“Who are you?” Bystander intervention as another means to end sexual violence

Ed. note: I’m off this week. The wonderful Tobias Rodriguez is filling in for me. Tobias originally hails from Texas and now lives in New York where he works in social media at a reproductive health organization.

*Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and alluding imagery.*

Since Steubenville, there’s been a lot of discussion of sexual assault, including Zerlina Maxwell’s “5 ways we can teach men not to rape.” Teaching people not to sexually assault and/or harass another person, regardless of the gender of anyone involved, is so incredibly important. It’s the foundation of creating a safer environment for everyone. As Zerlina affirms, when we teach enthusiastic consent, everyone’s sex lives become more fulfilling.

But these messages, that it’s important to ask for consent and to be a responsible sexual being, as clear and helpful as they are to many people, don’t yet reach or resonate with everyone. That’s why Maxwell’s fifth point about bystander intervention* is so powerful. Bystander intervention is about preventing and de-escalating potentially violent incidents. It’s about empowering bystanders with the confidence and tools to intervene in an incident in order to stop it in it’s process.

We can see the impact of bystander intervention in a great video from New Zealand that’s making its way around the internet:

The video shows how bystanders (a friend, a bartender, and a stranger) notice a very drunk woman and chose to intervene and help her get home. It also shows the disappointed predatory look of the assumed rapist as the woman gets help and leaves the bar.

Bystander intervention like the kind presented in the video above can help prevent sexual assault. By checking in with a friend at a party or by walking your roommate home, you can help stop a incident in it’s progress. Checking in with someone doesn’t mean you are judging their decisions, and it doesn’t have to be intrusive (except to the person who’s attempting to sexually assault someone else). It’s important to note that intervening doesn’t always have to look like the examples in the video–sometimes you know your friend should leave the bar and head home, but many times a quick check in to make sure they’re ok is sufficient.

David Lisak’s research into “undetected rapists” found that in college men, “The vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by serial offenders who, on average, have six victims.” So if you’re worried about offending anyone when you intervene in an unknown situation, don’t be. Because bystander intervention is a learned skill that takes practice, programs and trainings happen across the US at many colleges.

People have a responsibility not to sexually assault other people. That is absolutely certain. At the same time, as bystanders, we have a responsibility to intervene when we can in order to help de-escalate potentially violent situations. It can be an overwhelming feeling to have this responsibility. But as we make strides to teach everyone (not just men) not to rape, we have to be ok with this extra responsibility for now. In spite of (and because of) what others so, we have a responsibility to look out for others and intervene when appropriate and possible. To that end, bystander intervention is a powerful tool that empowers whole communities to help end sexual violence.

*Princeton University Professor John Darley’s research focuses on the bystander effect, which occurs when people fail to intervene in an emergency situation. When others are around, the responsibility of the individual is diffused, and so oftentimes no one ends up acting on behalf of the victim in the situation. He first began this research around the murder of Kitty Genovese, and there’s no shortage of recent examples of these types of tragedies.

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