Being An Active Bystander

Let's talk about Bystander Intervention

It’s 1:30am and you’re slaying the d-floor with a group of friends at the club. You scan the crowd and notice a guy is dancing a little too close with an intoxicated woman he clearly does not know; her body language tells you this. Her posture is turned away from him and she’s looking out to the crowd. What do you do?

When we witness a situation that feels wrong or behaviour that makes us feel uncomfortable, chances are something is awry. Most of us want to do the right thing, to intervene – distracting the guy for a moment or providing an opening for the woman to dance with your friends if appropriate – but knowing what to do and feeling confident enough to step in can be difficult.

The 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission report found that:

  • 1 in 4 students witnessed another student being sexually harassed at university.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 of the sexual harassment incidents witnessed took the form of sexually suggestive comments or jokes.
  • Of those who responded to the survey, trans and gender diverse students were more likely to have been sexually harassed at university.
  • 1 in 3 witnesses to sexual assault or sexual harassment at university did not take any action because they did not know what to do.


How to be an active bystander

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; or 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:

1: Notice the event

There are many different situations where you can be an active bystander such as; 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.

2: Identify if it’s a problem

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 a positive intervention is called for.

3: Take responsibility

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.

4: Make a plan

There are a number of different ways to intervene and take responsibility, remember the 5 D’s – Direct, Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay – 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 later to see how they feel. If you are with friends, you can always ask them what they think or to help you intervene.

5: Act

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.

Using the example above, examples of things you could do using the 5 D’s are:

Direct - Approach the girl and ask if she is okay, maybe she wants to come dance or sit with your group of friends. Approach the guy and tell him that the girl doesn’t seem interested and to leave her alone.

Distract - Bump into them or spill your drink on them, give the girl a chance to move away. Pretend to know her and start up a conversation.

Delegate - Tell security or bar staff that you think there is a problem, this is ideal if you don’t feel safe or comfortable intervening personally. This is also an option if you have a friend, where one can distract and the other can get security.

Document - This is another good option if you do not feel comfortable or safe intervening personally. Use your phone to take photos or a video, this is not just good for evidence but in many situations if somebody sees you filming them, they will stop or at least be distracted.

Delay - Find a time when the woman is alone (like the bathroom) to check in and make sure she is okay. In many situations showing support and that you are on their side can make all the difference.


Why it can be hard

Being an active bystander can be challenging at times – with great power comes great responsibility.

Although most people want to help and intervene there are common things that stop us.

Bystander effect – this is a phenomenon where when there are a group of people present, an individual is less likely to help or intervene. This can be because they think somebody else will, they might think that if nobody else says anything they might have misread the situation, or because there is a lot of social pressure to fit in with the group so nobody steps out and helps. Often if you think something is wrong, other people do as well.

Not being aware – often we don’t help somebody because we don’t notice that there is a problem. Whether we are on our phones or really into our dance moves we might not be paying attention to the people and situations around us. We can’t all be on at 100% all the time but we should all still try and be aware of what is happening around us, especially when something in the corner of your eye just doesn’t look right.

Unsure of what to do - Being an active bystander does not always require you to 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. Know what you are capable of, if you can approach the situation and distract or diffuse, great, but if you only feel comfortable telling security or bar staff that is still great.

Not feeling safe - Sometimes when we see somebody being aggressive towards another, we may not feel safe stepping in directly. Your safety is the most important thing, however, it does not mean you cannot do anything. In these situations you can Delegate by calling the police or security and Document by recording the event on your phone (if safe to do so).

Don’t want to make things worse - Not wanting to make the situation worse is a common concern, but if an incident is bad enough that you feel that intervention is needed then why wait for it to be even worse.

Don’t want to embarrass myself or others - Another common worry. Looking out for someone is nothing to be embarrassed about. It demonstrates empathy and concern. Just think, if somebody checked in with you if they saw you in an argument or some other concerning situation, would you be embarrassed or grateful that they made the effort to ensure you were alright?

Doing something, whatever that may be, is always better than doing nothing.

If you are being or know somebody who has been sexually harassed or assaulted or somebody is making you feel uncomfortable, there are supports available.

Immediate support in emergencies

Police - 000

QUT Security - 3138 8888

QUT support services

Equity Harassment and Discrimination Advisors - 3138 2019 -

QUT free counselling service - 3138 2019 -

Or make an appointment online 

Use the online reporting form

Security can escort you around campus if you feel unsafe. Give them a call on 3138 5585 or download the SafeZone app.

Read more about:

Sexual Harrassment

Sexual Assault



Online Abuse

Helping Others