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Reducing the Dangers of College Partying

How college student bystanders can reduce alcohol-related harm

Potential Harms of College Alcohol Use

Bystanders Can Intervene To Prevent Alcohol-Related Harm

Every year, at least several students tell me their true-life alcohol horror tales. The student that lost his leg while intoxicated on a train track. The student who drank the punch at a fraternity party, her virginity was stolen while she was passed out. The student physically assaulted by a drunken guy at a party. While drinking can be fun, it is not without risk: each year almost 600,000 students are injured while under the influence of alcohol and approximately 1825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries. Almost 700,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault.

The first six weeks of freshman year are among the most dangerous for college drinking. This means that whether or not a college student chooses to drink, they may be called on to help other students endangered by alcohol intoxication. Unfortunately, some students experience death, injury, or sexual assault because bystanders failed to intervene.

Carson Starkey, an 18-year-old freshman at my university is a case in point. As part of a fraternity rush in 2008, he participated in a drinking ritual that killed him (he died from alcohol poisoning because his fellow partiers didn’t take him to the hospital).

Many sexual assaults experienced by college students may also be prevented through bystander intervention. Although most college men would never rape anyone, approximately 3-9% of college men will take advantage of others’ intoxication to achieve sexual contact, use alcohol and other drugs as tools of rape (drug-facilitated sexual assault), or have sexual contact with someone who is in no condition to provide consent or resist sexual advances. Many of the sexual assaults experienced by my students fit in this category. In many cases, bystanders are present during the pre-assault phase and can intervene to prevent sexual assault.

The situational model of helping developed by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane tells us that bystander intervention requires multiple steps, each with barriers we must overcome before we eventually act. Knowing how this works makes us less susceptible to these social-psychological forces and more likely to act appropriately to prevent alcohol-related injury, death, or sexual assault. Here are the steps and how they apply to some of the high-risk situations created by college students’ alcohol abuse.

Step One: Notice The Situation

Noticing is the first step. But the big barrier to noticing is distraction. In these high-risk partying situations, bystanders are sometimes too busy partying or socializing to notice those at-risk for injury or assault, or those at-risk for injuring or assaulting others. Make a habit of noticing your environment, especially whom your friends are with, what they’re doing, and how much they’re drinking. Make this a norm in your friendship group.

Step Two: Interpret the Situation

Next you need to interpret the situation as one where intervention is needed. Here the big barriers are ambiguity and pluralistic ignorance. For example, students do not always recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning. They may see a man having sexual contact with an intoxicated person but because others appear unconcerned, assume it is nothing to worry about (pluralistic ignorance). Learn about the signs of alcohol poisoning and the red flags of sexual assault perpetrators (one obvious red flag: comments and behaviors that indicate a person plans to have sex with an incapacitated person). Don’t take others’ apparent indifference as evidence that your instincts are wrong (like you, they may be concerned but taking their cue from other unsure bystanders).

Step Three: Take Responsibility

Before bystanders intervene, they must not only notice and interpret the situation as one requiring intervention, they have to take responsibility for intervening. The main barrier here is known as diffusion of responsibility. Generally speaking, the more people present the less responsibility we feel (so we leave it to others to act). In research I conducted on sexual assault bystander intervention many students felt that it was the responsibility of friends and of party hosts to intervene. Don’t assume someone else will intervene; you may have to assume responsibility. You probably have a special responsibility to intervene to prevent intoxicated friends from crossing the sexual consent line, being taken advantage of, fighting, or engaging in risky activities (such as driving) due to judgment clouded by inebriation.

Step Four: Choose An Action

Next you have to choose how to act and the big barrier here is uncertainty. The bottom-line: Think now about the actions available to you. For example in regards to preventing sexual assault, you can interrupt, distract, or lead someone away, you can involve other bystanders, you can confront (“Step away from the girl, she’s in no condition to give consent” “I’m sorry, I can’t let you go with him”), you can call your resident advisor in you’re living in the dorms, or 9-1-1. You can keep a close eye on heavily intoxicated friends who may be susceptible to sexual predators, or who may be too intoxicated to understand the difference between sex and sexual assault, or to resist sexual impulses.

Step Five: Act

Taking action is the final intervention step and the main barrier here is audience inhibition. This basically means that we may hesitate to act for fear that we will look foolish or violate a social norm. Carson Starkey died partly due to this barrier—the fraternity brothers did not want their fraternity to get in trouble for hazing or for underage drinking. Some students hesitate to intervene to prevent sexual assault because they think others will be mad at them due to norms against “cock-blocking” (or “twat-blocking”). Norms against “tattling” can also inhibit calling needed authorities. Preventing sexual assault is not the same thing as “cock-blocking.” Likewise, you can handle a little social disapproval so that someone doesn’t suffer sexual assault, injury, death, or legal consequences from driving drunk or harming others.


Burn, S.M. (2009). A situational model of sexual assault prevention through bystander intervention. Sex Roles, 60, 779-792.

Carlson, M. (2008). I’d rather go along and be considered a man: Masculinity and bystander intervention. Journal of Men’s Studies, 16, 3-17.

Latane, B., & Darley, J.M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 215-221.

Latane, B., & Darley, J.M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.