Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Taking Care of Ourselves & Each Other

Health & Well-Being

Dance floor Credit: Allison Piwowarski

The Flourish, April 2022: Tip of the Month

Main content start

Live the Upstander LIFE

If you’re at a social event and see a situation unfolding that doesn’t sit right with you or makes you uncomfortable, it can feel paralyzing. You can feel lost as to what to do or say, and question your own judgment as to whether it’s really “that bad.” This is called the bystander effect. Luckily, being aware of this and learning concrete ways to mitigate it can go a long way in keeping our community well, and preventing harm. We have entered Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a time we can intentionally build our awareness of sexual violence, it’s prevalence in our communities, and make commitments to creating a safe, non-violent, Stanford.

What is the bystander effect and how can you prevent it?

A bystander is someone who witnesses an event or incident that warrants intervention, but does not intervene to prevent the harm from occurring.

The bystander effect is a phenomenon in which the increased presence of witnesses or "bystanders'' in a crisis actually decreases the likelihood that any single person will intervene. In these cases, many individuals assume someone else in the situation will respond,  justifying their hesitancy or refusal to take action.

The key to bystander intervention is recognizing that you may be the ONLY person who will respond to someone in need. Every bystander faces the same choice: Do I get involved and try to make things better? Or do I ignore the situation? If answering yes to the former, you can take measures to intervene in the interest of someone else while also taking precautions to protect your own safety and well-being. In other words, you can be an upstander!

An upstander witnesses an event or incident and chooses to do something to intervene. In the prevention of sexual and relationship violence, upstanders play a critical role, as they often have the power to stop assaults and get help for people who have been victimized. This can include: (1) creating a culture of sexual citizenship, (2) advocating for each others yes and nos, and (3) affirming and respecting everyone’s right to agency, consent, and boundaries.

At Stanford, we promote a culture of care and accountability where all community members are upstanders who are actively engaged in the prevention of violence, realizing that we are not just responsible for ourselves, but also the well-being of everyone else in our community.

How can I be a better upstander?

  1. Be aware of power dynamics that are at play around you.  It is helpful to recognize situations that warrant intervention. 
    • Consider the following: Do you see peer pressure or coercion at play? Is it happening overtly or below the surface?
  2. Check your assumptions. When hanging out with others, especially in situations where alcohol is being consumed, make sure you are aware of body language and intoxication levels amongst those around you. If alcohol is at play, avoid making the assumption about:
    • Who is looking to engage in sexual activity with who. Ask them: “Hey I noticed that person was getting a little too close to you. I just wanted to check in and make sure that is okay with you.” 
    • What may look like helpful behaviors but can actually be harmful. For example, if someone is helping an individual leave a party, ask them: “Are you okay with this person walking you home?” 
      • When approached with these situations or others, remind yourself that it is better to follow your instincts and be wrong than it is to let something slide.
  3. Hold yourself and others accountable. An example of this is when witnessing someone make sexual advances on another person that seem disrespectful or violating of their boundaries. You can disrupt this action directly by saying “Hey, not cool” or, in the case of sexual comments, ask “Wait, what did you mean by that?” It is not okay to automatically assume that the person wants the sexual attention or finds it flattering. 

If and when it comes time to intervene a situation, considering the 4 D’s of Intervention: 

  1. Direct: Check in
    • Provide options and a listening ear.
      •  Are you okay? How are you doing? What do you need? Would you like to go?
  2. Delegate: Seek help from another person who can you help intervene (friend, RA, police, someone with authority/power)
  3. Distract: Interrupt the situation or redirect individuals that may be at risk 
  4. Delay: Check in with impacted parties after incident occurred and continue with follow up 

As an upstander, you may be faced with the choice to intervene in daily acts of harm (i.e. street harassment, bullying, sexist jokes) and even high-risk situations (i.e. situations involving physical violence, sexual assault, relationship violence). To support you in doing this, we encourage you to follow the upstander LIFE:

  • Lead: Notice the situation
  • Identities: Interpret is as problematic 
  • Feelings: Assume personal responsibility 
  • Evaluation: Know what to do and intervene safely (use the 4 D’s)

Together we can create a more caring and responsible community! 

On-campus resources

Additional resources