“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." --Barack Obama

My fingers trembled and my breath came out in gasps as I kept my eyes trained at the two intoxicated guys blocking a girl’s path in the empty road almost tucked into the woods, and dialed the number of Campus Security, whispering, “Hello, I think someone is in danger. Can you please come to the location I sent you as soon as possible?” I realized at that point in life, that being an active bystander is not easy, but I knew in my heart, that being a bystander who watches and walks away would keep me at unease for the rest of my life.

The memory of Kitty Genovese still haunts us 58 years later; 38 people who watched and offered no help to save a young woman who was in danger. This infamous incident inspired the concept of the Bystander Effect which had attempted to explain the tendency of being less likely to assist when other people are present due to the diffusion of responsibility amongst the bystanders. We can no longer wait for others to be the initiators of change; we need to start being the people who put the active in active bystander. This requires time, consistent effort, and unlearning habits that we have been brought up with, but these are the stepping stones towards a greater contribution in preventing sexual violence.

At times, it may be difficult to be active in one’s endeavors, especially when the one attempting to intervene is a person from an equity-deserving group, and the perpetrator holds a lot of power or privilege. The distress of having to be confrontational to someone who is older, physically stronger, from another gender, intoxicated or someone we have a prejudice against and putting oneself in danger are some of the core reasons people hold back from helping, despite witnessing harassment. At times one is forced to watch and walk away because of one’s identity or circumstances.

However, we can change this pattern and learn that sometimes, when you stand up against wrong, the entire world may stand against you, but we must remain resilient and persevere. There are ways to help without putting oneself in danger or walking away—small acts of kindness or solidarity can make a huge difference. But this comes with challenges, a few of which we will explore:

  • The fear of being alone and experiencing social exclusion while attempting to help someone in need. This is paired up with the fear of causing a scene and getting embarrassed due to not knowing the entire scenario from both perspectives, giving rise to the uncertainty of whether you are overstepping boundaries. We have been conditioned to think by industrial societies that intervention in the life or incidents of other people make us nosy and the help we provide is unnecessary. This, in turn, has formed a society where we remain isolated from others and abandon people, moving away from community care for the sake of maintaining boundaries. It is rational to not provide our opinions where they seem unwelcome, but it is our communal commitment to step in and be mindful when the safety of people around us is at risk.
  • Unlearning habits and reconditioning ourselves to new ideas and perspectives. In many cultures, the concept of being sexually abused by one’s partner is not considered a crime or a morally unethical activity to engage in, thus, it is important to become aware of stigmas and misconceptions of the similar kind, encouraging others who are unaware to unlearn old harmful belief systems as well.
  • Fear of putting yourself in danger; most times, a confrontational approach may make the individual who is intervening a target as well and makes it likely that they may be put in emotional or physical danger. Besides that, unfortunately, we still live in a society where the words of minorities are trusted less and their actions are perceived as more hostile compared to their privileged counterparts, therefore, it might not be as easy for someone from a minority community to intervene and directly confront the perpetrator. In cases like these, it may be difficult to step in, thus other indirect approaches may prove to be helpful, for example, using the Delay strategy of Bystander Intervention and checking in afterwards with the person impacted can make a huge difference as well, because your emotional support can empower them.

The untold joys of being an Active Bystander

So far, we have explored the challenges that come with being an active bystander through an intersectional lens but also dissected why it is necessary to overcome the challenges and be a part of a caring community that looks after one another. The obstacles that hinder us in our path to becoming helpful and aware human beings are far outweighed by the joys of helping someone in their time of need. Some of those joys are:

  • Introducing effective ways of stopping harm, such as using the 4D Strategy which includes direct, distract, delegate and delay. Direct proposes to take a confrontational approach and call out negative behavior by asking the perpetrator to stop, whereas, Distract offers a more subtle approach by doing or saying something to change the focus of the situation or conversation. Delegating involves seeking help from an authority or another witness to the incident, and Delay suggests checking in with the individual impacted after the incident. These steps help in the process of practicing community care in a time of distress. It also causes an interruption and prevents further harm from happening by decreasing the likelihood of the perpetrator repeating the behavior due to the perpetrator’s realization of how their actions negatively impacted another individual. This not only stops the immediate incident, but also informs the perpetrator of their problematic behavior.
  • Creating a culture of care and consent amongst peers by raising and spreading awareness through actions and words, in addition to creating a safe space for people impacted by providing support and access to resources.
  • Inspiring others to dismantle the rotten roots of rape culture. This in turn avoids the normalization of harm, encouraging people to speak up or take a stand when things are wrong. Imagine if we create a society where each of us disrupts the chain of harm and instead forms a community of care where our bodies and souls feel supported and loved.

In order to be an Active bystander, it is not necessary to directly confront the perpetrator, as support can be provided in a number of safer ways. The process of forming a caring and reliable community is a learning process that is entangled with blunders, but the mere knowledge that we are trying to make a safer world is a utopia worth pursuing. The goal is not a perfect society; it is fostering care and love for those around us and expressing that through our actions. The first step is moving from awareness that certain behaviors are problematic and unwelcome to actions that help us become active and committed bystanders. This approach not only cultivates a community that is united by care, support, and safety, but also nurtures kindness and a passion for contributing towards greater welfare within oneself. Being an active bystander is about realizing that those we call strangers could be our friends or beloved ones in other situations we are not witnessing, making us all interconnected, thus, if it is in our power to help someone, it is time we extend our hands.

About the author: Samia Nur Chowdhury is a second year student at Simon Fraser University, majoring in Criminology and minoring in Legal Studies. She is a member of the Active Bystander Network through the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO). When not listening to crime podcasts, she spends her time advocating for equality, fighting against sexual violence through her writings, and tasting different cuisines while travelling to new places.