Being an Ethical Bystander

A bystander is someone who witnesses an event. An ethical bystander is someone who witnesses an event that concerns them, chooses to do something, and considers the safest way to intervene. Ethical bystanders play an essential role in keeping our campus safe and help build a culture of respect and zero-tolerance to violence.

In 2016, 25% of students at universities across Australia witnessed another student being sexually harassed. Almost a quarter of those students took action in response. The most common response was talking to the survivor (person who experienced the harassment), followed by talking to the perpetrator (person who did the harassment).1 Small actions can make a big difference! 

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Albert Einstein

UQU Random acts of respect poster

Knowing how to intervene can be challenging. The most important thing to consider is safety for yourself and others involved. Often you don’t have to intervene directly or confront the person, distraction can also be a good technique! When considering your intervention, remembers the 5 Ds: Distract, Delegate, Direct, Delay, and Document.


Indirect action to de-escalate or change the trajectory of a situation is often a safe and effective intervention. For example, if you witness a friend getting unwanted attention at a bar, you could cut in and say to them “Hey, come to the bathroom with me”. If you see someone being aggressive on a bus, you could ask start up a conversation with the person experiencing the aggression or drop something to create a distraction.


Sometimes the best way to intervene is to get someone else to! Look around for a police officer or person of authority (bus driver, staff members etc.). You may be able enlist others people present to help, such as person’s friends, bar staff, door staff or a university staff member depending on where you are. Enlisting someone else to stay present or Distract the situation may be useful while you find someone to delegate to. Remember to download the UQ SafeZone App to give you direct access to on campus security.


If you are going to directly intervene in a situation, be very careful to assess your safety first. You can directly tell a perpetrator their behaviour is not appropriate with something like “your action/comments are disrespectful and not ok with me”.  You may also be able to reassure the person experiencing the harassment and help them move away.

If one of your peers is making disrespectful comments, you can use subtle direct approaches to show you don’t agree. You could simply roll your eyes or say “Hey, that’s not ok”. The Line has some great tips for how to address gender inequality and misogyny with your mates.

UQU Random acts of respect poster


Bystanders can play an important role even after an incident has occurred. Checking in with the person who experienced the harassment and offering support is a good idea. More information on how to support someone who has experienced a sexual assault is available here.

listen support refer campaign banner

We have launched the student-focused Listen, Support, Refer campaign, which aims to promote sensitive and trauma-informed responses to disclosures by peers.


Reporting to the police or the University after an incident can provide useful information for investigating a crime and also helps to capture an understanding of challenges and concerns within a community. If you witness something concerning on campus you can report it here and can choose to remain anonymous if you wish. More information about reporting incidents of sexual assault or harassment is available here.

Documenting an incident on your phone can be helpful, depending on the situation. It’s a good idea to try to capture street signs or landmarks to document the location of an incident. It’s important to consider respect and privacy. Never post such footage online or use it without the permission of the survivor.

Every time you are witness to something that concerns you, you have the opportunity to be an ethical bystander. Being an ethical bystander is not about being a hero. Ethical bystanders notice something they think is dangerous, inappropriate or unjust and decide they can do something about it.

When something doesn’t feel right, ask yourself: ‘How might the situation affect the people who are involved? What is the possible outcome? Could the situation get worse if you don’t do anything?” If yes, then evaluate the best way to respond.

Check out some real life scenario’s by the No More Campaign for more idea about when and how to intervene. 

Remember that sexual harassment can look different in different situations- sexual harassment can include unwanted physical touching, ‘jokes’ of a sexual nature, whistling and catcalling, or comments about someone’s appearance.

We know that behaviours, words and actions that normalise, minimise or condone violence are often at the root of bigger issues such as sexual violence. Sexist jokes, comments about a person’s appearance, whistling and catcalling, and derogatory comments about someone’s ability based on gender or racial slurs, all need to be challenged in order for us to promote safety and respect.

Think about intervening when:

  • A mate says something unkind, like calling someone a “slut”
  • You see someone who is visibly upset
  • You hear something that makes you think there is violence or aggression (remember to be safe and delegating can be the most effective and safest option)
  • You witness someone saying sexually explicit comments to or about someone else
  • You see someone chatting up someone else who is too drunk to consent

Prevention requires us all to challenge sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and transphobic comments! A simple “that’s not cool” response to a sexist ‘joke’ can make a big impact! 

Tip: Follow your instincts, if something doesn’t feel right, and it’s safe to do so, say something.

“The standard that we walk past is the standard we accept” - Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison and others.

A note on identity

Who we are, how other people see us, and social systems, mean that we all experience privilege and discrimination differently. Our gender, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, ability, age and other identities, all intersect with social systems (such as sexism, homophobia, racism etc.) to give us more or less power in certain contexts. Consider your privilege and remember, in some situations, you have more power to intervene than others.


Doing Nothing Does Harm.

The No More Project. No More.


Doing Nothing Does Harm

Who Are you?


1.         Australian Human Rights Commission. Change the course: national report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian Universities. Sydney: Australian Human Rights Commission; 2017.

2.         Public Access Direct. Show Up: your guide to bystander intervention. New York, NY: Centre for Urban Pedagogy; 2017.