Bystander intervention programs are often dismissed as short-term and limited strategies that may interrupt a violent act in the moment, but create no lasting change in terms of primary prevention, necessary cultural shifts and violence reduction. However, an expanded definition of “bystander” and a more nuanced understanding of primary prevention allows for a clearer delineation of the necessary and vital role bystander intervention plays in any comprehensive strategy to permanently reduce current rates of interpersonal violence.

It’s important that we expand the traditional approach to bystander intervention in two ways.

1. Expand the definition of who a bystander is.

The traditional conceptualization of a bystander is an individual in an imminently high-risk situation facing the choice of whether or not to intervene. A broadened definition includes anyone who is aware violence is present in his/her community. An awareness of systematic violence poses the same decision as someone watching a specific situation unfold in front of them: “Am I going to do something within my sphere of influence to make it less likely the next act of violence happens?” This definition suggests that the English faculty member who has seen the media coverage on current rates of sexual assault on college campuses has the same responsibility and choice as the senior at a party watching a buddy attempt to isolate an intoxicated first year student.

"When we understand the power cultural norms have to create environments that are less conducive to interpersonal violence happening at all—we can forge an expanded, proactive role for bystanders."

2. Expand the definition of what a bystander does.

When we limit the bystander role to reactive, we limit the capacity of each individual to contribute to substantive culture change and we render ourselves powerless until the next potential act of violence crosses our path. However, when we understand the power cultural norms have to create environments that are less conducive to interpersonal violence happening at all—we can forge an expanded, proactive role for bystanders. In addition to being equipped to respond when a potential act of violence unfolds in our line of vision, we can take small actions each day to reset community norms in two important ways:

  • Violence will not be tolerated in this community

  • Everyone is expected to do their part.

Through small, everyday acts (conversations, social media posts, modeling, assignments, message t-shirts, letters to the editor, personal influence, talking points in speeches, team trainings, subtle non-verbals, office signage, etc.) it is up to us to communicate to current and new members of our community what is expected. When it is clear violence isn’t tolerated and most will step in—the norms become incompatible with violence, cutting it off before it starts.

With these expanded definitions, bystander intervention can become a broad-scale community mobilizer, engaging the previously silent majority toward visible action. A mobilized population drives broader culture change, such as:

  • Putting pressure on systems and policy mak­ers to increase accountability.

  • Creating a visibly supportive community such that more victims feel comfortable reporting, thus allowing greater opportunity for en­forcement for perpetrators and healing for victims.

  • A community that is visibly intolerant of violence erodes key risk factors associat­ed with perpetration. Among them include weak community sanctions against IPV (e.g., unwillingness of neighbors to intervene in situations where they witness violence), weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators (e.g., lack of intervention when an incapacitated person is being lead to an isolated back room), general tolerance of sexual violence within the community, societal norms that support sexual violence, high tolerance levels of crime and other forms of violence.

Key elements of primary prevention include shifting the norms that sustain violence, eroding risk factors and strengthening pro­tective factors—all of which are elements of an effective and expanded bystander mobilization strategy.