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.

Why is everyone talking about sexual assault on campus?

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The evidence is clear: Sexual assault and coercion are common on campuses, and have been for decades. Why have we taken so long to see it?

In part, because most sexual assault does not look as we might expect it to. We may struggle with the notion of our classmate as a sexual predator, or alcohol as a weapon. Acts of sexual violence and coercion can be camouflaged by the college party scene and our own beliefs about sexual behavior. Many campus survivors resist the terms “sexual assault,” “rape,” and “victim,” even while describing experiences that meet those definitions.

In a random survey of more than 1,000 current or recent students, 25 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported at least one nonconsensual sexual experience in college, according to the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation in 2015. Disabled, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face a higher-than-average risk, a White House report concluded in 2014.

Whatever we call sexual assault, it can have serious, long-term consequences for survivors’ academic success and physical and emotional health. That’s why colleges and the federal government are working to establish safer campuses for all.

Is it true that most men are not violent?

Most men are not violent, sexually or otherwise, says Corey Ingram, MSW, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Violence Intervention & Prevention program at the University of South Carolina.

According to Ingram’s analysis of multiple studies, it is likely that

  • 92–94 percent of men do not commit sexual assault.
  • 82–87 percent of men do not commit acts of interpersonal violence.

Many male students are speaking up and taking action to interrupt sexual violence, and many others want to learn how. Male advocates are active in organizations such as Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and Men Can Stop Rape, and on some campuses.

What attitudes and beliefs play a role?

Sexual assault within specific communities is often associated with:

  • Social norms that make it harder to speak up in defense of oneself or others; e.g., a double sexual standard that judges people differently for sexual activity.
  • A party culture that links alcohol with expectations of sex.

On and off campus, certain groups, organizations, and communities are associated with harassment and exploitation, including sexual violence. “What we may notice is a harsh group culture that accepts mockery even when it becomes harmful, and targets people who are seen as lower status, like women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and disabled people,” says Lee Scriggins, an expert in sexual assault education at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In isolation, any single instance may seem insignificant, but it is part of a continuum of coercion that starts with sexual comments and judgments.

On campuses, sexual assault has been associated with some fraternities and athletics teams. However, similar group dynamics manifest in other communities within and beyond college. Such groups may be social, political, athletic, or professional, and tend to share the following characteristics, says Scriggins:

  • High-status organizations with strong internal hierarchies
  • Strong group identity and boundaries (the sense of insider and outsider)
  • Higher than average similarity among members
  • A feeling of being somewhat apart from society and embattled
  • Secret traditions
  • Bonding through drinking

How does alcohol come into it?

Alcohol does not cause sexual assault; perpetrators do. Nevertheless, on campuses, alcohol use and sexual assault are closely connected. Here’s why:

  • Alcohol can be a weapon: Campus sexual aggressors may deliberately get their targets drunk; intoxicated victims may be less able to evade assault and easier to blame, according to Dr. David Lisak.
  • People who drink use more aggression: The amount of alcohol that perpetrators consume is related to how much aggression they use and to the type of sexual assault they commit, a study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2003) suggests.
  • Alcohol clouds social awareness: Consuming alcohol may make it harder to pick up on signs of threat and risk, researchers say (Journal of Family Violence, 2007).

And here are the numbers:

  • Every year, 97,000 students aged 18–24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault, suggests a 2009 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
  • Every year, more than 100,000 students aged 18–24 may be too intoxicated to know whether or not they consented to sex (CDC, 2002).
  • Rape is more common on campuses that have higher rates of heavy drinking, according to a 2004 study of 119 schools (Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs).
  • Most incapacitated sexual assaults of students occur at parties, according to the National Institute of Justice (2008).

For more on alcohol and sexual assault, see Student Health 101, October 2015.

How do campus social dynamics contribute?

“Self-blame and victim-blaming, including by women of other women, are surprisingly prevalent on campuses,” says Tara Schuster, coordinator of health promotion at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

In part, this reflects a mistaken belief that many accusations of sexual assault are false. “David Lisak’s research shows that only about 2–10 percent of all reported rapes are fabricated. Students (men and women alike) often think this number is much higher,” says Schuster.

  • Among college students, demeaning attitudes toward women are associated with rape myths and sexual aggression, according to a 2004 study in Violence Against Women.
  • In a study involving 205 college athletes, most said they did not accept rape myths, yet many participants misunderstood consent, believed in “accidental” and fabricated rape, and thought that women provoke rape (Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 2007).
  • The negative judgment of women for being sexually active helps explain why perpetrators target first-year students, who are seen as “fresh” and “clean,” according to a 2012 analysis in the Journal of College and Character.

Is sexual assault deliberate?

Sexual assaults on campus are deliberate and planned, according to Dr. David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant whose research has been pivotal in understanding sexual violence on and off campus. These acts are not “misunderstandings.”

  • Perpetrators target vulnerable students; for example, those who are younger and new to college, less experienced with alcohol, and eager to fit in, Dr. Lisak found.
  • Perpetrators target people they know; In 85–90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women, the survivor knew the attacker; about half occurred on a date, according to the National Institute of Justice (2008).

The perp mindset
Certain attitudes are more common among sexual aggressors than in the general population:

  • Reduced empathy toward others (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1995)
  • Hostility toward women and a belief in rape myths (e.g., that victims are to blame) (Violence Against Women, 2004; Journal of Family Violence, 2004).

Stereotypically “male” attitudes and behaviors, including toughness and violence (Sex Abuse, 1996).

How much of a difference can I make?

We are all part of this community and we all experience opportunities to do and say the right thing. Most of us want to help others. Nevertheless, sometimes we may feel conflicted: Is this really my business? Will it be awkward if I say something and it turns out he doesn’t need my help after all?

Bystander intervention training aims to empower us to act on our helping instincts. We probably can’t change perpetrators’ motives, but we can create an environment in which it’s harder for them to act on their aggressive intentions and easier for us to hold them accountable.

Active bystanders do any or all of the following:

  • Check our own ideas and assumptions, so that we are not part of the problem.
  • Resist behaviors that support sexual violence, such as demeaning language and victim-blaming.
  • Disrupt risky situations that may precede an assault; intervention may be indirect (e.g., turning the lights on to expose and disrupt a potentially threatening scenario) or direct (e.g., telling an aggressor to back off, or offering the targeted person an easy out).
  • Support a survivor following an assault.

Students who are trained in bystander intervention are more confident in their ability to prevent assault, research shows.

How many perpetrators are involved?

In the last 15 years, research has shown that most sexual assaults on campuses are carried out by a relatively small number of aggressors. This is similar to other settings, such as in the US Navy.

For example, in a groundbreaking study involving 1,900 male university students, 120 men (1 in 16) self-reported actions that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape (Violence and Victims, 2002):

  • Most of the 120 were repeat rapists.
  • The repeat rapists averaged six rapes each.
  • Four percent of the men were responsible for more than 400 attempted or completed rapes.
  • Most of the aggressors used alcohol to intoxicate or incapacitate their victims.
  • Most of the 120 had committed other acts of violence, such as battery or child abuse.

Most studies focus on male perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse. Less commonly, women can be perpetrators: Reliable data are scarce, in part because many male survivors are embarrassed about or ashamed of acknowledging that they have been assaulted.

What we think about when we think about sex

The 4-step bystander self-intervention

The risk of judgment makes it harder for survivors of sexual assault to speak up and more difficult for us to hold sexual aggressors accountable. We may not always be aware that our own comments and behaviors can reinforce barriers to addressing sexual violence. Here’s how to think about our own thinking. By Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011).

1. Check your influences on your ideas about sexuality

“What messages have you learned about sex and what was the motive behind them? You can take control of your relationship with those influences,” says Jaclyn Friedman, sexual assualt survivor and author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011). 

Our ideas about sexuality have been shaped by family and peers, religious institutions, schools, media and popular culture, and other sources.

Re-evaluating these influences includes checking your assumptions about what everyone else is doing. “College students do a lot less hooking up than everyone thinks. You may be trying to aspire to a norm that’s not a norm at all. Do what works for you,” says Friedman. Three out of four college students said they had zero or one sexual partner in the last 12 months, according to the American College Health Association—National College Health Assessment survey (spring 2014).

2. Stop judging other people’s sexuality – and your own

“As long as you’re not hurting anyone else or invading their autonomy, there are no right or wrong ways to go about your sex life,” says Friedman.

“It’s liberating to stop judging other people because their sex life is different from yours. The insidious thing about those judgments, even if we don’t say them out loud, is that they reinforce to us that we deserve to be judged as well. It’s harming us too.”

The risk of judgment and sexual shaming makes it harder for survivors of sexual assault to speak up, and more difficult to hold sexual predators accountable.

3. Value quality over quantity

“Shift to the idea of sex as a collaborative, creative experience with another person. Then we start taking responsibility for our partner having a good time. This is the backbone of enthusiastic consent,” says Friedman.

“Let go of the idea that sex is an accomplishment, something to collect, a commodity that we trade in, something one person gives up and the other person gets.”

What this looks like
“When a friend says, ‘I just had sex with so-and-so,’ the response shouldn’t be, ‘That’s awesome!’ The response should be, ‘How was it?’ Sex is not an inherent good.”

4. Understand enthusiastic consent

“If we as a campus culture adopt enthusiastic consent as a cultural value, and the idea of sex as a pleasurable, creative concept, then the rapists among us become obvious. The rest of us are going to stop making excuses for the rapists,” says Friedman.

Why this matters   
At the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial in 2013, two high school athletes were found guilty of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl who was incapacitated by alcohol. 

“At the trial, a bystander said he didn’t intervene because he didn’t know that was what rape looked like,” says Friedman. “Why not? Because sex is seen as a commodified exchange in which the woman lies there and guys do stuff to her. If the bystander had understood sex as an engaged, collaborative experience for all parties, that incident would have looked like rape to him.”

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