The bystander approach

Engaging bystanders in sexual violence prevention

In 1964, the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese shocked Americans from coast to coast. While a man attacked, raped, and killed this young woman for over half an hour, 38 men and women witnessed the assault and did nothing to help. The shock and confusion surrounding this single event captured the country’s attention. It launched a substantial debate into how caring people could watch such an attack, and yet do nothing. This one event launched new research and programs about the ‘bystander effect’.

This one event also marked the beginning of an approach by programs and researchers to move bystanders to act more responsibly. People in a bystander role often describe feeling scared, alone, and afraid to say or do something in the face of violence. They say that they fear making someone angry, possibly misunderstanding the situation, or even triggering further violence. Yet over the years, the bystander approach has recognised that saying or doing something is not necessarily a single event by a single hero. In fact, in many situations, there are a variety of opportunities, and numerous people who can choose to intervene.

bystander approach

The bystander approach

Although some anti-sexual violence groups focus much of their efforts on stopping victimisation and others on stopping perpetration, both approaches share common goals. The main goal is usually to create a safe community and to hold the perpetrator responsible for his or her crime. Much of the important work in both fields takes place AFTER someone has been harmed. However, with the bystander approach, the work is broadened to address the behaviours of others. The friends, families, teachers, clergy, and witnesses that surround any act or pattern of abuse. This thus offers an opportunity to address behaviours BEFORE sexual violence has been perpetrated in the first place.

This resource was published by the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre in 2009. It describes how the the bystander approach offers several clear benefits, including

  • Discouraging victim blaming.
  • Offering the chance to change social norms.
  • Shifting responsibility to men and women.

This booklet outlines how we can start moving towards this, including activity briefs and programs for use at an individual, group, community and societal level.

Download the PDF [PDF 933.1KB] or view it below.

Last modified: Saturday, 7 September 2019, 6:53 PM