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Engaging Bystanders

Joan Tabachnik is a Massachusetts’ based child sexual abuse prevention expert. She created this resource for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center that takes a look at ways we can all help prevent sexual violence.  Download a copy of Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention.

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"I spoke out to put a face to the issue for the millions of women, men and children who suffer in silence and to say that you are not alone. Help is available." ~ Ayanna Pressley, Boston City Councilor (Photo by Christopher Mason)

Concerned about someone you know?

Given the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence, it’s likely that many of us know someone who is directly affected by these issues. Whether it’s someone you barely know or are very close to, similar questions arise:

  • What should I do or say about my concerns for their safety and well-being?

  • Should I reach out or respect someone’s privacy?

  • Will my actions put either of us at risk?

  • Can I do anything to help deescalate situations before they become violent?

If you are concerned that a friend, loved one, family member, neighbor, or co-worker has been or is being abused or assaulted, you can talk to a sexual or domestic violence program about your concerns and find out about resources for yourself and the person you know. You can also find help if you know someone who is a perpetrator of sexual or domestic violence.

Your interest in wanting to learn more about the issues and how you can help is an important step in demonstrating your concern and compassion. This page contains information about ways to reach out and provide support. We've divided the content into four sections:

Why should I reach out to someone who is being or has been abused or assaulted?
How can I be supportive to someone who is a victim or survivor of sexual and/or domestic violence?
What should I do if I think someone is committing domestic or sexual violence?
What can I do to help make my community safer?

Why should I reach out to someone who is being or has been abused or assaulted?

Survivors tell us that just helping break the silence surrounding sexual and domestic violence can be like opening a door!

One of the biggest barriers to action is that many of us have been raised to believe that sexual and domestic violence are private matters and none of anyone’s business. The bottom line is that sexual and domestic violence affect us all. As with other public health, public safety, and human rights issue, we all have a role to play in ending violence on an individual, community, societal and global levels.

We know it can be difficult to reach out to someone we care about. Your non-judgmental support can help someone access the resources they may need.

How can I be supportive to someone who is a victim or survivor of sexual and/or domestic violence?

There are many ways to offer non-judgmental and respectful support of the decisions that victims and survivors make.

Listen without judging and don’t rush into providing a solution. The victim is not responsible for someone else’s abusive or violent behavior. There are times when being a good listener is more valuable to that person than any other action might be.

Believe them. Let them know that you support them and ask what you can do to help. Talk with them gently, understanding that everyone needs to take their own time talking about such difficult things.

Support them. Let them know that you care about them. Don’t blame them for what happened. Let them know that it wasn’t their fault. Offer to go with them to a sexual assault or domestic violence program.

Help them to make their own decisions. They are the authority of their own life decisions and your role is to help them figure out their choices and get the resources they need rather than doing it for them.

Encourage them to contact a local program.  Research is showing that this is the greatest help a victim can get! This is a place where they can speak with an advocate who is trained and who can listen, connect them with the resources they need and ensure that they have the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves. If they have been sexually assaulted, encourage them to seek medical attention and contact a local sexual violence program.

Be part of their "safety plan.” A safety plan is created by a victim with the help of a trained advocate. The intent is to plan for a victim’s safety needs before another violent episode erupts. While typically associated with domestic violence, victims of sexual assault can also benefit from a safety plan. If you believe they are in immediate danger, call 911.

Contact a local program yourself. You may want to get information for another person, get support for yourself, learn more about how you can support another person and better understand what resources may be available. Co-workers can contact their Employee Assistance Program to learn about workplace-based advocacy services for you, your co-worker and often their family members.

Express concern for their safety. Whether they are leaving a relationship, if they are staying in a relationship and/or if they aren’t sure about their next steps, planning for safety is key. Safety planning is a tool that is useful for all victims and survivors of domestic and/or sexual assault. Download a safety planning tool. (insert link to safety planning tool)

Explore the legal remedies available. There are resources including restraining orders and harassment protection orders that have been developed to support victims and survivors and protect their rights to safety. Learn more about legal remedies. (insert link to legal resources)

Learn about victims’ legal rights. Many battered immigrant victims who have legal immigration status do not know that their batterer cannot take that status away. You should know that if immigrant victims are U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, or have a valid visa, they cannot be deported unless they have entered the U.S. on fraudulent documents, violated conditions of their visa, or have been convicted of certain crimes.

Get information about other legal issues. The legal needs for each victim of sexual or domestic violence are different. There may be workplace or housing issues, concerns about safety at college or job training sites, fears about the abuser’s access to children’s schools or daycare. An advocate can help identify legal issues and help develop solutions through referrals and resources. You may be able to find specific resources among the Massachusetts or national government and private agencies listed here. (link to page with links)

Maintain confidentiality. Do not share this information with anyone else without the specific permission of the victim or survivor.

Understand that healing is a process that is different for each person. There is no formula and healing is not a time limited experience. Express compassion, nonjudgmental support and acceptance.

What should I do if I think someone is committing domestic or sexual violence?

It’s important that people whom commit acts of sexual or domestic violence be held accountable for their behavior. Sometimes this means calling the police, such as when you see someone being physically or sexually hurt or threatened with a weapon. Other times, you may have an opportunity to provide support to the offender to make the good decisions necessary to stop abusive behavior.

It’s critical that you be careful, for your own safety and for the safety of the victim. So before you speak to the abuser or a family member or friend of the abuser or victim, ask the victim what she/he wants. It’s important to keep in mind that, however well-intentioned you are, the abuser may feel like he or she is losing control and therefore try to harm the victim.

If you do talk to the offender, let the person know that sexual and domestic violence do not stop without some sort of outside intervention and encourage them to seek appropriate services and education for abusive individuals. You can learn about the counseling services that are available and help to make these resources and other information available to your family member, colleague or friend.

Do not intervene directly if it will put you or the victim in danger. Call 9-1-1 so that the police can respond.

What can I do to help make my community safer?

Learning that someone you know has been a victim of sexual or domestic violence can inspire you to join our efforts. Only with sustained effort at the community, national and global levels will we be able to end domestic and sexual violence Join us! Get involved


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