April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. While often the focus of this month goes (rightfully) to raise awareness for victims and survivors of sexual assault, it is also important to focus on how we can all create safer communities by preventing violence from happening in the first place.

The reality is that we all have the ability to prevent violence from happening. We do this by becoming active bystanders. An active bystander is someone who chooses to take action in one way or another, and there are many ways to make a difference. You do not have to be a superhero to be an active bystander. All that is required is that you do not turn away when you see physical violence or hear violent words and harassment. Sometimes the smallest actions are the most powerful.

It is time for everyone in our community, from children to adults, to step up and participate in the prevention of sexual violence. We should begin by talking about the problem.

Each year, according to the Maine Crime Victimization Report, 13,000 Mainers report being a victim of sexual violence. It is important that we recognize that sexual assault happens in every community, even ours. We each have a great deal of ability and power to prevent violence, and once we understand that, we can work together to create safer schools and safer communities.

The chance is high that at least one person you know has been, or will be, affected by sexual violence. This means not only that we need to have conversations about this issue, but it also means we need to be practicing and building the skills that are used to prevent violence from occurring. This conversation and skill building need to be happening at every level: with youth in schools, and with adults in communities.

There are four ways someone can become an active bystander. We call them the Four Ds: Direct; Distract; Delegate; and Delay.


• Being direct means interrupting a situation in the moment to let the perpetrator know that what they are doing is not OK. Being direct could be calling someone out for their language, or it could be intervening at a party if you believe someone is too intoxicated to consent to sexual activity. Being direct does not mean be confrontational — your personal safety is of the utmost importance. If you are concerned about your safety, you should consider another option.

• Distracting is a good option if being direct feels unsafe or uncomfortable. The distract method means using a non-direct method of interrupting a situation that you feel may be unsafe. Distractions come in all forms and could be anything from using humor, to changing the subject, to asking one of the people involved for help with a task.

• The delegate action is used if you want to intervene in a situation, but feel like someone else can make more of a difference. Delegating is finding someone — whether it’s a peer or a parent or someone in an authoritative position — who is more able to help. This is a good action for youth and for those who may feel uncomfortable stepping in on their own.

• Lastly, the delay action is when you are not able to do something in the moment, but choose to take action later on to make sure that the situation does not happen again. This might mean checking in afterward with the people involved to make sure that support systems are in place, and to hold the perpetrator accountable for their actions.

There are far too many instances of sexual violence that could have been prevented by an active bystander. It is time for everyone in our community take part in preventing sexual assault and harassment. The next time you see something that doesn’t feel right or look right, step forward and be an active bystander. You would want the same to be done for you or your loved ones.

Maye Emlein is education program manager at Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, based in Portland. She can be contacted at 828-1035.

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