What is a bystander and how can you help someone suffering abuse?

One of our Outreach Officer, Sandra, goes through what coercive control is and how you can spot it – whether it may be happening to you or someone you know. It could be friend, family member or even a colleague.

Domestic abuse is happening all around us and affects a quarter of all women at some point in their lives. It can only thrive and perpetuate in an environment where it is allowed to continue unchallenged.

It’s so common that we will all be in regular contact with survivors of domestic abuse, often without realising. Our communities can play a crucial role when its members are prepared to question, challenge, offer help, and ultimately refuse to look away. Communities can change to make abuse less likely. By standing up to domestic abuse as a community, we can provide a more united front and help to foster an environment where abuse is no longer tolerated.

“The measure of civilisation is in the courage, not of its soldiers, but of its bystanders”. – Jack McDevitt

A bystander is someone who witnesses, but is not directly involved. Bystanders can intervene by refusing to ignore the types of behaviours that normalise abuse. When hearing a victim-blaming comment, a sexist joke or a misogynistic remark, we have a choice as to how we respond. Speaking out against such language might be easy and feel safe if surrounded by friends, but in other situations, it might feel more daunting, so learning a few techniques can help. An active bystander is one who recognizes a problem and decides to intervene in a way that feels safe and appropriate for him or her.

In speaking out against the language and behaviour that encourage a climate of abuse, we may fear coming across as argumentative and intrusive. There might be a fear of being accused of being overly politically correct, unable to take a joke or aggressive. Due to these concerns, it can feel difficult to become involved and seem easier to just ignore the offending behaviour, but when we learn more about safe interventions, and the more we know about behaviour that shouldn’t be tolerated, the more effective we will be in actively intervening and thereby helping to create a safe and violence-free community.

How bystanders can challenge abuse

There are various strategies that can be used by bystanders to challenge abuse. Some are direct, others more subtle.

Refocusing the conversation

This is one of the least direct approaches to dealing with an offensive remark. The goal is to not give an audience to the offending comment and change the conversation so that no-one will be focusing on it. This can be a good strategy if you feel a direct approach might be difficult, for instance if the offender is your boss or someone in a position of authority. Depending on how it is done, the offender may see beyond the subtlety of this tactic and realise their remark was not appreciated without it having been spelt out to them. There are several ways to re-focus a conversation – ask for the time, ask for the menu, spill your drink, cough loudly.

Verbally supporting someone

If the offending language is directed at a certain person, verbally support her – this is a more direct intervention than distraction. You might point out positive characteristics of the person being targeted and your support for this person will subtlety communicate that you don’t approve of the behaviour directed towards them. It might also encourage others to agree with you and possibly someone else to speak up more directly. For example if a colleague makes a comment about a woman’s body shape and her desirability, it might be helpful to say that the woman is intelligent and excellent at her work.

Engaging others in intervention

This goes beyond distracting from the abusive comment, but it’s still not a confrontational approach. The goal is to engage others in promoting a new and positive perspective to a situation. This can be done by posing a question to the group that challenges the offensive comment but without directly refuting it. For example, when hearing someone question why a woman would return to an abusive relationship, you could ask – “People often ask why victims would return to an abusive relationship, but maybe a better question might be to ask why anyone would think it ok to harm and abuse someone they love”. This can spin the conversation to a more positive perspective just by posing a question.

Direct confrontation

In this approach, the bystander approaches the person who made the offending comment and explains why the comment is offensive or inappropriate. Direct confrontation can be tricky because it can close off opportunity for further conversation. If you challenge a friend for using gender stereotypes, the friend may stop using them around you but continue in front of others, so your challenge hasn’t educated them or positively changed their behaviour. But on other occasions it might be more successful if the offender takes time to think about your point.

Naming the offence

Naming an offence or abusive comment calls out the behaviour and ensures the comment is not glossed over or ignored. It might also open up the opportunity for further discussion. It’s best to take ownership of your beliefs by using ‘I’ statements. For example – “I feel like that’s blaming the victim”, or “I feel that’s a disrespectful way to speak about women”. These statements are direct but not aggressive.

Making the abuse personal

This is a good strategy for preventing the offender from distancing themselves from the impact of the abusive statement. A comment such as “How would you feel if someone said that to your sister?” can encourage self-reflection. Also, “That comment you made about Cheryl made me feel really uncomfortable. I don’t think that’s how you really feel about women, you’re better than that”. Both of these comments can lead to further conversation on the subject.

Bystander interventions can make a huge difference by positively confronting abusive, sexist, derogatory and gender stereotyping behaviours. In doing this, we can collectively support a culture which will not allow domestic abuse to perpetuate. We can encourage the development of communities that are kinder, more informed, and actively resistant to misogynistic and abusive behaviour.

Acting with kindness and altruism and being prepared to challenge those who degrade others not only benefits society, it also has benefits for the individual bystander. Being able to confront abuse, whichever method is used to do so, is likely to empower the individual concerned. It can also help in the development of confidence and assertiveness skills. When calling out poor behaviour, the bystander is able to express how they feel, rather than being left with feelings of resentment that accompany inactivity.

As adults, we act as role models for younger generations. If children are raised in an environment where sexist jokes fall flat, misogynistic comments are challenged and gender stereotyping is called out, we can hope that society progresses in a way that domestic abuse won’t be allowed to flourish.

“What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander’. – Elie Wiesel