Bystander action: Sexist comments and jokes in everyday settings

Sexist comments and jokes occur every day, sometimes so often that we don’t even notice it happening.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexually suggestive comments and jokes were the second most common form of sexual harassment experienced in an Australia University setting in 2016. Women were most likely to experience sexually suggestive comments or jokes and intrusive questions about their private life or physical appearance.

This behaviour is damaging and can lead to further, more serious instances of disrespect and unequal treatment of genders. Learning how to recognise it and knowing how to take action is key to discouraging this behaviour.

What is Sexist behaviour?

Sexism can take many forms but occurs when someone is treated less favourably based on their gender. It can affect anyone. However, sexism most commonly affects girls, women, transgender and gender-diverse or non-binary people. Sexist behaviour is any behaviour that makes a person feel uncomfortable, unsafe, humiliated, put down, or treated unfairly because of their gender.

Example of sexist comments and jokes on campus and how to take action

Before we give you some examples, remember the AIDED model for Bystander Action from last week’s message on Sexual Harm. Here’s a quick recap:

A – Assign responsibility to another person
I – Intervene indirectly
D – Directly intervene by stepping in
E – Keep evidence of the incident
D – Divert the harm away from the target

Use the AIDED model to inform your response to witnessing or experiencing sexist comments and jokes.

Example 1

While walking to class on campus someone approaches your friend and says, “Let me carry that for you, I’d hate for you to break a nail…”.

What to do?

  • Directly intervene by letting the person know that the comment isn’t appropriate, “Is that how you talk to people?…’Break a nail’?”
  • If you don’t want to say something, that is ok too. Make a record of the incident (evidence) and you and your friend can decide how you may want to pursue it.
  • If you know the person’s social group, you could talk to their friends to ask them to intervene on your behalf (assign responsibility).

Example 2

In the car park on campus, someone yells out from a car at a woman walking nearby, “Nice ass, want a ride?”

What to do?

  • Divert the attention of the person in the car. You could make yourself known as another bystander if there is no-one else around to witness the incident; walk in between the car and the victim.

You could also talk to the driver to divert their attention, “Hey, do you know where the parking meter is?”.

  • Assign responsibility; call campus security if the sexist comments continue or the situation escalates.

Example 3

A friend starts talking about a recent high-profile rape case in the media and blames the victim for what happened.

What to do?

  • As they are a friend, it might be appropriate to directly intervene by asking them questions about they formed that view? “Can you explain to me why you think it’s the victims fault?”.
  • You can indirectly intervene by checking with others who may have overheard the comment.

Example 4

While at the gym, you overhear someone comment to their friends about a woman stretching nearby, “she looks flexible, imagine that in bed!”. The woman overhears and looks uncomfortable.

What to do?

  • You could indirectly intervene by approaching the woman to see if she needs any help or support.
  • Assign responsibility by alerting the gym duty officer that some people are being inappropriate.

For further examples of everyday sexism, and how to take action, see the ‘Doing Nothing Does Harm’ campaign by Our Watch.


If you witness or experience any sexist comments and jokes and you need further support and advice, La Trobe has a variety of safety and security options you can contact depending on your situation, both on and off-campus. For a full list of extensive services, have a look at this article.

Reporting and disclosing within the University

In circumstances of sexual harm, or any unacceptable behaviour, consider the following options.

In an Emergency

  1. Call police or emergency services – (24 hours) Triple Zero ‘000’
  2. If on-campus, call Campus Security – (24 hours) 03 9479 8888. They need to be aware of the incident to let emergency services on campus if required and can assist until their arrival.

Safer Community

Contact Safer Community to disclose or report an incident.

It is a free, confidential* support service you can contact if you experience or witness concerning, threatening, inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviour. This behaviour can occur on-campus and off-campus, such as on public transport or in the home.

Safer Community provides expert advice and information. They also offer you options and referrals to help resolve your concerns to keep you and others safe.

*Refer to Safer Community website for a full privacy and confidentiality statement and limitations.