Violence Against Women
2018, Vol. 24(10) 1207 –1231
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
A Qualitative Analysis of
Daniel W. Oesterle1, Lindsay M. Orchowski1,2,
Oswaldo Moreno3, and Alan Berkowitz4
This study qualitatively examines how heavy-drinking college men conceptualize
bystander intervention. Twelve semi-structured individual interviews were conducted
with college men reporting past-month heavy drinking and sexual activity within the
past 2 months. NVivo software was used to conduct a thematic analysis. Following
the stage model of bystander intervention, men in this sample described situations—
predominantly in drinking contexts—when other men made sexual advances toward
women who were not interested or who were intoxicated as opportunities for
intervention. Men reported relying on women’s expression of verbal and nonverbal
cues as a sign that a situation was problematic, and warranting intervention. Men
reported a desire to protect women from experiencing a sexual assault, or to
protect a peer from being accused of rape. Men perceived themselves to be more
likely to assume responsibility for intervening when the situation involved someone
they knew, especially a female friend. A variety of intervention strategies were also
reported. Preliminary support was offered for considering alcohol myopia as a
barrier to intervention. The interviews also provided preliminary support for further
investigation into the role of alcohol expectancies regarding “liquid courage” and
“aggression” as factors that can influence bystander intervention when intoxicated.
Implications for future research and the development of tailored sexual assault
prevention efforts for heavy-drinking men are discussed.
1Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, RI, USA
2Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
3Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA
4Independent Consultant, Mount Shasta, CA, USA
Daniel W. Oesterle, College of Nursing, Medical University of South Carolina, 99 Jonathan Lucas St.,
MSC 160, Charleston, SC 29425, USA.
781931VAWXXX10.1177/1077801218781931Violence Against WomenOesterle et al.
1208 Violence Against Women 24(10)
sexual assault prevention, bystander intervention, alcohol use
Rates of sexual assault are alarmingly high on college campuses (Krebs et al., 2016).
The development of a more comprehensive approach to sexual violence prevention
requires that risk be addressed across the individual, peer, and community levels of the
social ecology (Basile, 2015; Casey & Lindhorst, 2009). Bystander approaches to vio-
lence prevention call upon all members of a campus community to safely take action
to address risk factors for sexual and relationship violence (Banyard, 2015). Bystander
intervention can occur prior to an assault happening (i.e., confronting sexist remarks),
while risk is actively present (i.e., stepping in after hearing cries for help), or after an
assault has occurred (i.e., providing assistance to a friend who discloses they are a
survivor; McMahon & Banyard, 2012). Proactive intervention has direct benefits to
potential victims and communicates to the perpetrator that their behavior is not accept-
able (Berkowitz, 2003).
Evidence is accumulating in support of a bystander intervention approach to sexual
assault prevention (Burn, 2009; Casey & Ohler, 2012; McMahon & Banyard, 2012;
McMahon & Farmer, 2009; McMahon, Postmus, & Koenick, 2011). Several bystander
intervention programs for sexual assault prevention have received rigorous evaluation
(Banyard, Moynihan, & Plante, 2007; Banyard, Plante, & Moynihan, 2004; Coker
et al., 2016; McMahon & Dick, 2011), and the White House Task Force to Protect
Students From Sexual Assault (2014) recommends that bystander intervention training
be a part of a college’s comprehensive sexual assault prevention approach. Federal
regulations also require colleges and universities to incorporate bystander intervention
training into new student education programs (Clery Center for Security on Campus,
2012). For these reasons, research is warranted to understand how to optimize
bystander intervention training for college students.
Decades of psychological research documents trends in who tends to step in to
help others, when and where this behavior is likely to occur, what situations are
likely to spark a call for intervention, and why individuals might help prompt others
to engage in prosocial behavior (Fischer et al., 2011; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, &
Schroeder, 2005). The bystander effect refers to the tendency for the presence of
others to inhibit helping behavior during emergencies (Latané & Darley, 1970).
According to Latané and Darley (1970), individuals refrain from helping in critical
situations due to diffusion of responsibility (i.e., decreased personal responsibility in
the presence of others), evaluation apprehension (i.e., fear of being judged), and
pluralistic ignorance (i.e., assuming that no one else perceives a situation as an
emergency). Latané and Darley (1970) also describe a decision-making model that
outlines a series of stages that bystanders must go through before engaging in help-
ing behavior. This model highlights situational factors that influence a bystander’s
decision-making process include noticing and labeling an event as problematic, feel-
ing a sense of responsibility for helping, and having the requisite skills to take action
(Latané & Darley, 1970).
Oesterle et al. 1209
Numerous intrapersonal attitudes (e.g., ascription to traditional gender norms),
interpersonal factors (e.g., relationship to the perpetrator/victim), and contextual vari-
ables (e.g., community norms) influence bystander behavior in general (Fisher et al.,
2011), and bystander behavior in situations that pose a risk for relationship or sexual
violence in particular (Banyard, 2011; Katz, 1995). For example, there is evidence that
the bystander effect—in general—is attenuated when individuals perceive a situation
to be dangerous, when bystanders are perceived to be in a position to offer a source of
physical help, when bystanders to a situation are exclusively male (and are perceived
to offer “strength” to assist with intervention), and when bystanders are friends or
acquaintances (Fischer et al., 2011). In U.S. culture, there is also a strong emphasis on
personal freedom (Schwartz, 2000), and individuals report not stepping in during risky
situations because they do not want to be seen as meddling in what is perceived as
“someone else’s business” (Goldsmith & Fitch, 1997; Nelson, 2011). Some factors
that influence helping behavior in general—such as high levels of extroversion and
one’s confidence in addressing the situation—have also been shown to influence
whether or not individuals intervene to address risk for sexual and relationship vio-
lence (Banyard, 2008; Hoxmeier, Flay, & Acock, 2016). Research also documents that
in situations that pose a risk for sexual violence, individuals are more likely to help
when they feel socially connected to a potential victim (Bennett, Banyard, & Garnhart,
2014; Brown & Messman-Moore, 2010), or when they personally know a victim of
sexual violence (McMahon, 2010).
Although gender role proscriptions that frame men as chivalrous and heroic may
increase men’s helping behavior in general (Eagly, 2009), men are less likely than
women to intervene in situations that pose a risk for interpersonal violence (Banyard,
2008; Brown, Banyard, & Moynihan, 2014; Burn, 2009; Koelsch, Brown, & Boisen,
2012; McMahon, 2010; VanCamp et al., 2014). Dominant cultural narratives place a
high degree of pressure on men to pursue sexual activity with women and men report
refraining from getting involved in other men’s pursuit of sexual activity to avoid los-
ing respect from their peers (Carlson, 2008). Various masculine norms demonstrate
complex associations with bystander intervention, such that the belief that men should
attain social status was associated with more confidence in intervening, whereas the
beliefs that men should be tough and should not act in stereotypically feminine ways
were associated with lower perceived confidence in intervening (Leone, Parrott,
Swartout, & Tharp, 2016). The association between pursuing social status and
bystander intervention was explained by the belief that intervention would result in
positive consequences among men who were high in masculine gender role stress,
suggesting that some men may be especially motivated to engage in bystander inter-
vention to demonstrate their masculinity. These findings highlight the importance of
continued research to understand the array factors that may differentially influence
bystander intervention among college men, specifically.
Despite the proliferation and popularity of bystander intervention approaches for
sexual violence prevention, we currently know very little about the factors that influ-
ence bystander intervention in the context of alcohol use. This is concerning, given the
widespread recognition of problematic alcohol use on college campuses (Grucza,
1210 Violence Against Women 24(10)
Norberg, & Bierut, 2009) and numerous studies documenting event-level, global, and
environmental associations between alcohol use and the perpetration of sexual aggres-
sion (Abbey, Jaques-Tiura, & LeBreton, 2011; Abbey, Wegner, Woerner, Pegram, &
Pierce, 2014; Locke & Mahalik, 2005, Testa & Cleveland, 2016). In fact, only two
studies to our knowledge have specifically examined an association between alcohol
use and bystander intervention. Specifically, Fleming and Wiersma-Mosley (2015)
documented that global patterns of alcohol use among men—but not women—were
associated with a decreased likelihood of intervening to help a friend. Orchowski,
Berkowitz, Boggis, and Oesterle (2016) found that the association between heavy
drinking and bystander behavior was explained by endorsement of hypermasculine
beliefs among college men. As these studies both utilized cross-sectional survey meth-
odologies, research is needed to better understand the mechanisms through which
alcohol use influences bystander intervention.
It is reasonable to hypothesize that the pharmacological, cognitive, and sociocul-
tural effects of alcohol use may also influence men’s ability to notice risky situations,
label these situations as problematic, take responsibility for intervening, and safely
take action. According to alcohol myopia theory, alcohol use shifts an individual’s
cognitive focus to the most salient social cues (Steele & Josephs, 1990). Men may also
draw upon their beliefs regarding the effects of the alcohol to interpret situations in a
way that aligns with their expectations (Connors, O’Farrell, Cutter, & Thompson,
1986). When intoxicated, men are apt to misinterpret a woman’s friendliness as a sign
of sexual interest (Farris, Treat, & Viken, 2010; Jacques-Tiura, Abbey, Parkhill, &
Zawacki, 2007). As a result, when under the influence of alcohol, men may fail to
recognize situations where women are uncomfortable, or fail to label these instances
as problematic and warranting intervention.
Alcohol use may also influence the way in which men intervene to address risk.
High levels of alcohol consumption are associated with impaired motor and cogni-
tive functioning (Hendler, Ramchandani, Gilman, & Hommer, 2011). Research on
alcohol-related expectancies and outcomes documents how men tend to feel more
confident and aggressive when drinking (George & Marlatt, 1986). It is therefore
possible that men are more confident intervening when intoxicated but choose more
aggressive (and therefore potentially unsafe) intervention strategies. In addition,
understanding whether alcohol use influences the type and effectiveness of bystander
intervention has important implications for the development of bystander interven-
tion training programs, which, to date, have yet to rigorously address how alcohol
influences one’s likelihood to intervene.
Contextual factors are also likely to influence bystander intervention among col-
lege men. College students frequently drink alcohol at parties and bars (Clapp, Reed,
Holmes, Lange, & Voas, 2006; Harford, Wechsler, & Seibring, 2002), which serve as
venues for systematically pursuing or “picking up” a sexual partner (Grazian, 2007;
Laumann et al., 2004; Owen, Finchman, & Moore, 2011; Snow, Robinson, & McMcall,
1991; Testa & Cleveland, 2016; Thompson & Cracco, 2008). Furthermore, women
who consume alcohol or are present in a bar are commonly perceived to be open to
sexual advances (Graham et al., 2014; Parks & Scheidt, 2000; Pino & Johnson-Johns,
Oesterle et al. 1211
2009; Testa & Livingston, 2009). Thus, it is possible that the sociocultural norms of
expected behavior in college drinking environments serve to normalize the cues indic-
ative of risk for sexual violence (see Norris, Nurius, & Dimeff, 1996), thereby reduc-
ing the likelihood that men notice opportunities for intervention. If risk for violence is
recognized, it is also possible that some men who notice opportunities to intervene
would be more likely to intervene in a party or bar setting, as taking action as a proac-
tive bystander would allow them to demonstrate their masculinity to other men while
in the presence of women (see Grazian, 2007). Research is warranted to explore these
Purpose of the Present Study
As documented above, there are currently numerous unanswered questions regarding
how acute alcohol intoxication, sociocultural norms regarding expected behavior in
drinking contexts, and personal attitudes about alcohol use, violence, and gender inter-
act to influence bystander intervention in situations that pose a risk for sexual vio-
lence. To address some of these gaps in the literature, the present study conducted a
series of qualitative interviews to explore factors perceived to influence bystander
intervention behavior among heavy-drinking college men. Given the paucity of stud-
ies specifically addressing the intersection between alcohol use and bystander inter-
vention, a qualitative approach was utilized to provide more nuanced information on
how best to guide the next steps in research.
The interview protocol was aligned with Latané and Darley’s (1970) decision-mak-
ing model of bystander intervention, which empathizes that to intervene, an individual
must notice a situation, label it as problematic, take responsibility for helping, and
have the requisite skills for taking action. Our interview was also set up to specifically
explore how an existing relationship with the potential victim or perpetrator would
influence the process of bystander intervention. The interview also included queries to
explore how men describe the role of alcohol and drinking contexts as potential influ-
ences to bystander intervention.
Participants, Study Recruitment, and Inclusion Criteria
Participants were recruited via email. A list of more than 5,000 enrolled under-
graduate men between the ages of 18 and 22 years was provided by the university
registrar. A random sample of 400 enrolled undergraduate men between the ages of
18 and 22 years received an email invitation to complete a telephone screening to
determine eligibility for a study addressing social and dating behaviors among col-
lege men. Of the 400 students who were emailed, 24 called the laboratory to com-
plete the telephone screening. After providing verbal consent for the screening,
men answered a brief questionnaire assessing demographic characteristics includ-
ing age, race, and ethnicity. Men were also asked whether they had engaged in anal,
1212 Violence Against Women 24(10)
oral, and/or vaginal sexual intercourse with a female partner in the past 2 months.
Past-month alcohol use was assessed with the graduated frequency measure (Hilton,
1989). One drink was defined as one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or
one 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof spirits (NIAAA, 2005). The interviewer adminis-
tered the antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) module on the Structured Interview
for the Diagnosis of Personality Disorders (Pfohl et al., 1997) to screen out partici-
pants who met the majority of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (4th ed.; DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) criteria for
ASPD. Drawing from the Beck Depression Inventory (Beck et al., 1996), two items
were included to assess suicidal ideation and homicidal ideation. Men were also
excluded if they scored 23 or higher on the Alcohol Withdrawal Symptom Checklist
(Pittman et al., 2007).
As this study was conducted in the context of a larger treatment development
study (see Orchowski et al., 2017), the inclusion and exclusion criteria for the parent
study were applied. Men were included if they were enrolled at the university, were
between the ages of 18 and 22 years, had consumed five or more drinks in one sitting
on more than one occasion in the past month, and had engaged in oral, vaginal, or
anal sex with a female partner in the past 2 months. Men were excluded from the
study if they reported a serious mental health condition (i.e., suicidal/homicidal ide-
ation, symptoms of current alcohol withdrawal) or constellation of personality char-
acteristics that might preclude honest reporting (i.e., meeting diagnostic criteria for
Of the 24 men who called in to complete the telephone screening, 14 men met the
study inclusion criteria and were invited to enroll. One man chose not to participate in
the study after hearing the study description, and another participant did not present
for the interview and was not able to reschedule. The final study sample included 12
men, the majority of whom were 20 or 21 years of age (SD = 0.90). In this sample,
83.3% self-identified their race as “Caucasian” (n = 10), 8.33% as “African American”
(n = 1), and 8.3% as “Multiracial” (n = 1). All participants identified as non-Hispanic/
non-Latino. On average, men indicated consuming five or more drinks in one sitting
on 6.3 occasions (SD = 4.62) in the past 30 days. The average number of drinks con-
sumed on one occasion in the past 30 days was 10.7 (SD = 3.69).
Procedure and Data Analysis Plan
All study procedures were reviewed and approved by the university and local
Institutional Review Board. The study was conducted at a large public university in
the Northeast United States. The individual interview was semi-structured and con-
ducted by a male interviewer. Interview prompts were open ended and aligned with the
aforementioned research questions (see Table 1). The interviewer was instructed to
probe using nonspecific follow-up questions (e.g., “please can you tell me more?”).
Facilitators were also instructed to query regarding how various levels of alcohol use
would influence bystander intervention.
Oesterle et al. 1213
All sessions were digitally recorded and transcribed, removing any identifying
information. Transcripts were entered into NVivo for analysis. Thematic analysis
(Braun & Clarke, 2006) was applied. Through a process of analytic triangulation, four
research assistants (two males and two females) independently coded the data and
compared their findings in weekly coding meetings. These four coders participated in
the qualitative analytic process throughout the entire phase. During the independent
coding phase, the coders initially reviewed “codes” that provided insight to the overall
coding scheme. Given our awareness of the decision-making model of bystander inter-
vention (Latané & Darley, 1970), we approached the analysis with the expectation that
the codes might fall across each stage of this model. When several codes had similari-
ties, they were then grouped together under an overarching umbrella which we called
a “theme.” Similarities and differences in emerging codes were discussed together,
thereby creating a space for a coding scheme to emerge from the most substantiated
codes. After establishing the preliminary codes, focused coding was then applied to
the data (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003; Patton, 2014). During the process of focused cod-
ing, the most significant codes were collapsed and differentiated under a “theme.” This
process allowed for further modification of the coding scheme when appropriate.
Consensus was reached when all coders shared a mutual agreement on the themes and
codes that were identified during this process. When discrepancies arose, group mem-
bers engaged in thorough discussion of the content under review, and when necessary,
reviewed the audiotapes to further understand how to best interpret transcript-specific
content. Once agreement was verified, the final coding scheme was applied to the full
set of transcripts. The final coding scheme included four main themes: (a) noticing risk
for sexual violence, (b) labeling situations as problematic, (c) taking responsibility for
helping, and (d) taking action to intervene.
Table 1. Interview Guide.
1. How does one tell when another man “crosses the line” with a woman in a potential
2. Do men at this school typically do something when they see potentially risky sexual
3. When men do something, what do they do?
4. For those men who do act when they see these situations, what motivates these men to
5. What makes it easier to step in?
6. What makes it harder to step in?
7. How does being friends with the guy in these situations change things?
8. How about if they are friends with the girl?
9. How does alcohol play a role in whether or not the guys step in?
10. We’ve been talking about men’s behavior, but how does this change depending on
whether the woman is using alcohol?
1214 Violence Against Women 24(10)
Noticing Risk for Sexual Violence
The most common situations identified as opportunities for bystander intervention by
this sample of heavy-drinking college men were observing a man engaging in contin-
ued unwanted sexual advances toward a woman who was perceived to be uninterested
in sexual activity or who was clearly intoxicated. These situations were described as
commonly occurring within drinking contexts, such as parties or bars. For example,
when speaking about when they would intervene, men noted,
If they are being pushy. Or repetitively trying to go after the same girl even though she
keeps trying to deny you.
Men reported that intervention was called for only if a man was making continued
unreciprocated sexual advances toward a woman. Signs that a woman was uncom-
fortable with the sexual advances of a man included displays of physical resistance
(e.g., pushing a man away), verbal refusals (e.g., saying no, leave me alone), or
nonverbal cues (e.g., body language, walking away, turning their backs). For
A lot of the time a third party will notice more of the verbal rejections or the body
language. You can read people and their reactions. A lot of times you can figure out what
they’re thinking by the way they’re standing, by what they’re doing. I mean if one of your
friends is pushing a girl up against the wall or something and she’s pushing him back,
hands on his chest or something you can tell that’s not what she wants.
If it does get physical, there is normally a look in a girl’s face that just says “get me out
of here.” There is the “get me out of here” eye roll on the couch—which is like, “oh like
I’m so sorry that sucks,” and the “get me out of here, because this guy is crazy”—which
is a big issue. I see something like that, like I get a knot in my stomach.
Men articulated the physical nature of another man’s sexual advance toward a woman
was also a turning point in the interaction that signaled an opportunity to intervene.
Men also expressed how alcohol use and the drinking context could influence their
ability to recognize that a situation warranted bystander intervention. Specifically, par-
ties and bars were described as risky environments, where intoxication made it diffi-
cult to tell the difference between right and wrong. For example,
When you’re drunk, the environment you’re in is already kind of weird because everyone
is drunk, everyone is hammered. [Risk] becomes part of the scenery almost and just
people aren’t able to distinguish between what’s right and what’s wrong.
Men also discussed how behavior that would normally be inappropriate seemed com-
mon place within a drinking context.
Oesterle et al. 1215
Whereas the two major scenarios discussed as opportunities for bystander inter-
vention among this sample of heavy-drinking men were specific to a drinking con-
text—including witnessing a woman being aggressively pursued by a man, and
witnessing a man try to “pick up” an intoxicated woman—men discussed some other
situations that they perceived as warranting intervention. For example, two partici-
pants discussed how they felt called to intervene when witnessing a verbal or physi-
cal fight between a man and a woman. Bystander intervention in response to sexist
comments, derogatory jokes, and other risk factors for sexual aggression that are
more commonly occurring in society—and often deemed less serious in nature
(McMahon & Banyard, 2012)—were not described among the men in this sample as
occurrences that warranted intervention.
Labeling Situations as Problematic
Having an existing relationship with the woman who was on the receiving end of the
sexual advance made it easier to label the situation as problematic and warranting
intervention. For example,
I was with my ex this weekend and we were at a party. She is one of my really good
friends. She’s extremely attractive and she’s got big boobs, and she had them out that
night. And all my friends know I’m not dating her and they kept coming up to her and
saying “Hey who’s your friend? Who is this?” A couple of them were really drunk, and
they were always up next to her and talking to her, and touching her, and didn’t really
understand that she didn’t really want to be there. She was extremely annoyed at the
situation. She probably wanted to punch them in the face. He was leaning over, talking to
her saying stupid stuff that she probably didn’t even want to hear. I’m sitting off as the
outside observer, and I was drunk and I kept thinking “wow she is so miserable talking to
him right now.”
I personally have stepped in before when a couple of my friends were getting hit on by
some guy. [The guy] was clearly told once or twice that they were not interested. So I just
step in and say, “Hey listen these girls are with me, just leave them alone. They’re
obviously not interested go find someone else.”
Men’s comments highlight how they utilized women’s verbal and nonverbal as cues a
sign that another man’s sexual advance was problematic. These findings suggest that
heavy-drinking men also may be well positioned to intervene on behalf of their female
friends, especially in drinking contexts where women are frequently the targets of
men’s sexual advances. In these situations, men described how their female friends
turned to them for help, and also how they acted on behalf of their female friends when
their own attempts to thwart a sexual advance were unsuccessful.
Men were also likely to label situations where men made unwanted advances toward
women who were clearly intoxicated as problematic. In this situation, men felt moti-
vated to intervene because they believed they could lead to sexual assault or regretted
1216 Violence Against Women 24(10)
sexual activity. Men also believed that pursuing sexual activity with a woman who was
clearly intoxicated could lead to a man being “accused of rape.” For example,
I think you might be more willing to [intervene] when she’s really drunk. Something
I think you would absolutely step in if this girl’s stumbling all over the place, and she
can’t even stand up, and this guy is being really pushy. I think you’re going to be like,
“listen man, she’s wasted, take it easy.” That’s not cool at all.
If the girl is wasted, you definitely want to save the girl from getting raped or doing
something she doesn’t want to do. And you have to save the guy from getting sued for
[Alcohol] brings a lot more risk into the situation because the probability of crying rape.
It is the worst-case scenario, but it has happened, and it is a risk you don’t want to take.
If you’re the third party, you have to say something. Like we were at the bar this weekend
and a buddy of mine were hanging out with a girl that was way too drunk. Instead of
saying something, I helped him carry her out to her friend’s car, which made it so he
couldn’t sleep with her. I feel like that changed the situation up and prevented a lot of bad
things from happening.
As shown above, men were likely to label situations where men were making a “bad
decision” as problematic and warranting intervention. Emphasis was placed on help-
ing men to avoid pursuing sexual activity with an intoxicated partner who might “cry
rape”, rather than acknowledging men’s responsibility for not pursuing sexual activity
with a woman who was too intoxicated to consent. Interviewees also suggested that
women needed to appear clearly intoxicated or “wasted” for men to identify the situa-
tion as warranting intervention.
Men also discussed psychological barriers that prevented them from labeling
behavior as problematic and taking responsibility to intervene. Specifically, men
reported a desire to not believe that the men around them were capable of hurting oth-
ers. These effects were believed to be exacerbated when alcohol use was involved. For
I would [intervene]. I think my friends would too but when, when things like that happen
though, your first, your first thought is normally for you to just deny it. Because people
don’t want to see that, and their first instinct is to be like: “Oh that’s not really happening
is it? Like, they’re just joking, I don’t have to do anything.” Because people don’t want
to have to do anything and they also don’t want it to be happening in the first place. So a
lot of people let things happen that shouldn’t because, because they are confused or afraid
to do anything. And it’s the people who would never do that behavior themselves, who
are afraid [to intervene] because they don’t understand how someone could do [harm
someone]. Because they don’t do that.
These reflections highlight how men talked themselves out of framing a situation as
problematic to avoid taking responsibility for stepping in.
Oesterle et al. 1217
Taking Responsibility for Helping
Aligning with the decision-making model of bystander intervention (Latané & Darley,
1970), men’s comments highlighted how they believed they would take responsibility
for addressing a problem once risk was recognized. One of the primary factors that
men believed facilitated their engagement in bystander intervention was a desire to
“do the right thing” and protect themselves or someone else from harm. For example,
one participant noted,
I feel like it is your moral obligation to say something. Or else bad things can happen. I
guess you could end up with—worst case scenario—a rape charge. So you’ve got to do
Other men in the sample described some of their peers as “natural helpers” who com-
monly took responsibility for addressing inappropriate situations.
When asked to specifically describe how their relationship to the man and woman
involved in a risky situation would influence their likelihood to intervene, men’s
responses were mixed. Specifically, men discussed their feelings about intervening to
address the risky behavior among their male friends with ambivalence. Although men
expressed their desire to not get in the way of other men’s chances of “scoring” a
sexual partner, they also articulated a desire to address a potentially dangerous situa-
tion. For example, when asked to discuss how their relationship with a man influences
their likelihood to get involved, men noted,
I think that could go both ways. Yes I think it’d be harder, you’re like “yeah he’s my boy”
I hope he gets some tonight for his sake or whatever. But on the other hand, I mean if he’s
your friend and he’s someone you know, it’s much easier for you to be like “hey dude take
it easy, she doesn’t want it, you’re not like that man. You don’t want to be doing that.”
You don’t want to be known as a cock-block.
How close you are to the person definitely plays a factor. If it’s just another guy in the
house, yeah, I’ll step in if I need to, but at the same time, if it’s your best friend and you
know he’s been trying to sleep with a girl for example, you really don’t want to screw
things up for him, but if he’s crossing the line, you really have to.
Men’s hesitancy to intervene reflected their desire to avoid disrupting cultural norms
that link men’s social status to sexual activity. Men also reflected a desire to preserve
their relationships with their male friends. In some situations, “being a friend” meant
that men would overlook their peers engagement in inappropriate behavior; whereas
in other situations “being a friend” meant that they felt an obligation to step in to pre-
vent both parties from harm.
When speaking specifically about their relationship with women, men noted that
they felt a sense of responsibility to step in to help—and protect—their female friends.
1218 Violence Against Women 24(10)
[People] usually do nothing, unless it’s a girl that they know. Like if it’s just a random girl
or something, but if it’s a girl that they know, they might go and try to help her out.
Some responses highlighted how ascription to traditional masculine norms could
motivate bystander intervention. Specifically, men described a personal responsibility
to “save” the women who came with them to a party or bar from unwanted advances
from men outside of their peer group.
Men also described how they were more likely to take responsibility for interven-
ing when intoxicated as a way to demonstrate their masculinity. When in the presence
of others, intervening to address inappropriate behavior was not only a way for men to
be “superman” but also a way to be noticed by others. Alcohol use was perceived to
facilitate bystander intervention by giving individuals a sense of “liquid courage.” For
The more people drink they get a big head, kind of. You kind of think of yourself as more
of a superman kind of, the drunker you get. It’s the whole immortality thing. When you’re
wasted you’re not really, you really don’t know your limits anymore. If you are already
drunk, you might be like, I’m going to step up, and be like a macho man to all the girls
who are watching—and for that girl I’m going to stop this douche bag. He deserves to be
[Alcohol] could make someone think they’re superman and step in and try to save the
The aforementioned comments highlight how men perceived themselves to be more
carefree and confident when intoxicated, and as a result, more likely to intervene and
“save the day.” These comments also reflect how traditional notions of masculinity—
which position men as protectors of women—were an underlying motivation for
engaging in bystander intervention.
Other factors that influenced men’s likelihood to take responsibility for helping
were the characteristics of the potential perpetrator, and the belief that bystander inter-
vention would result in a fight. For example,
This guy has fifty pounds on me and could probably throw me over a car. I don’t want to
screw around with that. I’m not going to get in his face and be aggressive.
Such a response was echoed across men in our sample, suggesting that men envi-
sioned situations where they would intervene to address risk for sexual violence as
particularly confrontational, especially if the situation occurred in a drinking context.
Despite this fear, men also described that alcohol use could facilitate bystander inter-
vention by making them less fearful of the perceived consequences of stepping in.
People are more carefree when they’re drunk, they’re not thinking of like the consequences
of getting in a fight when they’re drunk.
Oesterle et al. 1219
I think that it’s if you are sober, it’s easier to tell when someone is being pushy. It may be
easier to tell when you are sober, but it is harder to step in because you are sober, at the
same time. So you may see it, but you may be more hesitant to step in. Rather when you
are drunk you may not notice it, because your perception is off, but if you do notice it,
you’ll be more likely to step in.
If you’re drunk you’re less aware of your surroundings and can’t tell that he’s got 5 of his
best friends standing right behind him.
As highlighted above, some men were aware that their alcohol use might influence
their ability to identify the most effective or safest plan of action. Aligning with alco-
hol myopia theory, participants discussed how when drinking, their attention would
likely be pulled to other aspects in their environment, rather than to potential risks for
sexual assault. The role of alcohol as a facilitator of bystander intervention was also
perceived to vary as a function of men’s level of alcohol use. Specifically, men indi-
cated that the level of alcohol use they had consumed would influence bystander inter-
vention, such that they would be unlikely to intervene if “wasted.”
Participants also discussed how other men in their environment influenced their
likelihood to take responsibility for helping. Specifically, if other men in their social
circle called out inappropriate behavior, men felt much more likely to follow suit. For
[Intervening] is easier when someone else steps in first. There always has to be that one
person who says “no” this is wrong. And then they become the poster boy—or girl—for
the cause. And then it is way easier to follow than to lead . . . others are able to switch
sides and be like “Oh, yeah, I am on his side. This is wrong.”
These findings highlight the way in which men’s assumptions about other men’s
beliefs influence how they respond to inappropriate behavior. Some men reported,
however, that they were less likely to take responsibility for intervening when they
were around their friends, and “did not want to be bothered.” For example,
I would be more difficult to intervene if you’re just with your own circle. I’m doing my
own thing. It’s like I really don’t want to be bothered by this right now. I don’t approve
of it, but I’m going to just do my own thing and not worry about what’s happening.
As this response highlights, when in social settings that emphasize fun or social con-
nection, some men reported a decreased sense of responsibility for addressing risk in
Taking Action to Intervene
Bystander intervention strategies discussed by men in this sample ranged from indirect
approaches designed to de-escalate and deflect risk, to more direct confrontational
approaches. Some men in the sample reported talking to the other men around them
1220 Violence Against Women 24(10)
about situations that they identified as inappropriate. For example, when asked whether
men at the university tend to address situations that pose a risk for sexual violence, one
In my experience I’d say nothing active. You might look at who you’re with be like “look
at this douche” like I feel bad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody go up to somebody
and be like “Hey, knock it off!” or something. And that’s probably what you should do,
but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen.
Although participants discussed their tendency to discussed the inappropriate behavior
of other men, they did not indicate that this commentary was with the goal of garnering
support from others to address the situation. In some instances, men discussed attempt-
ing to direct their friends’ attention to other sexual partners who might be more inter-
ested, rather than framing the behavior itself as problematic. For example,
You either tell them to stop. You tell them that the’re plenty of other girls to hook up with.
Framing social settings (i.e., bars, parties) as situations where it was acceptable to
deliberately seek out a sexual partner, men encouraged their peers to “move on” to
another potential target when their sexual advance toward a woman was unrequited.
Other men discussed ways that they used distraction, redirection, and then gentle
verbal confrontation to address what they perceived to be inappropriate behavior. For
[I would] not embarrass the guy. I’d be like “oh, Joe, come take a shot with me,” or “come
look at this over there” . . . Just take him away from the girl and then be like “Joe, you
Distraction was a popular form of indirect bystander intervention that could be utilized
in the moment to remove peers from situations where a man perceived his advances to
Men also described taking great care to avoid being perceived as aggressive when
confronting their peers, particularly when they wanted to preserve their relationship
with a friend who was acting inappropriately. For example, one participant noted,
You’ve got to be verbal and not aggressive. One of our fraternity brothers got an internship
at Disney World, and [his ex-girlfriend] is still here and another kid in the house is trying
to sleep with her. So we called him out on it. The brother in Florida is an older brother,
he’s got more respect in the house. The kid that’s trying to sleep with his ex-girlfriend
pledged last semester so he’s the new guy. Had that come to light, the whole house would
have imploded on him and he would have been ostracized immediately. In that case, we
would try and show the kid that we’re just trying to protect him from himself. He was
being stupid and you’ve just got to show him that without being aggressive or
This comment reflects men’s desire to address situations without creating further
problems, such as a physical fight. In fact, men discussed how the schemas of being a
Oesterle et al. 1221
“superman” when engaging in bystander intervention did not actually match what they
commonly witnessed or would personally do to address situations that posed a risk for
violence. For example,
I’ve never seen that movie moment of a guy messing with a girl and someone steps up. I
feel like if it was me I would make sure they were separated. Make sure that the guy is
away and that he’s calming down. And if it’s really heated, not make him angrier by
making him a villain. I’d be like: “Yo dude, you gotta knock it off. Let’s, let’s sit this one
out.” I’d not turn it into Superman versus Luther but make sure they’re separated and
make sure it stops. Because it doesn’t have to be a bigger issue than making sure that this
girl is comfortable and that this guy is away from her.
To protect themselves from anticipated rebuke, men discussed that they would pre-
tend to be a woman’s boyfriend to ward off the sexual advance from another man. Men
also voiced their desire not to embarrass the men they were confronting.
Whereas indirect bystander intervention strategies were common ways to address
the inappropriate behavior of friends, more direct confrontational forms of bystander
intervention occurred more often in our sample in response to strangers, situations that
posed a direct risk for sexual violence, or instances where the participant had a reason-
able sense that the person they were confronting could not harm them. For example,
one participant noted,
I’ve been driving down the street, not in a party situation or anything like that, but a guy
was like just arguing with his and always raised his hand to her, and I just opened up the
window and was like “you better not do that.” He just like stopped, because he shouldn’t
hit a girl. So I’d step in if it was a situation that, I feel like you have the moral right to.
Having others present was identified as a strategy for addressing a situation in person
that reflected imminent risk for harm. For example, one participant noted,
I was walking [by the sophomore dorms] one day and saw like well I heard like this
couple screaming at each other. I ran back to my car and got my buddies and was like,
“Dude, we need to go set this guy straight.” We come up on this guy who’s just screaming
at this girl—and dude, you don’t do that. It’s ridiculous. So we say, “Hey, we got a
problem here?” The girl backed up from the guy a little bit and they both looked over. The
guy is like, “No! No! No! No!” And she’s like, “Yeah, I was just leaving,” and walked off.
The guy was like, “Fucking knights in shining armor over here. Saving the day.”
This comment reflects men’s awareness how the presence of other supportive peers
served to attenuate the bystander effect.
Direct confrontation of risk through physical intervention was described by men as
more common in situations where they were under the influence of alcohol. In addi-
tion, men in our sample reported willingness to engage in escalating forms of physi-
cally aggressive bystander intervention as a function of increasing levels of intoxication.
1222 Violence Against Women 24(10)
As noted by one participant, when witnessing a sexually aggressive man in a drinking
If I’m drunk I’m probably more willing to fight just because, it’s the same thing it’s liquid
courage . . . “Oh I could beat up anybody.” And on top of the fact, you could be the hero of
the night. Like: “Oh, I just helped that girl out.” So yeah, alcohol would put something into
it. Is it going to change my opinions? No. But it might make me a little bit more aggressive.
Men discussed how alcohol use provided them “liquid courage,” in the sense that they
would be more likely to engage in a range of risky behavior when intoxicated, even
intervening to address a situation that they perceived could result in a physical fight
with a peer.
The results from the present study advance our knowledge on how heavy-drinking
college men—a group who may be at high risk to perpetrate sexual assault or poten-
tially witness risks for sexual assault in drinking contexts—recognize, conceptualize,
and respond to situations that may pose a risk for sexual violence. As this interview
protocol specifically queried about the role of alcohol and their relationship to the
potential perpetrator/victim, the conversations that occurred in this study reflected the
ways in which men believed these variables to play a role in when, how, and why they
intervened. Of note, limited research has qualitatively explored bystander intervention
among college students in general (Carlson, 2008; McMahon & Dick, 2011), and to
our knowledge, this is the first study to qualitatively explore how heavy-drinking col-
lege men conceptualize bystander intervention to address sexual violence.
Broadly, findings from this research highlight the sequential stages described in the
decision-making model (Latané & Darley, 1970) and provide context for the situa-
tional stressors that are placed upon potential bystanders in college drinking contexts.
Several additional more specific findings were also revealed. First, findings from the
present study are promising as they reveal several situations that heavy-drinking col-
lege men conceptualize as warranting intervention. The types of situations that partici-
pants in this sample identified as warranting intervention were largely overt in nature,
and focused on men’s pursuit of sexual activity with women who were either uninter-
ested or too intoxicated to consent. Other men’s use of physical aggression was also a
sign that situations had “crossed the line” and warranted intervention. Importantly,
when recognizing situations as risky, men focused on reading the nonverbal, verbal,
and physical displays of disinterest offered by women in response to men’s sexual
advances—a skill that can be taught. This suggests that focusing on signs of noninter-
est and teaching men to notice them earlier could be a valuable prevention strategy.
It was also notable that the situations commonly described by men as warranting
bystander intervention commonly occurred in drinking contexts. Drinking environ-
ments are commonly sought out for the purpose of picking up women (Grazian, 2007),
and confer particularly high risk for sexual assault (Testa & Cleveland, 2016). As such,
Oesterle et al. 1223
these findings lend support to our hypothesis that heavy drinking men could be par-
ticularly well positioned to address situations that pose a risk for violence. Furthermore,
aligning with alcohol myopia theory (Steele & Josephs, 1990), participants in this
sample noted that they would be more likely to miss signs that a situation warranted
intervention due to a focus on more pleasurable cues in social environments. Risk cues
in drinking contexts were also described as “muddled,” as men were more focused on
socializing, having a good time, and seeking sexual partners, and reported a desire to
ignore or not be bothered to address situations that posed a risk for sexual assault.
MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969) describe how alcohol use is perceived to decrease
personal responsibility for one’s actions, and numerous studies document the instru-
mental use of alcohol to facilitate norm violations (Montemurro & McClure, 2005).
Alcohol is also deliberately utilized by perpetrators to decrease a victim’s ability to
resist (Warkentin & Gidycz, 2007). These findings suggest the need for future research
to explore the extent to which drinking contexts may serve to mask the sexually
aggressive behavior of other men.
Second, two main factors emerged as reasons why men tended to label other men’s
advances toward women as problematic. Whereas men identified other men’s
unwanted sexual advances toward women as problematic because they could lead to a
potential sexual assault, they also perceived this behavior to be problematic because it
could lead to their friends being falsely accused of rape. Whereas false accusations of
rape are quite rare (Lisak et al., 2010; Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009), men
tend to overestimate the frequency of false accusations (Burt, 1980; Kahlor & Morrison
2007). These overestimations may serve to maintain a state of denial regarding other
men’s proclivity to rape, or may be linked to men’s own attitudes that support violence
against women (Berkowitz, 2002). Social norms approaches to sexual assault preven-
tion among college men have focused on debunking men’s misperceptions regarding
the commonality of false accusations of rape (Gidycz, Orchowski, & Berkowitz,
2011), and these qualitative findings lend support for continuing to address this topic
in the context of interventions.
Third, data also revealed several interesting findings relating to men’s likelihood to
take responsibility for helping. Notably, men in this sample described bystander inter-
vention as “the right thing to do.” Although speculative, it is possible that these proso-
cial attitudes be leveraged to facilitate bystander intervention. Social norms theory
highlights how men’s perceptions of what other men think and do serve as important
drivers in their own behavior (Brown & Messman-Moore, 2010; Fabiano, Perkins,
Berkowitz, Linkenbach, & Stark, 2003), and college students attitudes toward vio-
lence align with what they perceive to be normative among their peers (Dardis,
Murphy, Bill, & Gidycz, 2016). As men tend to underestimate the extent to which
other men support prosocial behavior, sharing the “good news”—specifically that
most men want to step in to address risk for violence—could be a particularly impor-
tant strategy for engaging men as allies in violence prevention (see Mabry & Tuner,
2016; Mollen, Rimalc, Ruitera, Jangd, & Koka, 2013), especially among this
1224 Violence Against Women 24(10)
Men’s likelihood to feel responsible for intervening also intersected with traditional
notions of masculinity in several ways, and more research is needed to examine how
ascription to various masculine norms differentially influences men’s likelihood to
intervene to address sexual assault risk (see Barone, Wolgemuth, & Linder, 2007;
Leone et al., 2015). Specifically, although men recognized that bystander intervention
does not typically involve a “superhero” moment, they drew from language that
framed bystander intervention as an act of heroism, using words like “save,” and
“swoop in” to describe their behavior. Men also articulated a sense of responsibility to
help their female friends who they saw as vulnerable to unwanted advances and in
need of protection. These findings are consistent with numerous studies linking men’s
helping behavior to adherence to traditional masculine norms (Eagly, 2009; Leone
et al., 2015; Levine & Crowther, 2008; Orchowski et al., 2016). Men were also hesi-
tant to interrupt their friends’ pursuit of sexual activity, for fear they would be labeled
a “cock block.” Although future research is needed to expand upon this small-scale
qualitative study, it may be useful for sexual assault prevention programs to consider
the ways in which gender norms influence the process of bystander intervention (e.g.,
Leone et al., 2015).
Finally, men described a range of positive bystander intervention strategies, which
included talking about the situation with friends, distraction, gentle verbal confronta-
tion, direct verbal confrontation, and garnering help from friends to directly confront
situations as a group. Men tended to utilize more indirect intervention strategies to
avoid embarrassing their friends in social contexts. These findings are positive, and
highlight the diversity of ways that men can engage as allies in shaping positive cam-
pus communities (see Flood, 2011), and should be promoted. Men feared that bystander
intervention might result in a physical fight, and described utilizing more aggressive
intervention strategies when under the influence of alcohol. While some men believed
that alcohol would give them the “liquid courage” to intervene, men also recognized
that they might be less capable of weighing the costs and benefits of various interven-
tion strategies when drinking. Bystander intervention training programs offer a range
of options for intervention, and highlight the importance of maintaining personal
safety when stepping in (Banyard et al., 2007). Laboratory research utilizing an alco-
hol administration design would be useful to tease out how alcohol consumption, alco-
hol expectancies, and factors relating to the environment interact to influence bystander
intervention in drinking contexts.
Several limitations about this study must be acknowledged. First, our study is lim-
ited by a racially and ethnically homogeneous sample. This interview was also specific
to men who engaged in heavy drinking and reported recent sexual activity with a
female sexual partner, and may not reflect the experiences of men who did not meet
the study inclusion criteria. Thus, these findings may not be generalizable. In addition,
the study site for this research was a relatively isolated large public university with a
Greek system that has been ranked in the top 100 party schools in the United States.
Drinking environments frequented by students at this study site include off-campus
house parties, bars, and Greek houses. Conducting this research in settings where stu-
dents frequent varying drinking contexts might yield different results. All interviews
Oesterle et al. 1225
were administered by male facilitators, and this context may also introduce some bias
into the results. Finally, the email to participate in the study screening was generic, and
the response rate to the invitation to complete the study screening was relatively low.
The benchmarks for what is an acceptable response rate for online response to a
screening invitation have yet to be established (Draugalis & Plaza, 2009).
There are several ways to extend this research. First, although the sample size
included sufficient data for a saturation of themes in this study, further research utiliz-
ing a larger and more diverse sample is warranted. Second, the present study did not
include survey assessments of engagement in bystander intervention. Third, future
studies may consider employing a mixed-methods approach (Tashakkori & Teddlie,
2003). Research examining the intersection of alcohol use and bystander intervention
to address sexual assault is limited, and there are likely to be a spectrum of variables
that relate to interpretation and recognition of problematic events, feelings of personal
responsibility (or lack thereof) to intervene, and the way in which men take action.
Finally, there are also still relatively few psychometrically sound assessments of
bystander outcomes (see Banyard, Moynihan, Cares, & Warner, 2014), and work is
needed to design assessments specific to the process of bystander intervention to
address risk for sexual assault in drinking contexts. The results from the present study
also reveal a number of important potential implications for sexual assault prevention.
Specifically, the college men who drank heavily in this study (a) were willing to inter-
vene in certain situations, suggesting that the cues that signal some forms of risk may
be taught; (b) responded positively to other men’s willingness to intervene, which
supports using social norms change as a strategy for revealing healthy norms among
college men; and (c) utilized a variety of intervention skills, which can be taught, nor-
malized, and reinforced in the context of intervention. All of the above suggest that
targeted interventions for this population—who may be uniquely positioned to inter-
vene in risky situations—are warranted.
In sum, the present findings provide useful descriptive information and themes to
further our understanding of how heavy-drinking men conceptualize their role as pro-
active bystanders, describe the opportunities available to them for intervention, take
steps to intervene, and understand the role of their own drinking as a barrier or facilita-
tor to bystander intervention. Given the complex intersections of alcohol use and sex-
ual violence on college campuses, more work is needed to understand how best to
target student drinking in the context of bystander intervention training programs.
Further consideration to the challenges associated with intervening in a drinking con-
text or while intoxicated is also warranted.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article: This project was supported by National Institute on Alcohol
1226 Violence Against Women 24(10)
Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) R34AA020852, awarded to Rhode Island Hospital (L.
Orchowski: principal investigator [PI]). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors
and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIAAA or the U.S. Government.
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Daniel W. Oesterle, BS, is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston and is a labo-
ratory director (clinical research) within the Department of Psychiatry at Rhode Island Hospital.
Lindsay M. Orchowski, PhD, is an assistant professor (research) in the Department of
Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She
is also a staff psychologist in the Adult Outpatient Division of the Department of Psychiatry at
Rhode Island Hospital.
Oswaldo Moreno, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia
Alan Berkowitz, PhD, is a subject-matter expert and consultant on sexual assault prevention,
bystander intervention training, and social norms theory.