serious girls | bystander intervention

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As community members, we all take steps to look out for the people around us. While these actions are occasionally big and dramatic, like calling an ambulance during a medical emergency, the vast majority of the time it’s small, everyday actions that make the difference. Our seemingly small actions—checking in on a friend who’s having a rough week, taking notes for a classmate who’s out sick, or giving directions to a lost freshman—make our community strong, welcoming, and enjoyable.

Small, everyday actions are also the key to preventing sexual harassment and assault. When we see someone being pressured or experiencing unwanted attention, we have a variety of ways we can check in. These actions (sometimes called “bystander interventions”) are critical, but they don’t have to be complicated or dramatic. The best actions happen early on, and are subtle and safe. The most successful ones might not even register as an “intervention” to anyone else. When we step in early, we can help build a community that doesn’t tolerate even casual disrespect, and we can prevent pressure from escalating to coercion and violence. Check out these three easy ways to help someone out when your instinct tells you something is “off.”

1. Notice what’s going on and make a plan

If you see someone who looks uncomfortable or notice a dynamic that makes you cringe, pay attention to that instinct.

Is someone…

  • Stuck in a conversation they don’t seem to be enjoying?
  • Getting overly handsy on the dance floor?
  • Recoiling from an offensive comment or joke?

Noticing these things early and disrupting those dynamics can stop a worrisome situation from escalating into something worse.

If you’re unsure:

  • Keep an eye on things. Do people seem uncomfortable or unclear about what to do next?
  • Talk with someone else. Ask, “Does that seem a little weird to you?”
  • Accept that it’s perfectly normal to be unsure—in fact, it’s probably a good sign! It means you’re not waiting for the situation to escalate or get out of hand.

Remember, if you check in and realize that everyone’s OK, you can always remove yourself from the situation. If everyone is enjoying the interaction, they will pick up right where they left off.

Stay safe and make sure your plan doesn’t put you or anyone else in harm’s way. Escalating the situation (whether verbally or physically) is almost always counterproductive and dangerous. Ideally, whatever strategy you choose would be subtle and nonconfrontational. If you step in successfully, it’s possible that no one else will notice.

2. Carry out your plan

Change the dynamic

Often, pressured interactions involve only two people and can feel isolating. Just adding a third person to the mix can change things. By being a third wheel, you can dramatically change how the situation feels. You could try:

  • “Hey, weren’t you in my chemistry class last year?”
  • “Do you have a phone charger I could borrow?”
  • Changing the music (nothing breaks up a slow dance faster than playing “Old Town Road” really loudly!)

Give people an out

When someone is being pressured, they will often look for a way out of the situation. Make it easy for people to leave:

  • “Does anyone want to get pizza?”
  • “I think your friend is looking for you downstairs.”
  • Pretend to be exhausted and ask your friend to head home with you.
  • Text your friend, “Are you OK? Let me know.”

“I always use distraction. If I see something strange happening from afar, I will run up to the person and pretend I’ve just seen them for the first time in forever. From there they can easily leave with me.”
—Student in Berea, Kentucky

Activate allies

Figure out who is best positioned to act.

  • Point out a problem to a party host.
  • Find the friends of someone who seems to need help and let them know what’s going on.
  • Enlist the people around you to create a distraction or help you change the dynamic.
  • If you’re on your own, start to help. Often, others will step up too.

3. Follow up or check in afterward

If you aren’t able to act in the moment, don’t assume the opportunity has passed. You can always check in afterward: “I was kind of concerned when I saw you on Saturday. Did that work out OK?”

This is especially effective if you are noticing an ongoing dynamic, such as a friend who seems totally consumed by a new relationship.

It’s never too late to take action. If your friend tells you about an experience of sexual violence or harassment, offer to connect them with the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673), a school counselor, or a trusted teacher.

If you’re worried that your friend might be the one pressuring others, step in. It can be helpful to use more stealthy tactics in the moment and have a frank conversation with your friend later.

In the moment: Be a third wheel. Your presence in the conversation can change the dynamic. Change a one-on-one situation to a group hangout. Put on a movie or invite people to get pizza. Extricate your friend from the situation. Ask for help in another room or get your friend to head home with you. Later on: Avoid taking an accusatory tone. Talk about the behavior you’ve noticed and why it concerns you. Make sure your friend knows that you’re bringing this up because you care about them.

Why this works

Certain patterns of behavior can make us feel uncomfortable or even trapped, whether it’s an aunt asking you what you’re going to do after graduation or a classmate trying to dance too close to you.

These kinds of pressured interactions can feel hard to disrupt when you’re caught up in them—but a third party can easily step in and help break them.

That’s why stepping in is so effective. It helps “break the script” by introducing a new character or dynamic. This can make it easier for the person who’s being pressured to leave the conversation or for the person applying pressure to realize that that’s what they’ve been doing.

You don’t need to be certain that a situation will end badly in order to do something—that is often very hard to gauge. Low-level pressure or disrespect is enough to warrant stepping in, because everyone deserves to feel respected in every encounter. Plus, if you take action and realize that no one is feeling uncomfortable or trapped, you can move on and they will pick up their conversation again.

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Hana Awwad is a former student affairs fellow at Yale University, where she worked on alcohol harm reduction programming and sexual culture change. She helped manage a diverse group of undergraduates tasked with building a more positive sexual climate. Currently, she is based in Toronto.

Evan Walker-Wells is the co-founder of Scalawag, a new magazine and website covering Southern politics and culture. As an undergrad at Yale, Evan was one of the first communication and consent educators, working with students and groups around campus to build a more positive sexual and romantic culture.

Chamonix Adams Porter is a student affairs fellow at Yale University, where she works on building a supportive sexual climate. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in school counseling at Boston College.