Bystander Behavior Is Nothing New: How To Safely Intervene When Someone Needs Help



“It Will Never Happen To Me or Someone I Care About” – The Mantra of Bystanders

-Steve Thompson

Over two weeks ago a young person was raped on a commuter train in Philadelphia, PA while many people watched, with some even recording the event on their phone. The tragedy is, If just one person would have gotten involved that day, that young person would not be dealing with the aftermath of the assault for perhaps years to come. Every day people are assaulted, harassed, and set up for rape, while others stand by and do nothing. Bystander behavior is nothing new, but it is something that has been pretty much ignored, until, of course, it affects you.


At the end of the day it can happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere. With that being said, let’s discuss how to safely intervene while addressing some of the bystander behaviors you may witness when someone is at risk for sexual assault.


Bystanders behave like Zebras


Let’s think about this. I call bystanders “Zebras”. Why? Incidents of sexual aggression rarely happen where others are not aware. The man who assaults someone he knows generally tells others about it. The harasser must have an audience. Individuals who are physically and emotionally abused often show signs that others frequently choose to ignore. Zebras represent what many around us do daily. Picture lions hunting: what animal do they frequently find? The innocent zebras! Lions stalk the herd and then attack the weakest, slowest, most vulnerable. The chase is on; a lion gets one zebra out of the herd and quickly brings it down.


As the lion feeds on the fallen zebra, the rest of the herd will stop a short distance away and watch one of their own being devoured. What are they thinking? I would bet it is something like “glad that wasn’t me”. Perhaps they distance themselves from the fallen zebra by telling themselves they didn’t know that zebra. Regardless, the next day the chase is on and another zebra is killed wiith the herd once again looking on and thinking, “she should have seen it coming; that will never happen to me or any of my family.”

Bystanders should intervene, not standby like Zebras


People are the same way as it relates to sexual aggression. Thinking it will never happen to them or anyone they care about. Most men would say they would never rape, harass, stalk or abuse their partners, but what about the party where someone is singled out because they had too much to drink or possibly had alcohol or drugs pushed on them? Men and women see that person being led away, yet rarely do people get involved. If just one person stood up to stop it or if their friends would intercede, that person would not be victimized. Does anyone step forward? Generally, not. Much like the zebra, they stand by and watch. Maybe they make an excuse; maybe they just look the other way. Or they ask about it the next day. A lot of good that did the victim the previous night.


Regardless of what goes through their minds, they do nothing at the time of possible intervention. We have got to eliminate this zebra, myth based mentality. Accepting violence and aggression against one person is to accept violence against all.


What can be done about bystander behavior?

How can we make the change? In order to engage bystanders they must first notice the questionable behavior. Notice involves knowing what the laws are as well as trusting your own instincts relating to right and wrong. I have described and defined laws relating to sexual aggression in previous blogs. Once bystanders notice behaviors that are wrong they must then interpret what it is they are actually witnessing. In other words, does what I am witnessing reach the standard of illegal, or morally wrong? If yes, now the dilemma of what does the bystander do. The final choice is TAKING ACTION.


There are only three options now; first is to be the “Zebra” and do nothing. Generally people are able to rationalize doing nothing by somehow throwing blame at the target.


The second option is to participate. We see this with harassment. If I can pile on someone else who is being bullied or harassed, the focus will stay away from me.


The final option is to intercede; to do something positive to stop what is happening. Yelling, engaging others to help, calling the police are but a few options that could have been used during the rape incident on the train a few weeks ago. Each situation generally has different options that one can use. A family member in a domestic situation needs one to utilize different more long term options than one who is being raped on a train.


Bystander awareness and intervention starts with education!


To reduce bystander behavior we need to educate ourselves as to the laws dealing with sexual aggression and then mentally rehearse what we would do/say if we encounter any of these situations. No, it is not pleasant to think about these situations but ask yourself, “how would I want people to act if it were me or someone I cared about being harmed?”


Thankfully, we offer a bystander awareness and intervention educational program suited for colleges, universities, Title IV, military and the workplace to help bring awareness of the topic.


No Zebras Productions has over 40 years of experience with bystander intervention programming, sexual assault prevention education as well as working with survivors. Our programs will engage your audiences (both military and college students) to help change the conversation around sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking and harassment.


Interested in booking one of our programs at your college, university or business in the Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio area? We also offer our programs via Zoom if you prefer a virtual and engaging bystander educational program.


Contact us today to discuss program options at SCOTT@WOLFMANPRODUCTIONS.COM