Bystander Intervention

Apr 25, 2014

Imagine you and your friends are out at a bar on a Friday night. When you came in you noticed a woman at the bar sitting alone. Later in the evening, you notice her again, now sitting with a man who keeps moving closer to her and buying her drinks. She looks uncomfortable and keeps moving her chair farther back while looking around the bar. A bit later you notice that she stands up and tries to walk away. He follows her and puts his arm on the wall to talk to her further. It looks like she’s cornered. What do you do?

Recently, several groups in Missoula have been asking questions just like this. What do you do? What can you do?

Since 2012, when Missoula was thrust in to the national spotlight as the quote-unquote “Rape Capital,” organizations from the University of Montana, City/County relationship violence services, law enforcement, health care providers and independent non-profits have rallied around the need for streamlining sexual assault services, improving communication and collaboration between agencies, and the removal of cultural and bureaucratic barriers to reporting assaults.

The resulting changes are encouraging, a positive step in the right direction. We can always, and should always, strive to offer better support for survivors of sexual violence.  However, structural changes are not enough. Sexual assault prevention cannot happen in a vacuum. We must address the cultural norms that can sometimes mask and even enable sexually aggressive behavior.

Research shows that sexual violence is directly linked to an acceptance of sexual aggression from peers. In other words, when predators are not called out on their more innocuous behavior, such as “cat calling,” rape jokes, or flippant sexist or homophobic remarks, they will consider their behavior normal, which can then lead to escalating aggression.  The good news is that the reverse is also true.

Joan Tabachnick, a leading expert in sexual abuse prevention, writes, “When we consider stopping sexual violence, we usually think of intervening in individual acts of sexual abuse or rape. But rarely is the individual act the only opportunity to intervene. Rather, there are literally hundreds of little comments, harassments, and other forms of abuse that lead up to what we think of as the sexually violent act. If we limit our interventions to a culminating ‘event,’ we miss multiple opportunities to do something or say something before someone is harmed.”

We must understand that sexual violence is not a men’s or women’s issue, but a community issue. Men are not the only perpetrators, and women are not the only victims. Sexual assault impacts everyone involved—friends, family, loved ones—and effective prevention lies in the actions of our community. This means being a proactive bystander. This means identifying and discouraging predatory behavior on the street, in the bar, and at home.

We know, statistically, that there are bystanders in two out of three rapes (meaning that there are witnesses to the events that led up to the rape) and if EVERYBODY knew how to identify tactics of sexual predators and had skills to intervene safely and effectively; we could prevent a large majority of rapes from happening.

It’s time to get involved. You, as an engaged bystander, have the opportunity to prevent an assault by stepping in when you see something that doesn’t look right.

In a society that promotes a ‘mind your own business’ message, speaking up might seem difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. Try to approach the situation as if it involved one of your friends. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. If you think someone is in trouble, ask if they’re ok. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching a situation on your own, ask a friend, co-worker, anyone-- for help.

You aren’t ruining someone’s fun or being a jerk if you speak up. You are watching out for someone’s sister, brother, child or friend.

In dismantling the notions of predatory behavior as normal and acceptable, we empower a community of active bystanders as the catalyst for change. And with this change, we will be able to count on our friends and family to stand with each other against sexual violence and promote healthy relationships.

This is Amanda Opitz with YWCA Missoula, and the Make Your Move! Campaign to end sexual violence. If you’d like more information about the Make Your Move! Campaign, visit

Thank you for listening.