Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Trouble With the Bystander Approach

I’m going to risk being in the minority here – in more ways than one – but for all of my dear friends and colleagues, passionately working to end sexual violence, clinging to bystander intervention principals, I am issuing the following challenge:

Is bystander intervention really the best method with which we ought to be addressing this issues of preventing sexual and dating violence?

Not to expose our own dirty laundry, but let’s get down with it and examine how we teach about bystander intervention.

Do we educate, in in-depth manners, the meaning of the word, bystander. Do we discuss, in the amount of time necessary, how the term bystander came to be in our social consciousness? Do we analyze Kitty Genovese, and the seemingly ever-changing details of her murder? Or, do we, sloppily play videos of “What Would You Do”, and ask audiences to react…as if, after seeing how people did not react, anyone in our audience will be honest enough to say they would not intervene, in some way.

Next, how many of us use the same sloppy, if not stereotypical scenario – College party. Soberish guy giving girl drink after drink until she can barely stand up. At which point, guy attempts to take girl someplace secluded – upstairs, downstairs, outside. Anywhere where they can be alone. At this point, the bystander is supposed to notice this incident and step up. Seems pretty standard, from damn near every training, lecture, webinar, and conference I’ve attended. This scenario has begun to irritate me for two reasons. First, it gives audiences a faulty perception of what the set-up of a sexual assault looks like. It leaves students thinking they should be on the look-out for guys feeding girls drinks, only. Never mind the fact that – from the research done on college rapists – his friend are usually in on the plan, and are aiding and abetting him in the process. It doesn’t take into account the rapes that happen between same-sex couples; boyfriend-girlfriends, behind closed doors; or when there is no alcohol present. No party, no booming music, no one around to act as a bystander. Secondly, from all of the advocacy work I’ve done with survivors, this scenario makes up a fraction of sexual assault scenarios. Using this scenario could actually be doing more harm than good, but we’ve clung to it, as the best way to teach bystander intervention.

Lastly, and let’s just for argument’s sake, say the previous two points play out in the affirmative. If we educate and empower bystander to intervene when they see that exact high-risk situation happening, have we truly prevention sexual violence? Of course, in that instant, we have. So there’s a MAJOR win. (I will not deny that preventing at least one person from victimization is worth the battle!) But, that’s certainly not how we’re educating students. We’re telling students that intervening in those moments prevent rape, as a whole. That it will stop that would-be rapist from raping, in that moment, and ever again. And that’s what we need to dig through. If we stop one would-be rapist, in one moment in time, who’s to say that the rapist won’t target another victim, at the same party, later than evening? Or that the rapist won’t devise another scheme where they are no bystanders to assist? If we empower students to thwart one rape, can we say that we truly have changed how that would-be rapist behaves, overall? As Time Wise notes in White Like Me, “telling someone not to engage in racist commentary in front of you isn’t the same as getting them to stop practicing racism.” Similarly, getting one would-be rapist to stop one act isn’t the same as getting that person to change their beliefs, and thus their actions, on their own.

What’s more – and we ought to do some critical thinking here, too – if we operate under the assumption that survivors are in our audiences, and thus, we deliver content sensitively and appropriately, we must also accept the fact that people who have already committed rape, as well as those who will go on to commit rape, will be in our audiences, as well. Giving them our models on bystander theory can certainly motivate them to create alternative ways of carrying out sexual assaults.

Now I’m not calling for educators and preventionists to stop using bystander approaches. What I am challenging my friends and colleagues to do is – some thorough analysis and critical thinking. Let’s stop feeding audiences the rhetoric. Let’s spend time unpacking these very complicated issues and let’s stop being lazy and haphazardly reviewing concepts during the last few minutes we have, just to say we met some measure. Let’s stop making things so goddamn simplistic. Sure it sounds good to say to people “we can prevent rape, if bystanders will step up!” When we do that, though, are we really, truly preventing rapists from valuing, contemplating, planning, and carrying out rape? Or are we just displacing the blame, yet again, because the alternative seems too damn difficult?

To my friends and colleagues, and those who openly discuss bystander theory, let’s give the theory the respect it deserves, and analyze it, fully, as another tool to help prevent sexual violence. It’s not the tool that will end sexual violence on its own. Let’s give the complexities of rape the respect it deserves, as well. It’s not some simple entity that can be stopped by someone checking in, or saying, “I have to go to the bathroom, can you come with me”. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Let’s also give survivors the respect they deserve, and stop regurgitating the “if only there was a bystander” talk. How might that make survivors feel, to reanalyze their assaults, yet again, wondering why someone didn’t step up? Or that, as a field, we hold the bystanders just as culpable as we hold the rapists. I’m calling bullshit on that, and I challenge my friends and colleagues to do the same.

A Reflection on Convocation

I attended convocation at the place where I work, today. It was okay. Too hot and humid for my liking. But I quickly found a spot in the shade, and attempted to cool off after the student government president, dean of faculty, and president of the college all delivered addresses. Being there, watching the students sitting in plastic chairs, baking under the sun, reminded me of my first day at college.

It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime memories. Like the day you get your driver’s license, your senior prom (for better or for worse), the day you get married, the moment you watch your child come into the world (if you’re lucky enough to experience the latter two.).

My first day at college was a mixture of excitement (ecstatic about the physical distance I’d be placing between me, and the place where I grew up), sadness (it felt like I was leaving the place where I grew up, and everyone I knew, behind), and anxiety (I wondered less about whether my roommates would be weirdoes, and more about whether I brought enough deodorant).

But that first day, I was away from my family, really, for the first time in my life. Away from the responsibilities of coming home at a decent hour, or calling my mother to tell her where I’d be. Removed from the wailing police sirens and other urban lullabies that sang me to sleep. Separated from my friends, the bodegas, bus routes and Path trains, and everything that made New Jersey home.

The one thing I didn’t know – the one thing I wish I had known – was that, that day, I was literally starting my life. It wasn’t like the time I went to a different high school than all of my friends, and I had to adjust. It was like the time I moved to a different part of the city, and I had to make new friends. No, starting college was much different than anything I had ever experienced.

That night, I remember setting up my things and going to bed. I hadn’t slept much the night before, and my roommates wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. When the next day arrived, it became real. The nightlife. The drunkenness. My classmates wandering around from building to building. Chatting, buzzing, trying desperately to fit in.

I sat back, watching it all unfold, thinking to myself, is this really how it’s going to be for the next four years. Wondering where, or how, I’d even fit in. Fitting in, isn’t that what most students are just trying to do? Find their place, their niche, the place where they feel like they belong. That was me on a Saturday night, with most of my classmates (or so it seemed) stumbling from party to party, praying life didn’t pass them by.

The pit of my stomach felt unsettled. I knew I’d belonged, but that’s not what was playing out in front of me. I wanted no part of the inebriated environment. That was some shit I couldn’t get down with. Some shit that I judged my classmates for. See, what I didn’t know at that time, was that we were all in the same boat – drunk or not. Laughing with people we’d just met or sitting by our lonesome. We were all in the same predicament. Just trying to make this new place feel like home.

And, all these years later, that’s become so much of what life is about. Trying to make things feel normal, like you’ve been there forever. Whether it’s a new job or a new house. A cute guy you just met or the newest cell phone you just had to buy. We’re all in the same boat. Trying to make each, and every experience, feel like a little less intimidating, a little more welcoming. An organic extension of ourselves. Like that old Cheers song, a place where everybody knows our name.

That’s what so much of life has become. Vying, trying, and fighting, desperately, just to not feel out of place. Whether we’re chatting on our cell phones while walking down the street, meanwhile missing out on life that’s taking place all around us. After all, who wants to be an outsider, when it’s much more comfortable being part of the in crowd – however you define that term.

The college experience teaches us lesson that we can hold onto for the rest of our lives. Life is going to bring uncertainty and anxiety. Life is going to be confusing and chaotic. Life isn’t always going to feel normal and organic. The sooner we allow ourselves to get used to this reality, the better off we’ll be at adjusting to the every-changing scenery around us.

I wish I could tell my eighteen-year-old self that, the day I moved into college. But that’s also the beauty of it. Some things you can’t learn reading some obscure passage or by heeding the advice of other people. Some things you just have to learn on your own. Like how to make each and every experience, an organic extension of yourself.

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