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Do Bystander Intervention Programs Prevent Sexual Assault?

An evidence review explores the successes—and shortcomings—of these programs.

Key points

  • Colleges are required to train students on how to intervene in sexual assaults with bystander intervention programs.
  • Studies show that these programs encourage students to intervene, but only for a short period after the program.
  • These programs do not seem to reduce the incidence of sexual assault.
deagreez/Adobe Stock
Source: deagreez/Adobe Stock

Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses across the United States. Nearly 16 percent of female college students in the U.S. report experiencing an attempted or completed sexual assault before starting college and 19 percent report experiencing attempted or actual sexual assault during college, according to a comprehensive study.

Universities have implemented a range of interventions to prevent sexual assault including escort programs that pair up students walking across campus at night, increased presence of police officers and mobile apps that allow students to keep track of their friends.

In addition, in 2013, Congress passed an act requiring colleges that receive federal funding to provide incoming students with sexual violence prevention programming including a component about bystander interventions.

Bystander intervention programs are designed to encourage young people to intervene when witnessing warning signs or incidents of sexual assault. The idea is to sensitize students to warning signs, help students develop tactics for intervening and ultimately create a culture where bystanders have a responsibility to intervene. These programs also offer a more positive way to frame participants’ involvement in sexual assault: the training no longer addresses young people as either perpetrators or victims. By treating participants as potential allies, these programs are more likely to empower them to become part of the solution.

A systematic review published in 2019 evaluated whether these programs actually work. The review combined data from 27 studies on bystander intervention programs, including 21 randomized controlled trials. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know whether bystander programs changed participants’ knowledge about and attitudes toward sexual assault, increased the likelihood a participant would intervene and decreased the overall incidence of sexual assault.

The review found that bystander programs do lead to improvements in participants’ knowledge and attitudes. For example, the participants were less likely to have false or prejudiced views of sexual assault. The program also significantly increased the likelihood of a participant intervening in a potential or actual sexual assault.

Unfortunately, the review found that these programs did not improve participants’ attitudes about gender or date rape, and did not boost the empathy participants felt toward victims of sexual assaults.

The researchers also found that the effects of the program began to fade about six months after participation. This led them to recommend that universities offer or require follow-up training sessions for a more sustained impact.

The take-home message: Although bystander programs can help change attitudes and actions over a short period of time, they don’t fully address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.