How to step in when you see someone experiencing unwanted pressure or harassment

Reading Time: 8 minutes Learn what you can do if you see someone experiencing unwanted pressure or harassment. Here are key strategies for bystander intervention.

4 easy ways to set positive standards in your online world

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Whether we’re taking an online class, catching up with friends, reading the news, checking our favorite Reddit thread, or watching videos of baby pandas sneezing, we all spend a lot of time online. Our online communities are full of opportunities for connection, sharing, and positivity, but sometimes we may encounter negativity and downright nastiness, to put it mildly.

We can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. Disrespect and harassment are less likely when digital spaces reflect our values. For example, building supportive communities makes sexual harassment and violence less likely. Creating respectful spaces online is a critical part of these efforts. So how do we make the online communities we participate in feel more positive, especially in an era where we might feel particularly divided? And how do we respond when we see negative posts in a group page we’re in charge of? Or when we notice a hurtful comment in a community we participate in?

Whether you have a leadership role in an online space or you’re just a casual participant, there’s plenty you can do to help keep things positive.

Here’s how to use your role to create the online space you want

If you create, manage, or moderate an online space, you have a key role to play in building a supportive community. But being a member matters just as much. You get to model and shape the online community you participate in. Here’s a four-step guide to making it work—no matter your role.

1. Define your goals

For leaders

Whether you’re starting a new group or taking over an existing one, start by reflecting on your goals.

Consider the following questions:

  • If this group is new, why are you starting it? If you’re taking over an existing page, what are the group’s shared goals?
  • How do you want members to experience the group?
  • What would be the best possible version of this group?

It’s essential to define your goals even if your group is small and informal. For example: Imagine that you create a GroupMe for the people living on your res hall floor. The following goals could take the group in three very different directions and would call for different leadership:

  • Planning large parties for everyone in the hall
  • Upholding community standards (e.g., reminding people to be quiet during finals)
  • Meeting new people

For members

Goals matter for members too. In fact, knowing what they are and communicating them effectively sets the tone for the rest of the group. This doesn’t have to be formal. It’s about having a shared purpose.

Think about this: If you share a group chat with your friends from high school, what’s your purpose for doing so? How can you make sure others are on board? Your personal goal might be to stay in touch while building stronger connections with everyone. What are some small steps you can take to reach this goal?

  • Model what you’re looking for by offering it first: Share updates about your life and ask others to do the same.
  • Open participation: Invite other people to participate and pull quiet, shy, or disengaged people into the conversation.
  • Make concrete plans: Suggest group activities or meet-ups.

By actively engaging in the group in a positive way, you’re setting an example for other members. A significant body of research shows that when we believe our peers expect us to behave a certain way, we’re more likely to behave that way (this is called social norms theory). This means that when we’re positive and don’t tolerate harmful behavior in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.

work station with laptop and devices

2. Create & communicate guidelines

For leaders

Explicitly communicate your expectations. People are surprisingly attentive to group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.

“It’s important that the standard be set right from the beginning that mistreatment of any kind will not be tolerated,” says Dr. Justin Patchin, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

How you can put this into practice

Let’s say you take over the Facebook page of a campus multicultural center with several hundred members. How might you create guidelines for the group?

HEADING: Sample group guidelines. 1) focus on your goals: we can use this group to share information about events in the multicultural center, to welcome first-year students, and to stay in touch with alumni. 2) Explain what content is acceptable: please use respectful language and stay on topic comments 3) Say how you will handle rule violations: comments in violation of these policies will be deleted 4) Choose other moderators to share the moderation process: if you have concerns about group content, message a moderator. FOOTER: Make your guidelines visible by posting them prominently. Facebook's "pinning" feature is useful for this.

It’s also important to create guidelines for informal groups. If you created a small Facebook group for your friends in the multicultural center, you could casually communicate your expectations. Try statements like:

  • “Let’s use this group to stay in touch over the summer!”
  • “If anyone has questions about this group, I’m happy to help out.”

For members

Point out behaviors that positively reinforce your group standards and support the community guidelines—you can keep it casual. This sets the expectation that people will interact in positive ways. Try out statements such as, “It’s awesome how we can disagree without things getting ugly.”

3. Respond if people fall short of your expectations

For leaders

It’s easiest to take action at the first sign of disrespect or someone behaving outside of the group guidelines. Don’t wait for problems to escalate before you step in.

Just like in social situations or in the classroom, you can practice bystander intervention by stepping in to address disrespect and prevent harm. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.

What this might look like

Imagine that you’re the moderator of an online study group. You all use the group to share study tips, ask questions, and set up times to work together. One day, the posts start to stray from the class material to people complaining about the course and insulting the professor’s looks. How do you handle it?

Try privately messaging the people involved, or leave a comment of your own. Assuming good intent can make these conversations easier. For example:

Private messages

  • “You probably don’t mean any harm, but your comments came off negatively.”
  • “Please refer to the community guidelines.”

Comments to redirect the group

  • “We have that big test coming up, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • “Let’s stick to the focus of this group.”

For members

It’s not just the leader’s responsibility to uphold community standards; it’s on you as a community member to redirect group members who fall short of your goals. It can be as easy as asking a different question.

Here’s how you might step in as a community member in the study group scenario:

  • Distract the group with a question that relates to the original goal (e.g., post a question about the homework).
  • Redirect the group: “We have to get through this critical analysis, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • Find an ally: Talk to a friend in the group about the behavior and come up with a plan for approaching it as a team.
  • Go undercover: Anonymously post a comment saying the behavior is unacceptable.
  • Ask for help: Ask a moderator to reiterate the group values—or establish them if there aren’t any.

serious woman using tablet

4. Intervene if the situation escalates

For leaders

What can you do if serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful behavior emerges in an online space that you manage?

For example, imagine you’re managing a student publication’s website. Debate in the comments section is usually respectful. One day, a regular commenter calls another a slur. Here are four options for how to intervene:

1) Delete the harmful content, and consider banning the commenter.

“Delete the person whose posts are negative. By proactively doing this, [you show] that [you] have had enough and will not engage in their negative and hurtful behaviors.”
—Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization

“If [people] see hurtful posts quickly removed and frequent violators banned, this will set the tone that online abuse is not allowed here.”
—Dr. Patchin

2) Reach out to the people who were targeted.

Write to the targeted commenter. Let them know that you have deleted the content, you support them, and offer to direct them to university resources.

3) Report the incident—if the targeted person wishes that you do so.

Consider reporting the behavior to a campus official, such as a dean. Check with the person who was targeted to ask for their permission first.

4) Reiterate your group expectations.

After you have dealt with the harm, work with other members of the publication team to refocus on your core goals.

For members

What if you see this happening in an online community you’re a part of? As an active member of the community, stepping in reinforces the standards of the whole group and sends the message that this behavior isn’t tolerated here. Here’s how to do it:

  • If the behavior affects someone you know, privately reach out and express support. Try language such as, “That was messed up. Is there anything I can do?”
  • Consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
  • Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf. If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who has been wronged, this isn’t a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.

How students are putting there practices into action

“At the beginning of the year, we have a discussion about what’s appropriate to post and what isn’t. If something negative is posted, it’s removed, and we have a discussion with the person who posted.”
—Jeanette A., fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania

“It’s not a controversial forum. We have rules, but we’re relaxed and work together in a group rather than talk about conflicting ideas.”
—Eliot A., recent graduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver

“I create a safe and open space where anyone is willing to make complaints, share their words, or explain their situation. I make it a place where anyone can feel at home.” —Luke M., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University“I monitor the page though my manager app that I’ve installed on my phone. I posted guidelines and must approve all comments and posts before they’re allowed to be posted. If someone complains about harassment or being messaged, I’ll check out the situation, take proper steps to stop it, and prevent it in the future.”
—Angel P., fourth-year undergraduate, Governors State University, Illinois

“Anything that’s posted that’s disrespectful is deleted and that person is warned through a personal message. If they continue, they’re removed from the page.”
—Leah H., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

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Article sources

Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization.

Justin Patchin, PhD, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

Awwad, H. (2017, June 1). Virtual abuse? How to build a positive online community. Student Health 101. Retrieved from https://publicsite.readsh101.net/virtual-abuse/

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology32(1), 61–79.

Bazelon, E. (2013). Sticks and stones: Defeating the culture of bullying and rediscovering the power of character and empathy. Random House Incorporated.

Brody, N., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). Bystander intervention in cyberbullying. Communication Monographs83(1), 94–119.

Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Lescovec, J. (2017). Anyone can become a troll: Causes of trolling behavior in online discussions. CSCW ’17: Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, 1217–1230. Retrieved from https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2998181.2998213

Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201–234.

Jones, L. M., Mitchell, K. J., & Turner, H. A. (2015). Victim reports of bystander reactions to in-person and online peer harassment: A national survey of adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(12), 2308–2320.

LaMorte, W. W. (2016). Social norms theory. Boston University. Retrieved from https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories7.html

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., et al. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites: How American teens navigate the new world of “digital citizenship.” Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Matias, J. N. (2016, October 8). Posting rules in online discussions prevents problems and increases participation. Civil Servant. Retrieved from https://civilservant.io/moderation_experiment_r_science_rule_posting.html

Perkins, H. W., Craig, D. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations14(5), 703–722.

Ren, Y., Kraut, R., Kiesler, S., & Resnick, P. (2012). Encouraging commitment in online communities. Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design, 77–124.

Bystander intervention goes professional: 4 tips for stepping in on the job

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Here’s something most of us know, and the research backs up: Small actions make a big difference, especially when it comes to preventing sexual harassment and assault. If we see something that doesn’t feel right, we can act. This is bystander intervention: stepping in to reinforce our community values and prevent harm when we see something that looks like disrespect or pressure. Many of us already do this, like when we disrupt a conversation that seems uncomfortable or speak up when people make hurtful comments.

Often, when we think about sexual misconduct and bystander intervention, we’re thinking about intervening in social situations, such as on the dance floor, at a party, or in a relationship. But what happens when you see this happening at your internship, on the job, or at your workplace?

While we might know that it’s equally important to take action in the workplace, we might not exactly know how to do it, especially if we’re dealing with uneven power dynamics—like a boss who’s making crude comments to an employee or an established colleague taking advantage of a new intern. The good news? The basics, which you already know, work here too.

“The skills and strategies that work in social contexts can often be applied to other settings, including professional contexts such as a summer internship or other job,” says Laura Santacrose, assistant director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell University in New York, who developed Cornell’s “Intervene” project, a bystander intervention initiative for students. The knowledge and confidence that we’ve gained from intervening in other contexts make a difference. Knowing we have the skills to step in makes us more likely to do so, according to a 2014 study of college students in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Besides reinforcing your own personal values, you’re also setting the bar high for the rest of the organization. And that’s important. “Employers hope to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all employees. A safe and inclusive environment fosters teamwork among colleagues, greater workplace satisfaction, and higher levels of innovation and creativity on the job. Employees who are able to facilitate such an environment are highly valued by both their employers and by their clients,” says Jeanine Dames, director of the Office of Career Strategy at Yale University in Connecticut.

Happy professional girl

So how do you do it?

Before you start, consider risk

Whenever we intervene, it’s critical to consider the potential risks involved and to make a safe plan. The power dynamics between supervisors and employees may make it difficult to intervene directly, so consider subtle or indirect actions. “There may be additional supports in a professional setting that will make an intervention easier [than in a social situation], including support from a human resources department,” says Santacrose.

Start here: Stepping in on the job

1. Pay attention to what’s happening

  • Overhear a sexist comment about the new hire’s cleavage? See a colleague’s uncomfortable face when he interacts with his overly handsy boss? Pay attention to the patterns.
  • Ask yourself: How might this situation impact the individuals involved? The department or team? The broader community of the organization or company?

2. Decide: Should someone step in? And who should that someone be?

  • Trust your instincts. It’s OK to decide to do something even if you aren’t sure there’s a problem.
  • Remember that “doing something” might be shooting a quick email to human resources (HR) or chatting briefly with your coworkers to see if they’re noticing it too. Ask your fellow employees or supervisors what they’re seeing or how they might deal with the situation. HR representatives may be particularly helpful. It’s their job to make sure that the workplace is safe and respectful, so they want to know when something seems off.

3. Make a plan

  • There are usually multiple ways to intervene. Play to your strengths. Not sure what those are? Take our bystander quiz here to learn more about your stepping-in style. Remember that interventions don’t have to be dramatic to be effective.
  • Pay attention to power dynamics. If you are worried about the consequences of intervening, consider confidentially reporting the problem to HR.

4. Make your move: Intervene and follow up

  • After you’ve intervened, follow up with the person being targeted or your colleagues.
  • Think about what the organization could do to make positive outcomes more likely in the future. What structural changes would help? Can you review company policies and suggest updates? Are there employee training options that can help set community standards? Make suggestions and be willing to help put them into place if it’s an option.

How would you respond?

Now that you know the basics, or at least can refer back to them, let’s get into some examples. Use the following scenarios to think about possible intervention strategies. What strategies would you choose?

Scenario 1: Inappropriate jokes

Imagine that you share an office space with several other summer interns. One of the interns, Taylor, often makes sexual jokes and suggestive comments. You and the other interns find the jokes annoying, but one of the interns, Sam, looks upset and starts to avoid the space.

  • Taylor is distracting everyone from work.
  • Sam might worry that others think Taylor’s jokes are OK.
  • Sam’s job performance could suffer.
  • Other interns’ job performance could suffer.
  • Taylor might continue this behavior in other workplaces, which could continue to hurt people—and damage Taylor’s job prospects.

  • Don’t laugh at the jokes. An awkward silence can speak volumes.
  • Privately check in with Taylor. “You probably mean well, but those jokes make you seem unprofessional.”
  • Privately check in with Sam. “You seemed a little bit uncomfortable with Taylor’s jokes. Are you OK?”
  • Talk to a supervisor. Suggest that supervisors discuss appropriate workplace conduct with new interns now and in the future.
  • Consider structural changes that can prevent this problem from happening again. Proactively start positive, professional conversations in the shared workspace. This sets a good example and minimizes chances for inappropriate conversations to begin.
  • Student story: “I politely interrupted the situation by asking a work-related question to cause a distraction and interruption. Then I privately talked to my co-worker at a later time.”
    Rebecca B., fourth-year undergraduate, Rochester Community and Technical College, Minnesota

Scenario 2: Unfair treatment

Imagine that you have a part-time campus job in a lab. The professor in charge of the lab chooses a graduate student, Riley, to lead a project. A few weeks ago, Riley asked one of your coworkers, Casey, out on a date. Casey said no. Since then, Riley seems to be treating Casey differently from the other lab members. Riley often dismisses Casey’s comments in meetings and assigns all the menial jobs to Casey.

  • The professor might think that Casey is not a good employee.
  • The rest of the lab members are missing out on Casey’s contributions.
  • Other lab members might feel like they must always agree with Riley or face retaliation.
  • Riley is behaving unprofessionally, which could hurt Riley’s future job prospects.

  • Validate Casey’s contributions. If Riley dismisses one of Casey’s comments, say, “I actually thought that was a really good point.” Similarly, volunteer to do the menial jobs yourself.
  • Check in with Casey. Tell Casey that you’ve noticed the problem and are available to help. Providing emotional support after an incident of harassment is the most common kind of workplace bystander intervention, according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Human Resources Management.
  • Express your concerns with the professor supervising the lab.
  • Consider reaching out to an official such as a Title IX coordinator or HR representative.
  • Propose structural changes to ensure everyone’s voices are heard and menial jobs are fairly distributed. For example, you could suggest that everyone takes turns performing the less-desirable tasks using a chart that’s visible in the lab.
  • Student story: “I told my manager right away. The manager handled it from there.”
    Kassandra J., first-year graduate student, Texas Woman’s University

Scenario 3: Callouts on appearance

Imagine that you have a part-time job. Your supervisor makes small talk with employees as you arrive in the morning. Topics range from sports to the weather, but on several occasions, your supervisor has made comments about the appearance of one employee, Kai, such as, “You look gorgeous today!” and “That shirt looks great on you!” Your supervisor does not comment on other employees’ appearances.

  • This behavior creates a workplace that emphasizes people’s appearance, perhaps implying that their looks matter more than their ideas.
  • Kai may feel uncomfortable at work and worry about what the manager expects.
  • Other employees might worry that they will be treated differently based on appearance too.

  • Check in with Kai and express concern about the comments.
  • Subtly steer conversations back to appropriate topics.
  • Speak to another employee and ask for advice.
  • Talk to an HR representative. They may be able to take action without revealing your identity.

See? Your bystander skills just went pro. When you break it down like this, intervening becomes a little easier, which means your workplace can be just as supportive of a community as your campus is. So remember: Your bystander skills can work in any context, at any time.

Want more bystander info? Check out Cornell University’s bystander initiative, “Intervene.” This interactive training, useful for students of all kinds, offers concrete strategies for intervening in a wide range of social, academic, and professional settings.

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

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Article sources

Jeanine Dames, JD, director of office of career strategy, Yale University, Connecticut.

Laura Santacrose, MPH, assistant director, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, Cornell University, New York.

Banyard, V. L. (2011). Who will help prevent sexual violence: Creating an ecological model of bystander intervention. Psychology of Violence1(3), 216–229.

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology32(1), 61–79.

Bennett, S., Banyard, V. L., & Garnhart, L. (2014). To act or not to act, that is the question? Barriers and facilitators of bystander intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(3), 476–496.

Bowes-Sperry, L., & O’Leary-Kelly, A. M. (2005). To act or not to act: The dilemma faced by sexual harassment observers. Academy of Management Review30(2), 288–306.

Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical erotics: Reconceptualizing anti-rape education. Sexualities8(4), 465–480.

Garcia, S. M., Weaver, K., Moskowitz, G. B., & Darley, J. M. (2002). Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology83(4), 843–853.

McDonald, P., Charlesworth, S., & Graham, T. (2016). Action or inaction: Bystander intervention in workplace sexual harassment. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(5), 548–566.

McMahon, S., & Banyard, V. L. (2012). When can I help? A conceptual framework for the prevention of sexual violence through bystander intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse13(1), 3–14.

Rayner, C., & Bowes-Sperry, L. (2008, June). Mobilizing bystanders to intervene in workplace bullying. In The 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying.

With someone who drank too much? How you can help

Reading Time: 10 minutes Follow these four steps if you’re with someone who drank too much, and when in doubt call 911.

How you can change the sexual culture on your campus—and why that matters

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We all want campuses without sexual violence, but it can be hard to know where to start. In-the-moment strategies like bystander intervention are powerful tools to make our communities safer, but how can we proactively build cultures in which everyone feels safe and respected?

Sexual violence doesn’t come out of nowhere: It emerges from everyday patterns of disrespect and pressure. In any culture that normalizes low-level disrespect, it’s harder to spot coercion and force. What’s low-level disrespect? It’s when your female classmate is objectified because of the length of her skirt. Or that time your roommate hooked up with someone he wasn’t really into because “that’s what guys are supposed to do.” It’s every time someone makes a rape joke—and every time someone laughs. It contributes to a culture of disrespect, and a culture of disrespect provides camouflage for violence. It functions as “the cultural scaffolding” of sexual assault, wrote Dr. Nicola Gavey, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, in her book Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape (Routledge, 2005).

In contrast, when we expect respect and mutuality, it’s much easier to spot behaviors that don’t fit that norm. By challenging casual disrespect when we see it—and setting up conversations so that disrespect doesn’t happen in the first place—we can build communities where everyone expects to be treated well.

This means that even small actions can have a big impact in building a safe, supportive campus culture. By ensuring that all of our conversations about romance, sex, and social life are respectful, we can help to dismantle “the cultural scaffolding” of assault. And that starts with you—your friends and your conversations. Here’s how to make sure those convos are building the community you want.

Ask better questions

Two girls walking and talking

Too often, our casual conversations set the expectation that everyone is doing the same things when it comes to romance and sex. If your crew gets together for brunch on Sunday, is everyone expected to share stories about hookups the night before? Conversations like this create “ambient pressure”: a feeling that you must act a certain way in order to fit in. Ambient pressure is a problem in its own right, and also makes interpersonal pressure easier by suggesting that people’s desires aren’t important.

If your friends regularly have conversations like this, you can help shift them in a more positive direction. Start by asking better questions.

Two-column, four-row chart displaying alternative options for discussing evening plans with friends. Left column includes four questions students might ask in casual conversations with friends labeled “instead of this.” Right column includes four different ways to ask those questions that make less assumptions labeled “try this.” Row 1: Instead of “Did you hook up?” Try “How was your night?” Row 2: Instead of “How far did you get?” Try “Did you enjoy hanging out with her?” Row 3: Instead of “Are you going out tonight?” Try “What are your plans later?” Row 4: Instead of “Is he hot?” Try “What do you like about him?”

These questions reduce ambient pressure by removing some of the assumptions about what people are doing and how they’re talking about it. Bonus points for making your conversations more interesting and less rom com.   

Tell different stories

Try sharing stories of times when things went well in unexpected or nontraditional ways, like when you met someone at a party and ended the night talking Shakespeare sonnets and downing pizza instead of hooking up. There are a number of dangerous myths about campus sexual culture, such as the false belief that everyone wants to be having more sex than they’re currently having, that no one wants to get into anything serious because everyone is looking for hookups, that “casual” sexual encounters can’t be intimate, and so on.

Sharing diverse experiences and stories is a powerful way of disrupting these myths and offering more positive alternatives. If you had a great Saturday night binge-watching House of Cards with your roommate, then say so!

Positive change involves people inspiring each other—and that starts with telling different stories. In a study, college students who reported drinking heavily received info on how much their peers were actually drinking, and spoiler alert, it was less than they thought. Six weeks later, the heavy drinkers were consuming less alcohol and drinking less often, according to The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2000). This is an example of how social norms work: Expectations about how we should act actually affect how we do act. Once we realize that others are doing things differently, we adjust ourselves accordingly. This can work in your favor when it comes to convos about hookups: By demonstrating that there are many positive, respectful ways to be social, you can challenge social norms that give rise to pressure.

Figure out what matters to you—and live it

Several hands raised up together

In order to build a culture that reflects your values, you first need to figure out what those are. “Communities feel more connected and supportive when the people in them have a clear idea of what they want their culture to be like and are actively working toward that ideal,” wrote Chip Heath of Stanford University and Dan Heath of Duke University in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Business, 2010), which examines individual, organizational, and social transformations.

Ask your communities (i.e., the clubs you’re in, the groups you belong to, and the friends you spend your time with) what they see as their shared goals. This doesn’t have to be scary or even formal; having an awesome group of people to lean on is a legit goal. When we’re all focused on a positive value—like genuine friendship, interdependence, or mutual trust—it’s easier to ensure that everyone is treated well. “Identifying shared community values is a critical step in building safe, supportive communities in which everyone can thrive,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs and lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University in Connecticut.

Think about what you want from your interactions

It also helps to think about what you want from any given interaction, whether it’s meeting up with a couple of friends at your place or hosting a party. When we’re actively thinking about what we want out of our social events, we can ensure that they reflect and support what matters to us.

  • Why are you hosting this event or going to this hangout? What do you want from it?
  • What are you hoping to get out of it? What are you hoping others will get out of it? Do you want to meet new friends, to relax with a small group, or to try something new?
  • What vibe do you want? Intimate, classy, chill, or something else?
  • Now that the big stuff is sorted, how will you make sure your goals are met? Think about everything from the theme to the space, music, food and drinks, invites, etc.
  • What options are there? What choices do you or others have about what to wear, drink, and do?

By mindfully planning and attending events that reflect our values, we can create and support spaces without ambient pressure, and where interpersonal pressure stands out. Well-planned events with lots of options also mean more fun for the people coming and less stress for the people planning. That’s a win.

The power of small change

It all comes down to this—a culture in which respect is the norm is our most effective protection against sexual assault. And respect starts small. By making subtle changes to our everyday conversations and in our everyday interactions, we can work together to build a community where everyone can thrive. So let’s do that.

[school_resource sh101resources=’no’ category=’mobileapp,counselingservices, healthservices, wellnesspromotion, titleix, suicideprevention, residentlife, campusministry, studentservices, studentlife, studentlife, titleix’] Get help or find out more

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard: Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Broadway Business, 2010

Sexual empowerment webinars & info: Amy Jo Goddard

What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety: Jaclyn Friedman
Seal Press, 2011

Step Up! intervention program: University of Arizona

Communication and Consent Educators program: Yale University

Find local services and other resources: NotAlone.gov

[survey_plugin] Article sources

Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, Connecticut.

Armstrong, E. A., Hamilton, L., & England, P. (2010). Is hooking up bad for young women? Contexts, 9(3), 22–27.

Borsari, B., & Carey, K. B. (2000). Effects of a brief motivational intervention with college student drinkers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(4), 728–733.

Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical erotics: Reconceptualizing anti-rape education. Sexualities, 8(4), 465–480.

Gavey, N. (2005). Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. London and New York: Routledge.

Gavey, N., & Senn, C. Y. (2014). Sexuality and sexual violence. In D. L. Tolman & L. M. Diamond (Eds.) APA Handbook on Sexuality and Psychology: Vol. 1. Person-Based Approaches (pp. 339–382). Washington, DC: APA Press.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway Books.

Strang, E., & Peterson, Z. D. (2013). The relationships among perceived peer acceptance of sexual aggression, punishment certainty, and sexually aggressive behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(18), 3369–3385.

Wade, L., & Heldman, C. (2012). Hooking up and opting out. In L. Carpenter & J. DeLamater (Eds.) Sex for Life: From Virginity to Viagra, How Sexuality Changes Throughout Our Lives, (pp. 129–145). New York: NYU Press.

Wetherill, R. R., Neal, D. J., & Fromme, K. (2010). Parents, peers, and sexual values influence sexual behavior during the transition to college. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(3), 682–694.