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Bystander Intervention: Barriers and Opportunity Over Time

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 4204 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Bystander Intervention: Barriers and Opportunity Over Time



 Sexual violence is identified as a public health concern by both the National Institute of Justice (Office on Violence Against Women, 2017) and the Centers for Disease Control. While much of the research regarding sexual and dating violence has involved adults, an increasing amount of literature has begun to examine adolescent sexual and dating violence (Levine, 2017). Beginning between the ages of 14 and 17, most adolescents have been involved in at least one romantic relationship (Baker, 2017). According to Baker (2017), between 10-20% of adolescent dating relationships have physical or sexual violence present with rates of emotional violence and controlling behaviors reportedly even higher. Among college students, 15.5% of women report some form of sexual assault within a 7-month period (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000) and 30% of college students report some form of dating violence over a 12-month time frame (Sabina & Straus, 2008). According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2017), 1 out of 5 females and 1 out of 16 males is sexually assaulted while pursing higher education.

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With such high rates of reported sexual assault and dating violence among adolescents and college students there is concern regarding the mental health among those who are victimized. Dating violence and sexual assault victimization can have a significant impact on the life of a victim. Consequences of victimization include but are not limited to depression, PTSD, revictimization and substance abuse (Palm Reed, Hines, Armstrong & Cameron, 2014).

To help decrease rates of sexual assault and dating violence among students on college and high school campuses, bystander intervention programs have been implemented as mandated by the U.S. Department of Education (Palm Reed, Hines, Armstrong & Cameron, 2014). Bystander intervention programs are used to educate, empower and help build skills to encourage students to intervene in scenarios of sexual assault (Zozula, Costello, & Anderson, 2018). Intervention programs are used to decrease rape myth acceptance by means of changing community norms and beliefs regarding sexual assault (Palm Reed, Hines, Armstrong & Cameron, 2014; Lukacena, Reynolds-Tylus & Quick, 2019) and create a sense of efficacy among participants that will translate into increased intent to intervene and actual intervention in scenarios of sexual assault (Zozula, Costello, & Anderson, 2018).

Although bystander intervention programs have been shown to be an effective means to changing beliefs regarding sexual assault and decreasing rape-myth acceptance (Palm Reed, Hines, Armstrong & Cameron, 2014; Lukacena, Reynolds-Tylus & Quick, 2019), there are still factors that keep individuals from intervening. Barriers to intervention in sexual assault scenarios include: failure to notice, failure to identify situation as high-risk, failure to take intervention responsibility, failure to intervene due to skill deficit, and failure to intervene due to audience inhibition (Burn, 2009).

Literature Review

Mental Health

Negative mental health impacts of dating violence among adolescents include depression, PTSD, risky sexual behaviors and suicidal thoughts, as well as substance abuse (Baker, 2017). Results of one study indicated that girls who experienced dating violence or date rape in adolescence were more likely than their un-abused peers to report suicidal ideation (Ackarda, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2002). While the prevalence among boys was less than that of girls, boys were more likely to report suicidal ideation if they had experienced dating violence and date rape as well. Choi, Weston and Temple (2017) also addressed mental health in their research as an outcome of victimization and perpetration of dating violence in adolescents. Findings from Choi, Weston and Temple (2017) indicated that victims of dating violence had poorer mental health that those who did not report a history of dating violence. While the general presence of dating violence had an overall impact on mental health of the victim, differences across types of dating violence (physical, emotional, sexual) were present along with different mental health impacts as a result.

Just as those who experience dating violence or sexual assault may experience negative mental health outcomes, those who take steps to intervene may also be at risk for experiencing trauma (Witte, Casper, Hackman, & Mulla, 2011). Witte et al., (2011) analyzed surveys from 321 participants, of which 92% self-identified as having experienced a risky situation as a bystander. Results indicate a wide range of involvement based on the specific situation witnessed, with intervention taking place between 18.8% and 81.4% of the time. The most common situation witnessed was physical relational disputes, with 89.7% of participants reported having been a witness. A broad range of risky situations was examined, of which the highest percentages of students intervened at least once when they heard someone make comments condoning abusive behavior (70.9%). Other interventions that took place were those regarding physical relational disputes among couples (67.0%), suspected abuse (66.7%), precarious situations (58.5%), witnesses of perpetrator behaviors (44.0%), and witnesses of abuse disclosure (38.9%). After completing the first part of the survey, participants were asked to indicate how their decision to intervene made them feel (good, neutral, traumatized, etc.). Those who intervened reported feeling “good,” “empowered,” and “proud,” significantly more than those who did not intervene. Participants who reported witnessing a risky situation were then asked to report whether any of the events witnessed were “particularly troublesome or traumatic.” 121 out of 296 participants who reported witnessing at least one risky situation reported that at least one of the events was “troublesome or traumatic.” Among those who witnessed one or more risky events, those who reported an event as traumatic had significantly higher traumatic stress symptoms (M = 24.86, SD = 8.88) than those who did not (MD=22.14, SD=8.03; t(226.05)=2.62, p < .01. Similarly, traumatic symptoms were significantly related to the number of events a participant witnessed (β = .19, p = .006), and when students intervened results approached significance (β =.12, p = .084).

Family and Peer Influence

Parental relationships play a large role in the development and progression of their corresponding children’s adolescent relationships. Adolescents who have witnessed parental intimate partner violence, whether it be emotional or physical, are significantly positively correlated with violence in their own dating relationships (Lui, Mumford, & Bruce, 2018). According to results found by Lui, Mumford, and Bruce (2018) while both physical and emotional abuse between parents were correlated with dating violence experienced by their children, there was a significant distinction present between the effects of witnessing solely emotional abuse of a parent versus emotional and physical abuse of a parent. They found that adolescents who experienced only emotional abuse of a parents were more likely to identify as victims of dating violence in their own relationships, while those who witnessed emotional and physical abuse of a parent were more likely to identify as both perpetrator and victim of dating violence.

Although family can impact the lives of adolescents tremendously, peers also play a huge role in the lives of adolescents. From bullying to friendships, peers impact adolescents in a variety of ways, including influence on dating relationships. While the influence of peers can be positive, it can also have negative impacts as well. Many adolescents model their relationships off their parents’ relationships and interactions, as expressed above. However, what happens when their parents are not present, or their parent relationships are not healthy? In cases such as these, students often look to their peers. In situations where their peers engage in healthy relationships, they have the potential to be positive role models, but in situations where peers engage in unhealthy relationships, their influence can be detrimental to adolescents (Baker, 2017). Similar to Lui, Mumford, and Bruce (2018), Arriage and Foshee (2004) discussed that when adolescents relied on their peers for ques regarding their dating relationships, modeling behavior was exhibited in situations regarding both victims and perpetrators alike. Adolescents whose friends experienced victimization in their relationship were more likely to be a victim in their own relationships as well. Similarly, those who had friends that condoned violence or aggression within their dating relationships were more likely to engage in said behavior in their own dating relationships than those whose friends did not condone such actions (Arriaga & Foshee, 2004).

Opportunity and barriers to intervention

A large component of bystander intervention programming is teaching students to maximize their opportunities for intervention (Banyard, Plante,  & Moynihan, 2004). Built upon research and theory surrounding bystander effect, bystander programs work to engage bystanders or “onlookers” who might otherwise remain disengaged in a scenario of witnessing assault (Banyard, Plante, & Moynihan, 2004). There are a number of reasons why a bystander may remain disengaged during a situation of sexual assault. For example, both situational (not feeling comfortable due to location) and individual factors (not feelings personally equipped enough) may play a role creating barriers in bystander opportunity to intervene (Haikalis, Leone, Parrott, & DiLillo, 2018). Haikalis et al. (2018) suggest that the situation itself may change the kind of intervention necessary, such as non-verbal communication in a louder setting versus communication in a quieter environment.

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Based on self-report surveys of 427 women victims of sexual assault, results suggest that there was opportunity for bystander intervention in or before one-fourth of victim-reported cases of sexual assault (Haikalis et al., 2018). Haikalis et al. (2018) also found alcohol use prior to assault to be a common factor among many bystanders, victims and perpetrators alike in sexual assault scenarios. Other factors that influenced bystander opportunity to intervene were the relationship between the victim and the bystander, unwanted sexual advances by the perpetrator and sexual objectification of the victim. A low 3% of victims reported that bystanders were present during their assault; rather, victims more commonly reported that bystanders were present prior to the assault. It was also reported that perpetrators engaged in unwanted sexual advances toward their victims while in the presence of others. These results indicate that while bystanders may not always have the opportunity to intervene in high-severity sexual assault scenarios, they are often present before the assault takes place and can intervene before a situation escalates (i.e., sexual objectification, unwanted sexual advances). However, just because a bystander is present prior to an assault does not mean that he or she will always have the ability or desire to intervene on behalf of the victim.

Additional barriers to intervening are addressed by Burn (2009). Based off the situational model used by Latane and Darley (1970), Burn examined 5 specific barriers to intervention in situations of sexual assault: failure to notice, failure to identify situation as high-risk, failure to take intervention responsibility, failure to intervene due to skill deficit, and failure to intervene due to audience inhibition.

Based on these barriers to intervention, there are a number of reasons that a bystander may not be able to intervene. The first step to intervention is noticing that there is a problem. If a bystander does not notice an assault he or she cannot intervene; failure to notice can be a result of intoxication, the volume level in the room, or personal social interactions (Burn, 2009). The second step to intervening is identifying a situation as high-risk. Burn (2009) addresses the importance of being able to recognize a situation as a problem; without knowledge of the signs of risky situations that may lead to sexual assault bystanders cannot act to combat it. Further, even when a bystander recognizes a risky situation they may fail to act because they do not feel it is their responsibility to do so. Increased bystander responsibility takes place when there is a bystander/ victim relationship (Burns, 2009). Failure to intervene due to skills deficit often occurs when a bystander does not know what to do or what to say to effectively intervene in a scenario of sexual assault. Failure to intervene due to audience inhibition is more so socially based, this occurs when the bystander does not intervene due to fear of embarrassment or feeling awkward; this type of barrier is particularly common for those looking to gain acceptance, such as new pledges in sororities and fraternities (Burn, 2009).

Bystander Intervention Programs

Evidence suggests that the most successful bystander intervention programs are those that target change on a community level (Ahrens, Rich, & Ullman, 2011; Palm Reed, Hines, Armstrong, & Cameron, 2015). This kind of bystander intervention program works to change community perceptions of and ideas surrounding sexual assault; by changing social norms that perpetuate sexual violence within communities, bystander intervention programs aim to reduce rates of sexual assault on college campuses and elsewhere (Lukacena, Reynolds-Tylus & Quick, 2019; Palm Reed, Hines, Armstrong, & Cameron, 2015).

Research suggests that one-third of sexually violent events occur in the presence of a bystander (Lukacena, Reynolds-Tylus & Quick, 2019). Therefore, bystander intervention programs aim to educated and empower bystanders in ways to help potential victims of sexual assault as well as help those who have already experienced an assault (Palm Reed, Hines, Armstrong, & Cameron, 2015). By increasing skills around safe intervention strategies and building empathy in regard to victims of sexual assault, bystander intervention programs work to increase participants intent to intervene and actual rates of intervention in scenarios of sexual assault (Zozula, Costello, & Anderson, 2018).

Bystander intervention programs regarding youth dating violence are largely unstudied (Storer, Casey, & Herrenkohl, 2017). That being said, Storer, Casey and Herrenkohl (2017) examined bystander intervention programs in schools regarding both bullying and dating violence. Through the use of eight focus groups, Storer, Casey and Herrenkohl (2017) worked to identify different barriers to intervening in cases of both bullying and dating violence. Results of the study indicated that both having relationships with teachers as well as simply the presence of a committed teacher served as a support for intervening in situations of bullying and dating violence among adolescents. Another support for bystander intervention among adolescents was administrative support through modeling behavior. Students who saw their teachers engage in bystander intervention regarding bullying indicated they themselves would then be more likely to engage in intervention later on. While this same result was not seen regarding adolescent dating violence, more research into the subject should be completed before making inferences. Just as supports for bystander intervention among adolescent youth have been identified, there are many barriers to intervening as well. Pessimistic attitudes, ineffective school-based responses, and lack of visibility regarding dating violence are just a few of the barriers that keep adolescents from intervening in bullying and dating violence situations (Storer, Casey & Herrenkohl, 2017). Students reported hesitation to intervene in situations of both bullying and dating violence when they believed that their intervention would not impact the students involved in the long run. Similarly, students who believed that school officials were ineffective in intervening in cases of bullying and dating violence were also less likely to intervene on their own. Lack of visibility and education regarding dating violence in high schools was another barrier that students reported as a reason for not intervening. Participants within the study suggested increasing education regarding dating violence and continuing the conversation to outside of health classes as a way to increase bystander intervention and combat dating violence (Storer, Casey & Herrenkohl, 2017)


Research suggests there is a strong link between sexual assault and dating violence and negative impact to the victim’s mental health (Baker, 2017; Ackarda, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2002; Choi, Weston & Temple, 2017). Not so obviously, there are also negative mental health outcomes for those who choose to intervene when scenarios of sexual assault and dating violence occur (Burn, 2009). Although there is limited research on the negative mental health impacts associated with bystander intervention, this should still be considered when making a decision to intervene in a scenario of sexual assault or dating violence. Other barriers to intervention range from skills deficits to lack of feeling responsible (Burn, 2009).

Family and peer relationships play a huge role in the lives of adolescents. Modeling their relationships, adolescents whose parents engage in abusive relationships often become victims and perpetrators of dating violence (Lui, Mumford, & Bruce, 2018). Similarly, when parent relationships were not modeled, adolescents looked to and modeled their peers’ dating relationships (Arriage & Foshee, 2004). Other relationships that impact adolescents through modeling are those of teachers and school administrators. Findings from one study where bystander intervention programming was used indicated that when students saw their teachers intervene in bullying scenarios students reported being more likely to intervene in similar situations in the future (Storer, Casey, & Herrenkohl, 2017).

It is clear through results found by Lui, Mumford and Bruce (2018) that parental relationships are very impactful for adolescents and often contribute to how their dating relationships play out. Similarly, though not specifically related to dating, Storer, Casey, and Herrenkohl (2017) found that teachers’ actions were also influential when it came to student intent to intervene. Based on these findings, as well as the barriers to opportunity discussed by Burn (2009) there is a need for more research in these areas, specifically regarding teachers’ actions and interventions on dating violence and sexual assault and the impact that it has on student intervention. Also, further investigation into barriers and opportunity to intervention over time.


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