MyStudentBody - Bystander Intervention Programs for Sexual Violence with Joan Tabachnick

Bystander Intervention Programs for Sexual Violence with Joan Tabachnick

A young man hitting on a young woman at a bar

Joan Tabachnick, MBA is nationally recognized for her expertise in child sexual abuse prevention and social marketing. Over the past twenty years, she has developed innovative programs and award-winning publications and educational materials, including Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention, published by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. She has also participated in national expert panels and written a number of peer-reviewed journal articles. 

"It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior easily when so many forces in the social, cultural, and physical environment conspire against such change." 

—Institute of Medicine health promotion study, 2006 

What does a sexually healthy relationship look like compared to a sexually unhealthy, harassing, or even abusive relationship? 

A healthy relationship has clear communication, trust, respect, and honesty. A healthy relationship should make you feel good about yourself. Some signs of an unhealthy relationship include having a partner who puts you down or lies frequently; tries to control, threaten, or intimidate you; gets angry when you want to talk about the relationship; or generally doesn't want to communicate or listen. An unhealthy relationship can quickly turn into dating violence if you miss the signs and don't draw the line with a potentially abusive partner. 

Let's talk about safety. How can people protect themselves against sexual violence? 

While you can never completely protect yourself from sexual assault and other violent crimes, you can take steps to reduce your risk of being victimized. Walking in groups, trusting your instincts, avoiding dangerous situations, not loading yourself down with packages and bags, avoiding excessive drinking: these are some tips to help minimize your risk. But safety is also a community responsibility. For instance, if you're in a group setting and you see someone walking alone, ask that person to join your group. At college, it's not just about how to be safe, it's also about how to work together to keep the campus community safe. 

What makes a bystander choose to get involved when someone is being abused or harassed? 

Bystander intervention occurs when one or more people step in at any given time or place to try to stop a harmful event. A person who takes action might identify with the person being afflicted by abuse or harassment. For example, a victim of sexual violence will be more likely to take action when he or she sees someone in a similar situation or if the  person knows the victim (especially a friend or family member). Research confirms that these increase the likelihood of intervention. The important thing is to speak up and express your concerns. However, if the situation is unsafe, it's best not to intervene alone. Call 911 or find others to help. 

Can you explain the concept of bystander apathy? 

There is a lot of research about bystander intervention. Some of it points to a pattern called "bystander apathy": the more people witnessing a dangerous or abusive situation, the less likely any one of them is to intervene. One reason is that bystander(s) may think it is "none of their business" and are more willing to ignore responsibility when others are there to share the blame. But there's one key fact that we often forget with regard to sexual violence: we are all affected by it. When someone witnesses a situation and doesn't take action, that inaction affects both the attacker and the person being attacked. Our inaction also sends a message to other bystanders; it helps create a climate of apathy. If we want to stop sexual violence, we all have an obligation to ourselves, our friends, and our community to maintain a healthy and safe environment. 

How does the bystander intervention approach shift more responsibility to the community

I think the shift has to happen at many levels to make these social changes. Certainly, we can change our own behaviors, and we can change what we do in our relationships. At colleges there are a number of system or policy changes that also can be fairly easy to put into place. 

It's critical for administrators to promote the norm that this issue is something we can talk about. Many begin by encouraging community conversations about sexual integrity and sexual respect. But that's only one key component here. This message also needs to reach the resident assistants, peer leaders, Student Life staff, and others, so they can also start talking about it and help to establish what is healthy. Once we do that, we can more easily change the way people react to sexually unhealthy situations. 

It's a mistake to think that information alone will change behaviors. Information is just one part of the larger picture. We really need to make it easier for people to take action, whether it's providing a way to call for help, to talk confidentially to someone who is easily accessible, or to reach out to someone who is able to take action. Many campuses have a 24-hour campus hotline/chatline for reporting abuse. These should be resources that all students know and have easy access to. 

In your experience, why do people turn away when someone is in trouble? And how prevalent is this behavior on college campuses? 

People turn away from a situation for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is about fear of harm to themselves. Other times it might be that they don't know if they should be involved. But most often, people do not react to sexually inappropriate or even violent situations because they just don't know what to do. I'd really like to see sororities and fraternities speaking together about the need for healthy sexual relationships and what to do when they see something of concern. I think it would send a powerful message that sexual violence is a community problem, one everyone needs to work on together. 

For example, at a party when someone is coming on strong or harassing another person that is clearly not interested or even frightened, the people at the party could say something to distract or redirect the situation. Both men and women can address this interaction. And it's probably not the first time that person has done something like that. So, there are likely even friends or family members who could have said something as well—either before the incident, during the incident, or after the incident. 

In many situations there's the victim, the offender, and the bystanders. It's important to get people who are bystanders to act, find someone else to act, or find someone to talk to about it immediately because there are multiple people who can intervene. 

Some relationships include a wide range of behaviors, healthy and unhealthy. What can people do to feel more comfortable and confident talking about this subject with their partners? 

The first thing people need to do is to become comfortable speaking about all aspects of relationships—healthy and otherwise. Once this happens, there is less concern about judgment and more emphasis about caring. What one person perceives as playful might feel invasive to another person. Speaking up and making your feelings known is key. If there is embarrassment or fear of what the other person might think, that's a sign that that the relationship might not be the best fit for you. Healthy relationships are based on trust, respect, communication, honesty, and independence. Unhealthy relationships are based on power and control and can escalate to abuse and sexual violence if left unchecked. 

What type of policies can administrators implement to help support a bystander intervention program? 

Administrators should already be implementing education programs on bystander intervention to comply with provisions of the Campus SaVE Act of 2014. Under the Act, colleges and universities are required to disclose annual campus crime statistic reports on incidents of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking; guarantee victim's rights; set standards for disciplinary proceedings; and provide campus-wide prevention education programs. This includes training on safe and positive options for bystander intervention. 

What resources do you recommend for more information on this topic? 

The publications and websites listed here are a great place to start. 

Books and Publications: 

Banyard, Victoria, Elizabethe Plante, and Mary Moynihan, "Rape Prevention Through Bystander Education: Bringing a Broader Community Perspective to Sexual Violence Prevention,"

Berkowitz, Alan, Response Ability: A Complete Guide to Bystander Intervention,

Tabachnick, Joan, Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention (Enola, PA: National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2008),  


California Coalition Against Sexual Assault,

Clery Center for Security on Campus, "Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act,"

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("Violence Prevention"),

Florida Department of Health ("Sexual Abuse or Violence Prevention"),

Men Can Stop Rape,

One in Four,

University of Tennessee Transformation Project,