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.

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