One of the most effective strategies used to prevent incidences of sexual violence involves mobilizing bystanders (people not involved in the situation) to intervene. 

94% of Northeastern students said they would be willing to intervene when they suspect a peer might become a victim of sexual violence.[1]


When deciding whether or not to intervene in a situation, people often succumb to something called the “Bystander effect.” In large groups, people may choose not to act UNLESS they see someone else acting or the situation is extremely easy to identify as dangerous.  People may assume someone else will help or might be thinking- “No one else is intervening.  Maybe I’m crazy for thinking something is even wrong.”  This means that in addition to a willingness to intervene, it’s important to be able to recognize situations where intervention is needed.


When two people are acquaintances or friends but are not in a relationship, research[2] [3]shows that sexual violence tends to play out like this-

  • Perpetrators will encourage a person they are interested in to drink more even when the other person already seems intoxicated.
  • Perpetrators will use some form of flattery to try to get the other person alone or get them to trust them.
  • Perpetrators will ignore or test boundaries. This might mean they stand too close or repeatedly try to kiss or dance with someone who has already turned them down.
  • Perpetrators will misperceive interest. They may be saying or suggesting that the other person is really into them when it’s clear to the people around them that’s it isn’t necessarily reciprocated.

When two people are in a relationship, research[4] shows that sexual violence that occurs may play out in the following way-

  • Perpetrators in a relationship most commonly assault their partner through the use of verbal coercion. One person may threaten to end the relationship or to go outside the relationship for sex if the other person does not comply or may express strong dissatisfaction with the relationship or with the other person in order to pressure them into having sex.  Look out for people who are talking to their partner in a way that sounds manipulative or coercive.
  • If sex has been a part of the relationship previously, sex may be expected again. The risk for assault in this case is higher.  They assume the person should always be available to them.

When you see other people looking uncomfortable or have a bad feeling about something, trust your gut reaction.


Taken alone, some of these things may not look like red flags.  For example, a person trying to spend time alone with another person they like or are attracted to is not uncommon at all.  If you’re unsure, find a way to simply check in.


So what can I do?

Intervene in the situation in a way that feels comfortable to you.  How you decide to intervene might change depending on whether you are a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, and how comfortable or safe you feel in the particular environment.


Here are some strategies:

Separate: Try to make it appear like you are splitting people up for some reason other than potential abuse.

  • You know the intended target – “Come to the bathroom with me for a second.”  “We’re all taking a picture over there and we want you in it!”  “Hey something happened and I need to talk, come with me?”
  • You know the perpetrator- “This party sucks.  Let’s get outta here.”  “Our turn to play beer pong.  Let’s go.”  “Let’s go get food.”  “They seem a little too drunk- just looking out for you, you should probably wait til tomorrow.”
  • You are a stranger- “You feeling ok? Are your friends here? I can help find them.”  “Don’t we have a class together?”


Distract: This allows the intended target to get out of the situation if they are truly uncomfortable.

  • “Have you guys seen this youtube video yet?  You have to see it!”
  • “Do you mind taking our picture?”
  • “So my friends and I have a debate going and we need some people to help settle it….”
  • Spill your drink near/ on them accidentally.
  • Change the song to one everyone will want to dance to.


Delegate: We want people to intervene but we don’t want intervening to put you in a situation where you feel unsafe.  Sometimes it’s best to ask for help from others.  Here are some ideas-

    • Ask your friends to intervene with you.
    • Find the friends of the people involved and ask them to intervene.
    • Get a professional like a bartender, bouncer, RA, RD, or the police.


Speak up: Many perpetrators hold hostile attitudes about others, have beliefs about people “owing” sex, and see others as sexual commodities. By countering these types of attitudes and/ or comments that reflect them, you communicate that disrespect is not tolerated here.

  • Use “I” statements- I feel uncomfortable when you say things like that.
  • Reframe- “I know you’re a good person, but when you say stuff like that it makes you look bad.”
  • “You’re joking right? You know they’re way to drunk…”

Intervention doesn’t have to be awkward.  Usually it only takes a few minutes and can make a huge difference in someone’s life.


Is there any way to protect myself?

The only person to blame in the case of a sexual assault is the person who perpetrated it.  That said, there are some ways to protect yourself and your friends.

  • Look out for your friends. If you go out together, make sure everyone gets home together.
  • If you are drinking, be aware of your limits, count your standard drinks, and make sure to make or open your own drinks. Some perpetrators will intentionally encourage heavy drinking in order to facilitate assault.
  • If you are in a situation where you start to feel uncomfortable, express that as soon as you can and try to find a way out of the situation. You can have a signal with your friends or simply articulate- “Please don’t stand so close.”  If the other person continues to disrespect your space, make an excuse like having to go to the bathroom and get help.
  • If you find that you are alone with a partner who begins to cross a line or make you feel uncomfortable, try to make a comment that will give you a moment to get out of the situation. For example, “I hate to even say this, but would you mind brushing your teeth?”  “I have to tell you, I actually have an STI that I’m being treated for.  I don’t want you to get it so we should probably wait.”  “My roommate told me they’d be home soon and I don’t want this to be awkward so….”

[1] This data was collected in a Northeastern University 2016 National College Health Assessment.

[2] Abbey, A. & Jacques-Tiura, A. (2011). Sexual Assault Perpetrators’ Tactics: Assocaitions with Their Personal Characteristics and Aspects of the Incident. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 26(14)2866-2889.

[3] Wegner, R, Pierce, J., Abbey, A. (2014). Relationship Type and Sexual Precedence: Their Associations with Characteristics of Sexual Assault Perpetrators and Incidents

[4] Wegner, R, Pierce, J., Abbey, A. (2014). Relationship Type and Sexual Precedence: Their Associations with Characteristics of Sexual Assault Perpetrators and Incidents