An active bystander is someone who, when noticing a situation that concerns them, does something about it – they are everyday superheroes. This might be similar to the scenario mentioned on the previous page; maybe you’re looking out for your friends, maybe you’re calling them out when they are making an offensive comment towards another person. Each situation is different, but there are some basic things you can do in any scenario:
A friend showing you a nude that was sent to them privately, hearing someone making a homophobic, sexist or racist remark towards another person or group, or noticing a peer incessantly pursuing someone who is not interested – these are all situations where you might intervene.
Interpreting an event as a problem requires judgement on your part, but as a guide, question whether the situation at hand makes you feel uncomfortable. Would you behave the same way? Would this kind of behaviour be okay if it were occurring to a friend or family member? If you are unsure about positively answering these questions, or the answer makes you feel uncomfortable, chances are this is a situation for intervention.
This is perhaps the hardest step; deciding to step up. In difficult situations we often assume that someone else will do something – surely the woman at the club has friends who will come to her aid – but if we all assume someone else will step in, nothing will happen.
There are a number of different ways to intervene and step in – either directly or indirectly – just remember to be respectful and mindful of your own safety and theirs in whatever approach you take, whether you decide to act in the moment or check-in with the person concerned after the fact to see how they feel.
Choosing to not participate in a negative conversation or calling-out bad behaviour; derailing an incident from occurring by distracting the would-be perpetrator (i.e. ask for the time, directions, what drink they’re having); offering assistance to the victim by listening or helping them to report the incident – these are just some of the ways you can intervene and be an active bystander.
Why it can sometimes be difficult
Being an active bystander can be challenging at times – with great power comes great responsibility.
For starters, we all fall victim to apathy at times. You might fail to notice an incident is occurring due to noise or other sensory distractions (i.e. looking down at your phone), or you might find it difficult to judge whether an incident such as the woman in the aforementioned club is at ‘high-risk’ or not – what if you misread the signs?
Research suggests that our judgement is sometimes influenced by the myths we mentioned earlier. What we have to remember is that these myths are false – wearing provocative clothing does not constitute sexual availability, for example. Research also shows that people are less likely to help in situations where the perception of ‘need’ is ambiguous. The trick is to be present and notice what is occurring around you, and to learn to be critical of our own perceptions and attitudes of others.
Second, you might feel uncertain about how to best intervene. You might not feel physically equipped to step in, or you might find the whole experience embarrassing, awkward or scary.
The thing to remember is that looking out for someone is nothing to be embarrassed about. It demonstrates empathy and concern. Being an active bystander does not always require you confront the situation yourself. You can contribute to defusing the situation by informing someone in a position of authority that an incident might be occurring – bar staff or campus security for example.