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Bystander Intervention in Rape Prevention

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Katie Gentile writes as follows: A new policy, following the Dear Colleague Letter, does include bystander intervention. Bystander intervention is based on the idea that people act depending on the behaviors of those around them. It is founded on the assumption that most people are not violent, yet stay silent when faced with violence because they lack the confidence or knowledge to intervene. Bystander intervention is based on the ontological assumption that people want to intervene.
As social psychologists know, the more witnesses there are, the less likely it is that individuals will respond. Bystander intervention examines and addresses some of the reasons people choose not to respond in certain situations. The approach disrupts socially reinforced habits of victim-blaming, thereby helping to shift social norms. Ideally it also spreads responsibility to both men and women but does so with an understanding of differential positions of cultural power. Women may have a specific and substantial role, but it is understood that within a patriarchal system most men are more influenced and moved to action by the opinions and behaviors of other men. Thus male bystanders become particularly important in prevention work.
By focusing on the bystander, the third party, this form of intervention can deconstruct the gendered binary of doer-done to, victim-perpetrator. The oppositional victim and perpetrator positions fade to the background and the bystander is elevated and made the agent of change and action. Students are not identified as potential victims or perpetrators but instead identify as a bystander. Students may be asked to recall situations where they saw violence occurring. They are asked to identify the violence. Then they are asked to describe how they felt as witnesses to the violence. Most recall intense and shameful feelings of vulnerability, helplessness and powerlessness and they are able to identify and describe these most often because they were not the direct victim or perpetrator. Students are walked through ways they might intervene (if safe), or alert an authority; how they might talk to a friend who was assaulted or harassed; and most importantly, how they can talk to a friend who crossed the line themselves. Having organized and implemented these training, I have found students respond quite positively to being coached to help victims. But when I open up the idea of intervening with a perpetrator the discussion initially falls silent. Gradually students open up about experiences they have already had with friends who perpetrated some physically or verbally violent act where they did not know what to do. Not surprisingly, students described wanting to disavow and avoid any future feelings of powerlessness and helpless vulnerability, meaning they employed strategies that allowed them to avoid acknowledging future micro/macro aggressions and/or supported their own use of such aggression in their own interactions. Providing tools for intervening, even if the tool was just an active reflection of that powerlessness, results in a disruption of the victim-perpetrator dynamic. It can create a space for a third position that is not completely devoid of the others, but at the very least, has more space for reflection.
Again, ideally, bystander intervention impacts individual student behaviors while it creates a shift in the campus culture. The bystander may be the third, the witness, but it is clear that bystander position comes with close proximity to both the victim and perpetrator. Here the knowledge that we could all be victim or perpetrator is held and used to fuel not dissociation but reflective and realistic action to become an agentic bystander. Accountability within this model is shared with the bystander, who has a responsibility to intervene in some way. The pressures on the victim-perpetrator dyad are diffused as the bystander, and thus, the community body shares the shame and accountability.

Bystander Intervention in Rape Prevention

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). Bystander Intervention in Rape Prevention. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 5 Nov 2018
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