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What Women Need to Know About the Bystander Effect in Men

Alcohol and sexism make male bystanders less likely to help women in trouble.

Sexual violence against women on college campuses is a topic of increasing national concern. The University of Virginia’s case of a woman raped during a party as reported in the Rolling Stone was famously found to be erroneous. Nevertheless, the physical dangers to women of being part of college drinking parties are real.

A 2009 report by the Department of Justice highlights the extent of the problem. Women ages 16 to 24 experience rape at a rate 4 times higher than the rate of all women, and rates are higher among women attending college. In fact, almost 25% of college women report being victims of rape or attempted rape since the age of 14. However, fewer than 5% of college women victims report the crime to police. According to this report, alcohol is almost always a factor in college rapes.

Mandated by the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act of 2013, (Campus SaVE), college campuses are developing programs to reduce the incidence of violence against women by instituting bystander intervention campaigns. On my own campus, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, student life administrators began a program to encourage students to become “active bystanders” who will intervene when they witness an act of sexual violence.

As defined on the UMass website, “An active bystander is someone who witnesses an act that is harmful (such as name-calling, derogatory joke-telling, rumors, property damage or physical violence) or potentially harmful (such as “hitting on” someone who is too drunk or otherwise incapacitated to consent) and doesn’t just passively observe or walk away. An active bystander DOES SOMETHING ABOUT IT!”

These bystander education programs will ultimately pay off as they spread the word about the need to avoid the unfortunate diffusion of responsibility that we all fall prey to, especially when in a large group. If we see someone in need, we figure someone else will step in to help, especially if we think we don’t have the ability to fight off a perpetrator or rescue a victim.

However, new research by Brown University’s Lindsay M. Orchowski and co-authors (2015) shows that the tendency to be an active bystander, at least among men, is greatly lessened by the lethal combination of alcohol, sexist attitudes, and prior history of coercive sexual behavior directed toward female victims. If Campus SaVE is to prove effective, it ultimately will need to take steps not only to reduce drinking and increase bystander awareness, but to understand the complex roots in sexist attitudes of violence against women .

Orchowski and team asked 242 college men (randomly selected from a potential sample of 2300) to complete a set of questionnaires that assessed their willingness to act on behalf of a sexual assault victim (bystander attitudes), perceptions of approval for acts of sexual aggression by their peers, comfort with sexism, and supportive attitudes toward rape. The male students also reported on their own drinking habits and past history of coercive sexual acts against women.

Obviously, factors such as alcohol use and sexist attitudes cannot be experimentally manipulated. To be able to make some conclusions about what causes what, the Brown University researchers put all the variables into a model that provided what statisticians call a “good fit” to the data.

“Heavy drinkers” were defined as men who consumed 5 drinks or more at least twice in the past month; half of the students met this criterion. To measure peer approval for sexual aggression, participants answered questions such as ““How approving do you think your friends would be if you got a woman drunk or high to have sex with her?”

Using a general survey about sexual norms, the Orchowski et al. group tested comfort with sexism (“I feel uncomfortable when a friend brags about having sex” [reverse scored]), rape supportive attitudes (“If a woman has been drinking, it is her fault if she gets raped”) and history of sexually coercive behavior (““I encourage my date to drink so she will let me have sex with her”).

Participants rated their willingness to intervene as bystanders by indicated, for each of 51 scenarios, whether they would step in and help the victim. Examples of some of these scenarios are the following (rated on a scale of likelihood to act):

  1. If my friend said they had an unwanted sexual experience but they don’t call it “rape,” I question them further
  2. If a woman is being shoved or yelled at by a man, I ask her if she needs help
  3. If I saw several strangers dragging a passed out woman up to their room, I would get help and try to intervene.
  4. Call 911 if a stranger needs help.
  5. I see a man and his girlfriend whom I know in a heated argument. The man’s fist is clenched and his partner looks upset. I ask if everything is ok.
  6. If I hear an acquaintance talking about forcing someone to have sex with them, I speak up against it and express concern for the person who was forced
  7. If someone has been accused of sexual violence, I keep the information to myself.

We don’t know whether the men in the study would actually take these steps or not, but the degree to which they say they would provides, at least, an estimate of their bystander tendencies. Some items required very little intervention, such as calling 911, but others might even put the bystander in harm’s way, such as stopping a fight in progress.

The findings showed that in general, the heavier the man’s use of alcohol, the less likely he was to advocate bystander intervention. On a scenario-by-scenario basis, those who reported themselves to be heavy drinkers were much less likely to intervene in 20 of the 51 scenarios than non-heavy drinkers. Only in 2 scenarios were heavy drinkers more likely to intervene: If they saw a passed-out woman being dragged to a room by a stranger, and asking a woman being shoved at or yelled at by a man if she needs help. The heavy drinkers, as expected, reported more comfort with sexism, more engagement in coercive behaviors with women, and greater perceived approval by peers for sexually aggressive acts.

Putting all the data together shows that heavy drinkers are less likely to intervene on behalf of women being victimized because they condone violence against women. These beliefs lead them to be less likely to interpret a sexually aggressive act against a woman as requiring their intervention.

There are important practical implications of these findings. Obviously, cutting down on the potential for men to engage in heavy drinking should lower their likelihood that they will be passive bystanders.

However, the crux of the matter comes in changing men’s perception of their own attitudes about violence against women. Orchowski and her fellow researchers note that if men perceive the “male culture” of heavy drinking to endorse violence against women, they may be less willing to act on their prosocial values and help a woman in trouble.

To change bystander attitudes- and behavior- the solution might be to “re-norm” the thinking in the male culture. Most men don’t want to hurt women and would be willing to take action to stop a violent act before the victim is harmed. Once the average man realizes what the average man would do, it will both seem- and become- more natural to turn from passive to active bystander.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Orchowski LM, Berkowitz A, Boggis J, Oesterle D. (2015). Bystander Intervention Among College Men: The Role of Alcohol and Correlates of Sexual Aggression. J Interpers Violence. 2015 May 5. pii: 0886260515581904

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