While the the responsibility for domestic violence or sexual assault lies with the perpetrators of these crimes, we all play a role in creating a culture of respect and preventing violence.
Bystanders to domestic violence and sexual assault may witness an actual incident of abuse or sexual violence—someone at a bar who sees a drunk person being taken advantage of, someone who notices a family member’s bruises, or someone who hears screaming coming from a neighbor’s home— but all of us are bystanders and witnesses to conversations or behaviors that can contribute to the culture of violence.
Being an engaged bystander may mean intervening in violence that’s already occurring, whether it’s physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse. The abuse could be between people you don’t know, or you may find out about a friend or acquaintance who’s experiencing violence. But speaking up and interrupting an abusive situation that’s already occurring is only a small part of bystander intervention.
Leading up to every incident of abuse are all kinds of behaviors, words, and actions that normalize and condone violence in a community. Even actions like a sexist joke or victim-blaming remark can contribute to a culture in which domestic violence and sexual assault are tolerated. The good news is that if we all view ourselves as engaged bystanders and learn strategies for speaking up to challenge the social norms that contribute to the culture of violence, all of us can play an active role in ending domestic violence and sexual assault. Here are some “bystander scenarios” with tips to help you to take an active role in safely preventing and interrupting sexual assault and domestic violence.
Real-Life Bystander Scenarios
You think a friend or family member is in an abusive or unhealthy relationship. What do you do?
Once you recognize the warning signs that a situation might be abusive, you can then identify how to respond in a way that feels appropriate and comfortable.
Talk privately with the victim, and express concern by saying you’ve been worried about them. Listen without judgment and if they don’t want to talk, then let them know that you’ll be there for them if they ever do want to talk.
TIP→ Allow the victim/survivor to make their own decisions. Personal style, culture, and context of the survivor’s life may affect their reactions. A victim/survivor may not be comfortable identifying as a victim or with naming their experience as abuse or assault, and it is important to respect each person’s choices and style of coping with this traumatic event. – via RVA
Listening without judgment may make them feel comfortable opening up, and if they do disclose abuse, let them know you believe them. You can reassure them that they are not alone, this is not their fault and you are here to help. Some useful things to say might be, “No one deserves to be treated this way,” “You are not to blame,” or simply, “What’s happening is not your fault.”
TIP→ Remember that although you may be having a strong reaction to what happened, it’s important to focus on the feelings and reactions of the survivor rather than your own. Try not to outwardly judge or confront the abuser, as it may make the situation worse or more dangerous for the victim, and could put you in danger too.
Offer options by letting them know free, confidential resources are available and that you are here to support them in whatever choices they make. National hotline services include the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.7233 (www.thehotline.org) and loveisrespect 1.866.331.9474 (www.loveisrespect.org or text ‘loveis’ to 22522) – both can offer you guidance and point you to local resources in your area that will help keep them (and any children that may be present in the home) safe.
TIP→ Offer to let them use your phone or computer to look up local resources or contact someone that can help them and any children involved. – via NNEDV
Your friend tells you that he/she thinks they were raped. What do you do?
The support survivors of sexual assault receive from the people they love and trust can be invaluable to their ability to cope with and heal from sexual assault. The following are some helpful suggestions from the Rape Crisis Center.
Allow your friend to talk about what happened and control the direction of the conversation. Do not ask a lot of questions or focus on the attack itself, but rather on how they are handling the trauma.
Listen Without Giving Advice or Trying to “Fix” Things
When we care for someone, we often try to give advice, solve their problems or fix things for them. While it comes from a place of caring, our instinct to try to problem-solve or give advice can sometimes leave a survivor feeling as though their emotions are being dismissed. Sometimes, the issues a survivor is having will not feel fixable to them or to you, and it’s much more helpful to just be there to listen to whatever a survivor wants to share with you.
Let the Survivor Have Control
Allow survivors to make decisions for themselves and assure them that their decisions are supported. You don’t have to agree with their decisions but it is important to give them the authority to decide how they will handle things.
It is important that the survivor knows you believe what happened.
Normalize A Survivor’s Feelings
Every survivor will react to their experience differently. Survivors may experience many upsetting, conflicting, confusing feelings after an assault. Survivors often re-experience the event through flashbacks, may feel on-edge all the time, or may be prone to sudden outbursts, which can feel especially upsetting and leave a survivor feeling even more disempowered. Some survivors may blame themselves for and feel frustrated by these intense feelings. It’s important to remind a survivor these feelings and responses are out of their control and are the body’s way of responding to a traumatic event. Something helpful you could say would be, “You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.“
Provide Unconditional Support
It will help your friend to hear that they are not to blame for the assault. Regardless of an individual’s choices prior to the attack, no one ever asks to be or deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted.
Healing takes time, and every survivor copes with trauma differently. Don’t pressure or rush your friend to be “normal” or to “just move on.” Instead, reassure your friend that support will be available throughout the healing process, however long it may take.
Let The Survivor Know that Help is Available
If they are interested and open to receiving assistance, tell them about the National Sexual Assault Hotline, or offer to help find local services for them.
Some helpful statements include:
- I believe you.
- This is not your fault.
- I am so sorry that this happened.
- You did not deserve this.
- I am happy that you are safe and that you are here to talk with me.
- Thank you for being brave/comfortable enough to talk with me.
- How can I help you right now?
Supporting A Survivor
Supporting a survivor can feel challenging for a number of reasons: you may be worried about upsetting the survivor, you may have other personal experience with this issue, or you may feel you don’t know what to say at all. The most important things you can do for a survivor are to listen, validate, ask how you can help, know where to refer a survivor for further help, listen without judgment, and care for yourself.
Make Sure You Are Getting the Support You Need
Watching a friend or loved one work through the aftermath of a sexual assault can be an extremely difficult and painful experience. Common feelings of those supporting someone who has been assaulted include helplessness, frustration, anger and guilt. It can be helpful to talk with someone other than the survivor about these feelings.
TIP→ You understandably may be experiencing discomfort, shock or uncertainty, and have a lot of questions. To respect the survivor’s discomfort and give yourself the space you need to process your own feelings, wait until you’re away from the survivor and call the National Sexual Assault Hotline for free, confidential support.
Your male friend tells you that he had an unwanted sexual experience when he was younger with someone he looked up to. He questions if it was sexual assault because he was sexually aroused during the interaction. What do you do?
Some possible options (depending on your comfort and his openness to further discussion) include:
- Offer encouragement for his willingness to consider a challenging question,
- Listen neutrally. Ask him what factors make him think it might have been abusive. Avoid defining what happened for him.
- Explore whether he feels there was a power imbalance in the relationship
- Offer to help him find resources to learn more about unwanted and abusive sexual experiences for males and why it might be difficult, but important for a man to address it.
- Do a safety check. See if he has healthy strategies to manage negative feelings when he starts thinking about this question. If not, help him find a hotline or local crisis service should he start to feel overwhelmed.
You wake up in the middle of the night hearing screaming, crying, yelling and banging from a neighbor’s house, apartment or from a dorm room. What do you do?
- Call 911 and report what you hear.
- If you know the neighbor and can find a time when it is safe to talk to the victim, let them know that resources are available locally to help them.
- Offer to let them use your phone or computer to look up local resources or to contact someone that can help them.
***** this article was adapted from No More.