Beyond Yes or No: Understanding Undergraduate Students’ Responses as Bystanders to Sexual Assault Risk Situations

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Department or Administrative Unit

Nutrition Exercise and Health Sciences

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The White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault recommends bystander engagement programming as part of campus sexual assault prevention efforts. Measuring students’ bystander behavior, and thus, assessing the effectiveness of such programming, is a challenging endeavor due to the range of risk situations students may witness, as well as the nuances in potential barriers students may face in these situations. Currently, many studies include dichotomous measures of bystander behavior without gathering further information about students’ opportunities to intervene, barriers to intervening, and intervention strategies. The current study sought to implement a more comprehensive approach to understanding the types of sexual assault risk situations students report to witness, as well as their response in those situations, reasons for not intervening, and any gender differences therein. In 2014, undergraduate students (n = 9,358) at a large, public university in the Northeast completed a web-based survey to assess bystander opportunities and responses for six different risk situations. Results show that prosocial bystander responses varied depending on the risk situation. Of those students with opportunities to intervene, noninterveners reported the situation was “none of their business” or that they were “unsure of what to do.” Interveners reported to have either “confronted the situation directly” or “went and got assistance.” We also observed significant gender differences in students’ reported intervention opportunities and bystander responses. The findings of this study have several important implications for bystander engagement programming and future research.


This article was originally published in Journal of Interpersonal Violence. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Journal of Interpersonal Violence


© The Author(s) 2017