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Part 4: Bystander interventions in violence prevention

Encourage. Support. Act!

Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Part 4: Bystander
interventions in violence prevention

Bystanders have received growing attention as a potential means of violence
prevention. Amongst efforts oriented towards the primary prevention of domestic
and family violence, sexual violence and other forms of interpersonal violence,
mobilising bystanders to prevent and respond to violence or to the situations
and factors which increase the risk of violence taking place (‘bystander
intervention’), is understood as an important form of primary prevention
and is an increasingly prominent

In the field of violence prevention, strategies focused on bystander
intervention have been primarily developed in relation to specific forms of
violence, particularly physical and sexual violence and related forms of
coercion and abuse between adults who know each other. However, there has been
less attention on bystander intervention for other forms of interpersonal
violence such as male-male public violence, child sexual abuse and sexual

Bystanders, in the violence prevention literature, are understood to be
individuals who observe an act of violence, discrimination, or other problematic
behaviour, but who are not its direct perpetrator or
victim.[197] Rather, bystanders
are onlookers, spectators or otherwise present in some sense. However, in some
accounts of bystander intervention, the term ‘bystander’ expands to
include those who directly perpetrate violence. For example, in a revision by
McMahon and colleagues [198] of a
scale for measuring bystander behaviour first developed by Banyard and
colleagues, several items regarding individuals’ own practices of sexual
consent were included. Such accounts blur the line between bystanders to violence and perpetrators of violence. In practice of course, individuals
who act as prosocial bystanders, intervening in others’ violent and
violence-supportive behaviours, should ‘put their own house in
order’, ensuring that they do not use violence themselves. Notwithstanding
this conflation of terms, it is preferable to reserve the term
‘bystander’ for those who are not directly involved in the violence
in question.

Work on bystanders to violence distinguishes between ‘passive’
bystanders, who do not act or intervene and ‘active bystanders’ who
take action. Active or ‘pro-social’ bystanders may take action

  1. Stop the perpetration of a specific incident of violence;
  2. Reduce the risk of violence escalating and prevent the physical,
    psychological and social harms that may result; and
  3. Strengthen the conditions that work against violence

following section addresses how bystander interventions are framed as various
levels of prevention, the specific behaviours of bystanders that can be
encouraged and supported, the kinds of strategies that have been employed in the
violence prevention area and the effectiveness of these strategies.

4.1 The framing of
bystander intervention as prevention

Efforts to prevent and reduce domestic violence and sexual violence in the
past two decades have been marked by a growing emphasis on both the primary
prevention of these forms of violence and on the need to engage men in a range
of prevention strategies. The increasing prominence of bystander intervention is
informed by both these emphases.

In the last two decades, prevention has become a central focus of community
and government efforts to address men’s violence against women. This
development reflects the recognition that it is important to not only respond to
the victims and perpetrators of violence, but also work to prevent violence from
occurring in the first place. Efforts have been made to address the underlying
causes of violence, in order to reduce its occurrence and ultimately, to
eliminate it altogether. Prevention work has only become possible because of
years of hard work and dedication by survivors, advocates, prevention educators
and other professionals.[200] It
is important to note however, that primary prevention efforts complement, but do
not replace or take priority over, work with victims and survivors.

Activities to prevent and respond to violence can be classified in a number
of ways. One of the most common is a three-part classification of activities
according to when they occur in relation to

  • Before the problem starts: Primary prevention
    • Activities which take place before violence has occurred to
      prevent initial perpetration or victimisation.
  • Once the problem has begun: Secondary prevention
    • Immediate responses after violence has occurred to deal with
      the short-term consequences of violence, to respond to those at risk and to
      prevent the problem from occurring or progressing.
  • Responding afterwards: Tertiary prevention
    • Long-term responses after violence has occurred to deal with
      the lasting consequences of violence, minimise its impact and prevent further
      perpetration and victimisation.

Primary prevention
strategies are implemented before the problem ever occurs. In relation to
violence by boys and men against girls and women for example, these early
strategies aim to lessen the likelihood of boys and men using violence, or girls
and women suffering violence, in the first place. Therefore, primary prevention
strategies strive to circumvent
violence[202], remove the causes
or determinants of violence, prevent the development of risk factors associated
with violence and /or enhance protective factors against
violence.[203] They are successful
when the first instance of violence is

Secondary prevention focuses on early identification and intervention,
targeting those individuals at high risk for either perpetration or
victimisation and working to reduce the likelihood of their further or
subsequent engagement in or subjection to violence. In contrast, tertiary
prevention is centred on responding after violence has occurred. Activities
focus on responding to, or treating the problem, minimising the impact of
violence, restoring health and safety and preventing further victimisation and

Returning to the notion of whistle blowing outlined in Part 3, whistle
blowing can be located primarily within secondary and tertiary forms of
prevention, given that actions widely associated with whistle blowing take place
at or after the time of specific incidents of wrongdoing. At the same time, as
with bystander intervention, one could also understand whistle blowing in a
wider sense to include actions taken in order to prevent such incidents from
occurring in the first place or to change the antecedents of them, thus
‘stretching’ the notion of whistle blowing to include its
contributions to primary prevention.

Depending on the particular form they take, bystanders’ pro-social
actions may be understood in terms of any of these three forms of prevention.
Most attention to bystanders has focused on their action or inaction at or after
the time of specific violent incidents, thus locating bystander intervention
within secondary and tertiary forms of prevention. Bystanders can contribute to
secondary and tertiary prevention by acting to reverse progress towards violence
and to reduce its impact.

However, bystander intervention is also identified as a strategy of primary
prevention precisely because bystanders can take action to prevent initial
perpetration or victimisation. An emphasis on the primary prevention of
men’s violence against women directs attention to the ways in which
bystanders can further contribute to primary prevention by working to strengthen
the social conditions that work against violence
occurring.[206] It invites a focus
on the roles individuals can play, not just in responding directly to victims
and perpetrators, but in challenging the attitudes and norms, behaviours,
institutional environments and power inequalities which feed into violence
against women.

4.2 Behaviours in
bystander intervention

Approaches to bystander intervention in the field of violence prevention show
some terminological and conceptual diversity, if not vagueness. One area of
complexity is the nature of bystander interventions at various levels. As
explained above, bystanders may intervene productively at various points along
the spectrum from primary to secondary and tertiary prevention. It is widely
recognised that bystanders can intervene not only in violent behaviour but in
the wide range of other behaviours which sustain violent behaviour, such as
sexist and violence-supportive jokes and comments to domineering and controlling
behaviours by intimate partners in relationships. However, there has been
relatively little attention to what kinds of bystander behaviours are relevant
for these different forms of prevention and there has been little examination of
how such interventions may be mobilised and

Another area of conceptual diversity concerns whether bystander interventions
are seen as individual, collective or cultural. In research and programming
regarding ‘bystanders’ in the field of violence prevention,
bystanders typically are understood to be individual people and there is
relatively little framing of bystanders also in terms of collective or
institutional actors. At the same time, the notion of workplaces or
organisations as passive or prosocial bystanders is evident for example in
Powell’s review. [208] It is
taken for granted in violence prevention scholarship that men’s violence
against women is sustained in part by institutional and collective factors and
forces and that addressing these therefore is crucial to primary

Plausibly, one could stretch the concept of ‘bystander’ such that
it applied also to organisations and indeed to entire cultures. This
definitional move would have value in highlighting the roles of organisations
and cultures in allowing and sustaining such behaviours as domestic violence or
sexual harassment and their collective (and indeed legal) responsibilities to
change. However, applying the term ‘bystander’ to collective
entities only makes sense if there are ways in which such entities have agency
or the capacity to act. Indeed, the notion of the bystander risks losing its
value when applied to entities such as entire cultures where a collective
capacity to act is either diffuse or non-existent. Therefore, in this discussion
the term ‘bystander’ is reserved for individuals and for
institutional entities with some degree of collective agency such as specific
organisations or workplaces.

4.3 Existing strategies
involving bystander intervention

The growing prominence of bystander intervention is informed by an increasing
emphasis in violence prevention on the roles men in particular can play in
preventing men’s violence against
women.[210] This emphasis is
visible in both community-based violence prevention programming and state and
national plans for the prevention of violence against

Primary prevention strategies aimed at men typically emphasise that most men
do not use violence against women and that non-violent men can play a positive
role in building a world where such violence is unthinkable. In one typical
account for example, men have three roles to play: ‘Men can prevent
violence against women by not personally engaging in violence, by intervening
against the violence of other men and by addressing the causes of
violence.’[212] The second
and third of these effectively constitute forms of bystander intervention.
Bystander intervention (whether framed in these terms or not) then becomes an
obvious way in which to mobilise non-violent men’s actions to prevent
violence. Bystander approaches are evident particularly in the growing number of
anti-violence men’s groups and networks emerging in North America and

Efforts to engage men in the prevention of men’s violence against women
have used a wide variety of strategies, but the most common strategies involve
various forms of community education, defined broadly here to include
face-to-face educational groups and programs and communication and social
marketing.[214] Appeals to men as
bystanders to other men’s violence and violence-supportive behaviour are
evident in the curricula and content of a range of face-to-face and media-based
initiatives. In addition, some programs centre entirely on a bystander approach.
To give some examples, prevention efforts may address rape-supportive attitudes
and norms through public information and awareness campaigns in mass media or in
particular contexts such as sports and workplaces, education programs, or
‘edutainment’. They may address gender inequalities and patriarchal
power relations through policies promoting gender equality, skills training in
respectful relationships, or community development and the mobilisation of
women’s and men’s networks for

Bystander intervention strategies vary along at least two axes: (1) the
populations and settings to which they are addressed; and (2) the strategies
they use to effect change. In terms of targeted populations, the majority of
educational programs with a bystander intervention component are addressed to
children and young people and in school and university settings. Violence
prevention education is particularly well developed on college and university
campuses in the USA and a number of notable bystander intervention programs in
the US take place primarily in such settings, such as Bringing in the
Bystander[216] and The Men’s
Program.[217] Another prominent
bystanders program among young adults is the Mentors in Violence Prevention
(MVP) program among student athletes and student

Many violence prevention education programs among young people include
components intended to foster individuals’ prosocial bystander behaviour.
To give a prominent US example, the campaign organised by Men Can Stop Rape,
involves a multi-session education program involving ‘Men of
Strength’ clubs and a social marketing campaign focused on the theme,
‘My strength is not for hurting’. Similar Australian examples
include the Sexual Assault Prevention Program for Secondary
Schools[219] and Sex &

In addition, some violence prevention initiatives are focused particularly on
the creation of settings and contexts which are conducive to prevention,
including bystander intervention. A prominent and innovative Australian example
is the Australian Football League’s (AFL) Respect and Responsibility
strategy. The strategy includes the introduction of model anti-sexual harassment
and anti-sexual discrimination procedures across the AFL and its Clubs, the
development of organisational policies and procedures to ensure a safe,
supportive and inclusive environment for women, changes to AFL rules relating to
problematic or violent conduct, the education of players and other Club
officials, the dissemination of model policies and procedures at community club
level and a public education
program.[221] Respect and
Responsibility addresses bystander intervention in two ways: first, by promoting
intervention skills among the players and others it educates and second, by
establishing responsibility for preventing violent and disrespectful behaviours
directed towards women at the level of the sporting organisation as a whole.

In Australia, various other violence prevention programs are intended to
generate change at the level of particular settings or organisational contexts
(religious institutions, workplaces, schools and so
on).[222] It is unclear to what
extent such programs explicitly address individual bystanders to violence, but a
typical element in their efforts is encouraging participants to intervene in
others’ violence or violence-supportive behaviours. Some prevention
programs frame their efforts in terms of creating institutional environments and
cultures which are conducive to individuals’ bystander behaviours, such as
some schools programs addressing bullying and other forms of violence or

The second major axis along which bystander intervention programs vary is the
types of strategies used to effect change. The vast majority of existing
violence prevention initiatives involving or focusing on bystander intervention
rely on one or more of three streams of action to effect change: face-to-face
education, social marketing and communications and policy and law. This likely
reflects the character of violence prevention in general, with most efforts
relying on these strategies rather than other strategies such as community
development and mobilisation. Within these three streams of prevention, there is
further diversity in the actual processes used. Within face-to-face education,
existing strategies include:

  • Strategies to build individuals’ skills in behaving as active
    bystanders and their perceived capacity to do so (their self-efficacy);
  • The formation of groups or clubs of individuals who act as peer-based
    educators, mentors and supporters in local contexts such as schools and
  • ‘Buddy’ and befriending schemes;
  • Public commitments or pledges to speak up and act in relation to

social marketing and communications strategies, strategies include:

  • Media materials (print, radio, etc.) designed to encourage an orientation
    towards and involvement in pro-social bystander intervention in particular
    contexts such as a school or university;
  • Media materials directed to larger audiences across communities and

A third stream of prevention addresses itself to
collective and institutional contexts, as noted above, through policy and law.
While it often uses the strategies to encourage bystander intervention which
have already been discussed, it also relies on additional strategies

  • Policies and institutional commitments;
  • Legal and institutional sanctions (for example for workers, managers, or
    sports players);
  • Management plans and processes for particular institutional contexts (such
    as classrooms, among sports players and so on);
  • Law and legislation, including mandatory reporting and ‘bystander

violence prevention initiatives focused on bystander intervention use multiple
strategies, such as both face-to-face education and social marketing. For
example, Bringing in the Bystander above is complemented by a poster campaign
titled Know Your Power: Step In, Speak
Up.[226] Men Can Stop Rape’s
education program is complemented by its ‘My strength is not for
hurting’ media campaign, although the latter is focused on young
men’s own practices of consent and respect rather than their intervention
as a bystander.

4.4 The effectiveness of
existing strategies involving bystander intervention

In addressing bystander interventions in violence prevention and how they may
translate to workplace sexual harassment, it is important to consider the extent
to which strategies to date have been effective. A challenge in establishing
this is that evidence regarding the effectiveness of violence prevention efforts
in general is limited. Few interventions have been formally evaluated and
existing evaluations often are limited methodologically or

Nevertheless, there is a small but growing body of evidence demonstrating
that bystander intervention strategies can increase participants’
willingness to take action, their sense of efficacy in doing so and their
actual participation in prosocial bystander behaviour. Some evaluation studies
involve simple comparisons of participants’ pre- and post-program
attitudes and beliefs, while more sophisticated studies use experimental designs
in which participants are compared to a control group who did not undergo the
education program. Some studies also are methodologically more robust in using
standardised measures of impact, including longer term follow-up of
participants, or examining mediators of change. Some examples of evaluations
include the following:

  • US college students were trained in the Bringing in the Bystander program to
    recognise potentially problematic situations as they were developing and to
    intervene safely in disrespectful and sexually coercive interactions. Students
    showed significant increases in positive bystander behaviour and reductions in
    rape-supportive attitudes and beliefs compared to students who had not received
    the training.[228] In a further,
    pilot study without a control group, the program showed positive results among
    university students in fraternities and sororities and a men’s athletic
  • Young men who participated in the 16-week ‘Men of Strength’
    clubs organised by Men Can Stop Rape showed improvements in their self-reported
    likelihood of intervening to prevent violence against women. Pre- and
    post-program data showed that they were now more likely to intervene when: a
    young woman was touched inappropriately by her male peers; a man bragged about
    how far he got with his girlfriend on their last date; or when a young man
    called another man negative
  • In a non-experimental evaluation of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP)
    program among male and female high school students, after the program
    participants felt more capable of confronting harassing or disrespectful conduct
    and had greater knowledge of violence against women and reduced
  • College men who attended The Men’s Program reported a greater sense of
    bystander efficacy and willingness to intervene than a control group of men, as
    well as showing declines in rape myth

[196] See for example,
VicHealth, More than ready: Bystander action to prevent violence against
(2012). At (viewed 1 June 2012).

[197] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) (2011), p. 8.

[198] S McMahon, J L Postmus
and R A Koenick, ‘Conceptualizing the engaging bystander approach to
sexual violence prevention on college campuses’ (2011) 52(1) Journal of
College Student Development
, pp. 115-130.

[199] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (2011), p. 8-10.

[200] CDC (Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention) Sexual Violence Prevention: Beginning the
(2004), p. 1; A Harvey, C Garcia-Moreno and A Butchart, Primary
Prevention of Intimate-partner Violence and Sexual Violence
, background paper for WHO Expert Meeting (2007), p. 5.

[201] This summary combines and
modifies the accounts given by the CDC (2004: 3) and Chamberlain (2008:
[202] T Cornelius and N
Resseguie, ‘Primary and secondary prevention programs for dating violence:
a review of the literature’ (2006) 12 Aggression and Violent
, p. 366.

[203] L Chamberlain, A
Prevention Primer for Domestic Violence: Terminology, Tools and the Public
Health Approach
, The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against
Women (2008).

[204] V Foshee, K Bauman, X
Arriaga, R Helms, G Koch and G Linder, ‘An evaluation of safe dates, an
adolescent dating violence prevention program’ (1998) 88 American
Journal of Public Health
, pp. 45.

[205] L Chamberlain, A
Prevention Primer for Domestic Violence: Terminology, Tools and the Public
Health Approach
, The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against
Women (2008).

[206] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) (2011), p. 8.

[207] S McMahon, J L Postmus
and R A Koenick, ‘Conceptualizing the engaging bystander approach to
sexual violence prevention on college campuses’ (2011) 52(1) Journal of
College Student Development
, pp. 118.

[208] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) (2011), p. 8.

[209] M Flood, Background
document for Preventing Violence Before It Occurs: A framework and background
paper to guide the primary prevention of violence against women in Victoria
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, (2007).

[210] M Flood, ‘Involving
men in efforts to end violence against women’ (2011) 14(3) Men and

[211] M Flood, Where Men
Stand: Men’s roles in ending violence against women
, White Ribbon
Prevention Research Series, No. 2, (2010), pp. 30-31.

[212] A Berkowitz, Working
With Men to Prevent Violence Against Women: An Overview. (Part One)
National Resource Centre on Domestic Violence (2004), p. 2.

[213] E Casey and T Lindhorst,
‘Toward a multi-level, ecological approach to the primary prevention of
sexual assault: prevention in peer and community contexts’ (2009) 10(2) Trauma, Violence & Abuse, p. 107. See also White Ribbon –
Australia’s Campaign to Stop violence Agaisnt Women. At (viewed
1 June 2012). .

[214] M Flood, ‘Involving
men in efforts to end violence against women’ (2011) 14(3) Men and

[215] A Harvey, C Garcia-Moreno
and A Butchart, Primary Prevention of Intimate-partner Violence and Sexual
Background Paper for WHO Expert Meeting (2007).

[216] V L Banyard, E G Plante
and M Moynihan, ‘Bystander education: bringing a broader community
perspective to sexual violence prevention’ (2004) 32(1) Journal of
Community Psychology
, pp. 61-79.

[217] J Foubert, The
Men’s Program: How To Successfully Lower Men’s Likelihood of
. (2nd ed, 2000).

[218] J Katz, Mentors in
violence prevention: Gender violence prevention education and training. Website
available at

[219] CASA House, Evaluation
of the CASA House Sexual Assault Prevention Program for Secondary Schools,
Centre Against Sexual Assault (2008).

[220] M Carmody, Sex &
Ethics: Young People and Ethical Sex
(2008); M Carmody, Sex & Ethics:
The Sexual Ethics Education Program for Young People

[221] AFL (Australian Football
League), Respect & Responsibility: Creating a safe and inclusive
environment for women at all levels of Australian Football

[222] M Flood, Background
document for Preventing Violence Before It Occurs: A framework and background
paper to guide the primary prevention of violence against women in Victoria
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, (2007).

[223] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) (2011), p. 25-26.

[224] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) (2011), p. 23-28.

[225] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) (2011), p. 26-31.

[226] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) (2011), p. 36-37.

[227] M Flood, L Fergus and M
Heenan, Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and
respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools
Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria,
(2009), pp. 19-21.

[228] V L Banyard, M M Moynihan
and E G Plante, ‘Sexual violence prevention through bystander education:
an experimental evaluation’ (2007) 35(4) Journal of Community
, pp. 463-481.

[229] M Moynihan and V Banyard,
‘Community responsibility for preventing sexual violence: a pilot with
campus Greeks and intercollegiate athletes’ (2008) 36(1) Journal of
Prevention and Intervention in the Community
, pp. 23-38.

[230] S Hawkins, Evaluation
Findings – Men of Strength Club 2004-2005,
Washington DC, Men Can Stop
Rape (2005). At http://www. (Viewed 2 April
2007), pp. 8-10.

[231] K Ward, MVP:
Evaluation 1999-2000

[232] J Langhinrichsen-Rohling,
J Foubert H Brasfield, B Hill and S Shelley-Tremblay, ‘The Men’s
Program: does it impact college men’s self-reported bystander efficacy and
willingness to intervene?’ (2011) 17(6) Violence Against Women, pp.