Young Australian nightlife attendees as active bystanders to reduce unacceptable sexual behaviour: A multimodal project

Author Identifier

Aimee-Rose Wrightson-Hester

Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Arts and Humanities

First Supervisor

Alfred Allan

Second Supervisor

Maria "Ricks" Allan

Third Supervisor

Paul Chang


Nightlife settings have an important social function providing places where young people gather to relax, socialise, and find sexual partners. To achieve this latter aim, many young people engage in forms of sexual behaviour that would not be acceptable in other public places. While some nightlife patrons want and enjoy the sexual behaviours that occur in nightlife settings, others find them distressing. When sexual behaviours, such as groping and kissing, are unsolicited they meet the World Health Organisation definition (2010) of sexual violence. Unsolicited and nonconsensual behaviours (i.e., sexual violence) are prevalent in Australia, and worldwide, causing a significant public problem.

Various forms of intervention have been trialled and implemented in nightlife settings to prevent and respond to sexual violence. The bystander approach, where witnesses of incidents of sexual violence are encouraged to intervene to stop the incident or support the recipient after the fact, is experiencing growing recognition in Australia as an effective way to address sexual violence. However, the limited research in this area, suggests that bystander intervention rates are low in nightlife settings, and that bystanders are reluctant to get involved in the behaviour of people they do not know.

Proponents of bystander programs therefore aim to improve them by addressing the various individual and situational factors (i.e., barriers) that inhibit bystander behaviour and promoting those that encourage bystander behaviour (i.e., facilitators). There is, however, a dearth of research investigating what factors influence bystander behaviour in nightlife settings. Program developers have therefore relied on research largely from American college campuses to design and implement programs in nightlife settings. This approach has two major limitations. First, although these campus programs have shown some initial success a recent meta-analysis found that all positive effects were lost at follow-up. Second, it is likely that the factors impacting bystander behaviour in Australian nightlife settings are different to those on American college campuses given the contextual and cultural differences.

The main aim of this research project was therefore to identify factors that might influence bystander behaviour in Australian nightlife settings and examine how they interact. To do this I developed a three-study program of research. In the first study, I expanded my previous research (Wrightson-Hester et al., 2019) by examining the personal and social norms (i.e., the injunctive and descriptive norms) of Australian nightlife patrons regarding three common unsolicited sexual behaviours, and the differences in these norms when the behaviour was consensual. This information is important because Australian young people’s personal and social norms regarding these sexual behaviours are likely to influence bystander behaviour. The findings revealed that young Australians’ personal norms regarding the unsolicited sexual behaviours were that they were unacceptable, however their injunctive norms show they believe their peers are much more accepting of these behaviours. Young Australians, however, felt these behaviours were acceptable when they were consensual. Regarding the descriptive norms, young Australians reported these behaviours occur on at least half of all their visits to nightlife settings, suggesting they are typical in these settings and therefore could be normalised behaviour. Collectively, these findings suggest that social norms in nightlife settings contribute to the prevalence of sexual violence there, but also that social norms could have an inhibitory impact on bystander behaviour in nightlife settings.

The second study was a qualitative study, in which I asked 14 young Australians about the factors that would impact their own bystander behaviour in nightlife settings in response to hypothetical vignettes. Participants also shared their own personal experiences of and responding to sexual violence in nightlife settings. Given the lack of research on these factors in nightlife settings, researchers have called for the use of qualitative methods to better understand their complex influence on bystander behaviour. The categories identified suggest there are many factors that influence bystander behaviour in nightlife settings across all five stages of the situational bystander model proposed by Latané and Darley (1970), from inhibiting bystanders’ ability to notice the incident (due to their intoxication or preoccupation) through to inhibiting their ability to act (due to audience inhibition caused by a fear of social sanctions). Most importantly Australian nightlife patrons are unlikely to intervene unless they are certain what they are witnessing is non-consensual sexual behaviour as they are tolerant of and respect other patrons’ right to engage in consensual sexual behaviour in nightlife settings. Patrons reported that they are, however, more likely to intervene if the recipient of sexual violence is a friend, and much more likely to help a woman than a man.

In the third study, I used an experimental factorial survey design to examine how several of the factors identified in the previous two studies and the literature review impacted on bystanders’ likelihoods to intervene (i.e., bystander gender, actor gender, recipient and actor intoxication, the bystander’s relationship with the recipient and actor, the recipient’s response to sexual violence, bystanders’ personal and social norms and bystanders’ gendered attitudes). This was done to estimate the magnitude of the impact of each of the factors but also to quantitatively explore relationships between factors and how they work together to influence bystander behaviour. To do this, I used multilevel modelling to measure the impact of factors on bystanders’ likelihoods to engage in two forms of intervention, either to help the recipient or stop the actor. The findings show that bystander gender, the gender of the actor, bystanders’ prior relationships with actors and recipients, their personal norms, their perceptions of others’ likelihoods to intervene, as well as how the recipient reacts to the incident, all have a large and significant impact on bystanders’ likelihoods to intervene. Ten interactions involving either actor and recipient relationship, and/or gender of both the participant and actor, were also found; this suggests the role of both gender and relationships are more complex than previous research suggests.

Of all the factors examined across this thesis, only actor and recipient intoxication were found not to influence bystander behaviour. Of note is the pervasive impact that gender and gendered attitudes have on bystanders’ personal norms, social norms and their bystander behaviour suggesting the presence of, and adherence to traditional gender roles and stereotypes in Australian nightlife settings. Further, the recipient’s response to sexual violence was found to be a significant facilitator of bystander behaviour if the recipient was clearly upset and required help; if not bystanders were unlikely to intervene. How the recipient of sexual violence responds and its impact on bystander behaviour has received very little empirical attention to date. These findings and their implications for the bystander approach and bystander programs in Australian nightlife settings are discussed.



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