time, and both took the same train home. When they got onto the train, Tom sat very closely to Linda which made her quite uncomfortable. After talking for a while, Tom started to touch Linda’s lower back and right thigh. Linda tried to move away but Tom just moved closer to her again. 

You happen to be on the train. Seeing Linda’s body language, you decide to look for an excuse to distract Tom. You approach Tom and explain that you’re craving sugar and ask if he knows any good dessert or ice cream places around. While Tom was showing you his recommendations on his phone, Linda was able to get off the train.

In circumstances where you don't know the perpetrator well enough to directly intervene, have concerns about directly calling the perpetrator out, or may not feel confident speaking up, you may choose to delegate intervention. This could involve asking a staff member to intervene, if you’re at a venue or establishment, or reporting it to the relevant authorities. Here is an example of delegating intervention: 

You’re working out at the Uni gym and see a young woman using the weights. A young man you do not know approaches her and offers to help, grabbing the weights out of her hands, laughing, and offers to help her if she agrees to have a drink with him. The woman looks very uncomfortable and says multiple times she does not need or want assistance. 

You don’t know the person hassling her and feel intimidated to approach him. Instead, you go to the front desk of the gym and notify staff of the situation. Staff at the gym speak to the young man, and ask him to leave, explaining they will call Campus Security if he doesn’t leave.

In dangerous or challenging situations, it may be best to delay intervention. Once the threat of directing intervening has passed, you may decide to approach the victim to ask if they are OK and are in any need of assistance and/or report the situation when it’s safe to do so. Here is an example of delaying intervention: 

Taylor finishes their class for the day and heads back to Student Accommodation. Peter from the same class starts following them. Taylor noticed Peter behind them and started walking faster. They took out their phone and pretended that they were talking to someone. When they enter the lift to go up to their room, they couldn’t see Peter following anymore and were finally able to relax. 

You also live in Student Accommodation and saw this happen. You approach Taylor after the event to check-in and see if they are ok or need any resources.

In an emergency, call 000. Never put yourself or others in danger, and only intervene if it’s safe to do so. 

28 November 2022

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