May 24, 2017

Say Hi to Bystander Intervention

Stick figure saying HiJust introduce yourself and say, “Hi.” That’s all it takes and all I’m asking. Don’t fall prey to thinking that someone else is going to intervene. They aren’t. (See Why People Don’t Intervene and this famous New York Times article from 1964 describing how 37 people saw the murder of Catherine Genovese and did nothing.)

Bystander intervention has been a staple of sexual assault prevention. Colleges are increasingly adapting the philosophy and encouraging incoming students to learn about the concept.

At the core, we’re trying to change youth’s reluctance to intervene – a laudable goal and one that helps remove the burden of prevention from solely resting on the shoulders of a survivor. Bystander intervention means that we all have a role to play in prevention. But the challenge with any attempt to change behavior is making as clear as possible the script: what is the behavior to change, when, and how.

We get that you shouldn’t forcibly rape someone. However, rarely are any of us in a situation which has already escalated into a stereotypical rape. More often, we’re in a drinking scene where one is encouraging another to drink in excess. There’s our cue: Introduce yourself.

Promising anecdotes show that a third party coming up and saying “Hi, my name is John. How about this weather?” reduces the likelihood of sexual assault (see One Act). Being a sociable person, at an event where the point is to talk to others, is a form of bystander intervention.

Granted, merely introducing oneself and then walking away is not the intervention: Engaging with both persons is the intervention. Once in that conversation, the third party now has an opportunity to present the other person with an out: “Hey, do you want to come talk with some of my friends?”

The new “introduce yourself” concept appears to resonate with those I’ve taught. It’s clearer than “If you see something, say something.” (What is the something I’m looking for? What do I say?) With this model, if you’re at a party where someone seems to be pressuring someone to drink, then just go up, say “Hi” and see what’s going on.

In other words, keep mingling.

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