Why People Don’t Intervene When They Witness A Sexual Assault, And How We Can Change That


Social media is becoming increasingly intertwined with sexual assault cases. In the Steubenville rape case, graphic images of the victim were disseminated widely online, contributing to the evidence that convicted two high school football players and ultimately sparking national outrage over rape culture. In two tragic cases earlier this year, Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott both ended up committing suicide after the images of their sexual assaults were passed around among their peers.

But the evidence of sexual assault isn’t always disseminated by the people who perpetrate the crime. In some cases, the bystanders who witness incidents of sexual violence will record it and post it online — instead of actually intervening to stop it.

That’s why Ohio University has been making headlines lately. Last week, a student at the university tweeted a photo of a sexual encounter that was later reported to be a sexual assault. His photo, which depicted a man performing oral sex on a woman on the sidewalk, went somewhat viral after Buzzfeed picked it up. Another bystander recorded it and posted a video to Instagram. The morning after the incident occurred, the woman involved told police that it was non-consensual.

The student who posted the photo says he didn’t realize it wasn’t a consensual encounter. “It was obvious that both the man and woman were very, very drunk,” he told the Ohio University student newspaper. “I guess the thing that put everyone there at ease was that she never said stop, she never struggled and she never asked for help. She put her hand on the back of his head. She seemed like she was enjoying it, so I guess for everyone there it was like ‘OK, it’s not assault. It’s not rape.’ “


Even though the victim may not have struggled, the university’s definition of consent states that an individual is unable to consent if they are “asleep or otherwise mentally or physically incapacitated, whether due to alcohol, drugs or some other condition.”

Ohio University’s police chief, Andrew Powers, told the student paper that the photo and video evidence may end up being useful in the investigation. But he’s still disappointed the bystanders chose to snap pictures of the incident instead of considering whether they should intervene. “What is more disturbing are the social implications of what it means for someone to have been standing there watching this thing happen, videotaping it with their phone instead of getting involved and trying to help the victim,” Powers noted.

A similar incident played out this weekend in Chicago. Jessica LaShawn, a blogger for Chicago Now, reports that several videos of a potential gang rape that occurred on the street were posted on Vine on Sunday night. The videos depict several men attempting to perform sex acts with an unconscious woman, some of them growing frustrated that she’s non-responsive. According to LaShawn, thousands of Vine users watched the videos and left comments laughing about the incident.

How can these type of incidents happen in public? Why don’t people step in to intervene?

Some of it is likely due to the “bystander effect,” the term that psychological researchers use to describe the public’s unwillingness to step in and help people in distress. Some researchers speculate that the bystander effect is related to the number of people witnessing a crime — everyone assumes that someone else will help, so they don’t need to get involved.


But there’s another issue at play when it comes to incidences of sexual assault: A lot of people don’t actually recognize that crime when they see it. Rape culture — the set of attitudes that contribute to a society in which sexual assault is allowed to flourish — operates largely in part by obscuring the reality of the crime of rape. Since many Americans don’t really understand what consent is, they don’t realize when they’ve crossed the lines of consent, or when they’re witnessing someone else crossing those lines. For instance, the Ohio University student who snapped the picture of the alleged sexual assault clearly didn’t understand that intoxication and consent are incompatible.

To combat that, sexual assault prevention advocates are working to implement “bystander intervention” programs. Particularly on college campuses, student activists hope to train their peers how to recognize and actively discourage negative behavior when they see it. At a very basic level, that involves teaching students what enthusiastic consent means. And at the next level, it gives them tools to intervene when they witness something that doesn’t sit quite right with them.

Daniel Rappaport, the Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator at American University, noted that teaching people about their role in intervening doesn’t necessarily have to be intimidating.

“They don’t have to put on a cape and directly save or prevent every situation,” Rappaport explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “We all have our individual obstacles to intervening, and there are also a lot of social pressures. It’s not about overcoming all of those obstacles — if you feel too shy, or whatever it is that’s personally stopping you from doing it — but rather giving you a couple basic tools you can use.”

The tools that Rappaport teaches his fellow students fall under three basic categories: Directly intervening, delegating an intervention, or creating a distraction. Direct intervention is the most well-known tactic. But bystanders can also choose to delegate by talking to a friend of one of the individuals involved, or initiating a conversation with a bouncer, a police officer, or a campus official. They could contact RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline. Or they can simply create a distraction — going up to one of the people involved and asking them where the bathroom is, or inviting them to step outside, or creating some other type of diversion that removes them from the unfolding situation.

In a situation like the alleged sexual assault on the street in Ohio, for example, people may not have felt comfortable with direct intervention. But if the witnesses had understood that it was a situation in which consent may have been violated, they could have reported the situation to authorities, noting that both people seemed intoxicated. Gathering in a crowd and snapping photos of the incident, on the other hand, wasn’t very helpful. “Once people are taking pictures and normalizing what’s happening, it can make it that much more difficult for someone to have the courage to step in and try to stop it,” Rappaport pointed out.


Rappaport told ThinkProgress that bystander intervention programs are already well-received at American University, as well as on other college campuses across the country. He thinks they can be helpful on a broader scale, too. He pointed out that giving individuals language around the issue — a simple term like ‘bystander intervention’ — helps endow them with the knowledge that they’re not powerless.

“Bystander invention can engage everyone, no matter what level of education they have on the topic,” Rappaport noted. “And when everyone can get involved, it’s something that help push a culture shift.”