stand with survivors

Why do we love bystander intervention and fear community consequences for rape?

It looks like it’s going to be The Year of Bystander Intervention.

The White House is pushing it. It’s all the buzz at college administrator conferences. The anti-violence organization I co-direct gets plenty of emails from schools requesting bystander training, despite our very public skepticism of it. 

I find the fixation on bystander intervention particularly ironic because, while everyone champions bystander training, no one wants community-based consequences for violence. Indeed, the suggestion that non-state actors — like churches, neighborhoods, clubs, sports teams, and other organizations — hold some ethical responsibility for responding to violence, supporting survivors, and holding offenders accountable is often met with bewilderment, resistance, or open hostility.

When my friends (particularly women of color survivors, victims of intimate partner abuse, and undocumented survivors) have felt uncomfortable or unable to report violence to the police (or even to college institutions), they’ve gone to their communities — their a cappella group, fraternity, cultural affinity organization — for support and justice. Too often, these organizations — sometimes fresh off bystander training — have refused to provide them support or kick their abusers out of the group. (One friend of mine, who wanted to protect her rapist, a man of color, from incarceration and expulsion, instead sought intra-group consequences for him from their shared affinity organization. The organization refused to entertain the idea that it could and should play a role in supporting her, and she was ultimately left no choice but to transfer to another school for her own safety and mental health.)

Why is it that we adore bystander intervention but fear community-based justice and accountability?

We already know that bystander intervention does more to comfort the consciences of the powerful than to meaningfully ensure the safety of the marginalized: Bystander intervention is about the avoidance of violence rather than the real reduction of it; about limited “education” that maintains the status quo rather than radical education that disrupts it; about discrete momentary interventions, rather than committed efforts toward systemic accountability, justice, and substantive support. People with power can get behind bystander intervention because, in its dominant articulation, it doesn’t threaten how power itself is distributed.

Or perhaps we can’t even see the potential of community-based justice because we’ve gotten so accustomed to relinquishing responsibility to the state. Since the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, we’ve come to consider responses to rape and domestic violence to be the exclusive domain of law enforcement. “Mainstream” (white) feminist groups continue to work to “improve” or “reform” the criminal justice system with the goal of maximizing the number of offenders locked up in it. The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women continues to fund efforts to increase arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. Everyone from U.S. senators to That Guy In the Comments Section consistently attempts to require campus survivors to report to the police. We’ve ceded so much power to the carceral state that we can no longer recognize our own role and responsibility to respond to violence outside of it.

Or perhaps there’s something else at play. White men seem particularly hostile to calls for non-law enforcement responses to gender-based violence, which is ironic, given 1) earlier mainstream resistance to second-wave feminists’ demands for the police to take gender-based violence seriously, and 2) the significantly more violent responses at the criminal justice system’s disposal. Perhaps at some level they recognize what black and brown folks have always known: that, long before and long after white male slave-owners raped black slaves with impunity, the white supremacist state consistently refuses to recognize the violence committed by white men, while systematically hypersexualizing black men and women, conjuring and reinforcing the stereotype of the black male rapist, and incarcerating men of color at disproportionately higher rates. Appealing to the state as the sole arbiter of violence-claims allows white folks to continue criminalizing people of color under the guise of defending (white) women. Community accountability, on the other hand, suggests at least the threat of the most powerful among us actually being held accountable for their abuses.

In the wake of Ferguson, it looks like white liberal America might finally be waking up to the idea that the prison system isn’t broken — it’s working exactly how it was designed. Time and again, though, white liberals stumble up against the question, “What do we replace it with?” — and inevitably return to reform, rather than abolition.

But just because alternatives don’t currently exist in mass, doesn’t mean they don’t or can’t exist at all: we just need to build them. That work starts in our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches and temples and synagogues. And many have been doing it for years. Sometimes accountability looks like suspending or expelling a perpetrator from a shared club or group, or removing research funding. Sometimes it looks like instituting a school-based no-contact order, or disinviting rapists to social gatherings or, on a more organizational level (e.g., a sorority), refusing to host events with groups that tolerate known rapists as members. Sometimes justice looks like creating spaces where victims can tell offenders’ loved ones what their abusers did to them, and how it impacted their lives. Other times it looks like providing a survivor with affordable counseling services, or abortion, or child-care. Perhaps it looks like crowdsourcing cab fare to the doctor’s office, or opening up your home to a friend in need of a place to stay, away from their abusive partner. Students in the Columbia University Marching Band — a group that had the honesty to acknowledge the pervasive violence within its ranks — created its own sexual assault policy and response plan.

Perhaps the dichotomy between bystander intervention and community-based justice isn’t an inevitable one. Maybe bystander intervention can be radically re-imagined, not as momentary interference in “isolated” instances of violence but as a consistent, collective effort at victim-centered justice, accountability, and support, one that extends long before and long after any particular “incident” of violence. Perhaps we can stop relying on law enforcement as “the solution,” come to understand violence as systemic and ever-present in the fabric of our relationships, and take it upon ourselves to claim both individual and collective responsibility to address it.

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

Read more about Dana

Join the Conversation