Speaking Up: The Power of Bystander Intervention

As the Harvard Community responds to the results of the AAU Campus Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, many are asking “what can we do in GSAS?” One data point from the survey concerns bystander behavior: of those who reported witnessing someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner, a total of 57 percent of female graduate students and 55.5 percent of male graduate students indicated that they did nothing.

The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) website defines bystander intervention as “a social strategy to prevent violence and oppression through the engagement of individuals (or groups) willing to actively address a situation they deem problematic.” Being an active bystander means intervening by speaking up, stepping in, or offering assistance when you hear harmful language or see unhealthy behaviors.

The concept of bystander intervention empowers community members to see their own responsibility in preventing sexual violence. By heightening awareness and knowledge around sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination, bystander intervention helps to promote a sense of responsibility in community members that they can play a key role in the prevention of assault and harassment.

According to Seth Avakian, the new program officer for Title IX and professional conduct, “Students tell me powerful stories—confronting harassing and unprofessional language in the classroom or laboratory, helping an incapacitated peer get home safely, and supporting those who experience sexual harassment or violence. As more members of our community see and hear their peers stepping in and taking a stand, the culture shifts and doing something becomes the norm.”

Avakian conducts trainings across campus that helps community members see themselves as a resource for helping others and intervening when necessary. He uses an acronym to teach basic strategies for intervention: NICE


  • Observe how others interact: do people appear comfortable with each other’s behavior and language?
  • Pay attention to who has power, dehumanizing or objectifying language, if intoxication may be incapacitation, and whether people are isolated.


  • Trust your instincts. If something does not seem right, it probably isn’t.
  • As a member of the Harvard community, it is your business.
  • If you’re not sure, gather more information to gauge the situation.


  • Establish how you can help safely.
  • Create a distraction, spill a drink.
  • You don’t need to “fix” each situation, just try something.
  • Call the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) for advice.
  • Call Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) if you are worried about someone’s safety.


  • It’s easier to get involved when you have support from others.
  • Ask other folks if they have concerns about the situation and ask them to help you intervene.
  • You can ask friends, hosts, staff, classmates, even strangers for help.

As President Faust commented in her recent letter to the community, “We must commit ourselves to being a better community than the one the survey portrays. It is up to all of us to ensure that Harvard is a realization of our ideals, not our fears—a place where our deep concern for one another enables every person to thrive and pursue the extraordinary possibilities for learning and growth that bring us together.”

If you are interested in learning more about bystander intervention trainings happening on campus, contact the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response or the GSAS Office of Student Services.

You can read more about bystander intervention in the National Sexual Violence Resource Center publication Engaging Bystanders to Prevent Sexual Violence.


Speaking Up: The Power of Bystander Intervention