Chapter 3 - Situations Subchapter: Being an active bystander

Being an active bystander

A bystander is somebody who observes disrespectful behaviour. A bystander is not directly involved in the situation but is aware of it occurring.

Disrespectful behaviour could include:

  • derogatory or discriminatory comments
  • bullying
  • verbal, emotional, physical or sexual harassment
  • physical assault or sexual abuse.


A person could find themselves witnessing disrespectful behaviour anywhere—public transport, school, work, online, party or music festival, getting a pizza, or walking the dog at the park.


Split-frame; top panel shows an illustrated character walking their dog. The dog is on a leash, and they are whistling and walking amongst the flowers. Bottom panel shows the character walking their dog again but looking shocked observing a character disrespectfully staring and invading another character's personal space.


You don’t get to choose whether or not to be a bystander. If you notice disrespectful behaviour, then you are a bystander.


Bystanders and the Field Model

The Field Model is all about preserving our individual rights and freedoms and recognising those of others. In the Field Model, both people need to agree to a shared decision to cross the Yes line and enter the Action Zone.


The Field Model diagram is shown with two anonymous characters deciding Yes, and so they are in the Action Zone.


If someone ignores the rules and takes action without that shared agreement, this is Moving the Line.


The Field Model diagram with one character Yes and another character No. The Yes character moves the Yes line all the way past No and bowls over the other character and turns the whole space into the Action Zone.


When you witness a person in a situation where their rights and freedoms are being compromised, you are a bystander to a line move. Moving the line breaks the rules of the Field Model.


The Field Model diagram showing one character moving the Yes line over someone who is on No. A bystander character is outside the diagram observing, and they exclaim.


In the Field Model, no is a really important word. If we are all individuals with our own inner worlds and our own rights and freedoms, then one of our fundamental rights is the ability to say no to any shared personal decision.

  • No, I don’t want you to say that to me.
  • No, I don’t want you to follow me.
  • No, I don’t want you to touch me.
  • No, I don’t want to have sex with you.


Consent involves a shared decision – one person asks for something, or asks to do something, and the other person responds with YES, NO, or I DON’T KNOW.

As a society, we’ve decided one person can’t just take what they want or do what they want to another person. Every YES must be freely given, otherwise there is no consent. A NO is always a no, regardless of the circumstances.


You are a bystander to disrespectful behaviour if you witness an action where it appears consent has not been given.


Witnessing a line move

People will often watch a disrespectful situation and do nothing to stop it. It might be because the situation feels unsafe, or the person feels they can’t do anything to help. Maybe they feel that it’s none of their business and they don’t want to create trouble.

But, intervening in a disrespectful situation can make a huge difference to the target of harassment or abuse. Stepping in might stop the disrespectful behaviour before it begins, or it might prevent it from escalating.

Stepping in when you notice disrespectful behaviour might change someone’s life.


Being an active bystander

An active bystander is a person who observes disrespectful behaviour, knows that it is wrong, and does something to intervene.

Being an active bystander doesn’t mean putting yourself at risk by intervening in an aggressive or violent situation. You can also be an active bystander in common, everyday moments. A verbal slight or a racist or sexist joke. That’s not fair. That’s not cool.

Having knowledge of a disrespectful situation and deciding to act isn’t always straightforward. A number of factors can play into a person’s decision to take action:

  • Is the behaviour really that bad?
  • Is this any of my business?
  • What will everyone else think if I intervene?
  • Does the target want me to intervene?
  • Is it safe for me to intervene? Would I become the target?
  • Surely someone else will intervene?


Silence, or failure to step in, can be seen as acceptance or approval of disrespectful behaviour.

Intervening when you witness disrespectful or abusive behaviour signals to the perpetrator that what they are doing is not acceptable and they should stop.

See also: How to step in: being and active bystander