Thinking Beyond Bystander Intervention

By Molly Sandstrom, Breakthrough Fellow 2016-17

For many years, bystander intervention has been a popular approach to violence prevention efforts on college campuses. Bystander education attempts to empower individuals to recognize potentially problematic or violent situations, and then intervene. Intervention can include checking in, creating a distraction, or alerting authorities. Bystander intervention was intended to be a community-based approach to violence prevention, but unfortunately it is not enough.

Who is left out?

Bystander intervention often has a limited understanding of how violence works in different communities. Without intersectional facilitation techniques, bystanders might be trained to solely keep an eye out for male or masculine aggressors and female or feminine “victims”.

When bystanders expect to see violence occur in specific, easy to spot tropes, they can end up overlooking harm that defies these “norms.” News, media, and even educational materials often highlight white women as the “typical” survivor of sexual harassment or violence. In reality, perpetrators and survivors of sexual harassment can hold any number of different identities.  Not all aggressors are men and not all survivors are women. When bystander intervention training uses these limited perspectives, it can silence the experiences of broader groups of survivors, such as women of color or men, and create communities that are less prepared to step in to help.

Additionally, queer and trans individuals are far more likely to experience sexual violence and harassment. But the continual systematic erasure of queer and trans narratives from media and education makes it easier and even acceptable to overlook these communities. Bystanders rarely trained on how to even recognize harassment or violence towards queer or trans people, let alone how to respond. The same could be said for many other historically marginalized identities, such as disabled people or undocumented folks.

Limited situational application

Bystander training is often limited to party or bar scenarios, where alcohol is consumed and “hooking up” is expected. Certainly these spaces exist, and their toxic elements must be addressed, but sexual violence happens beyond those spaces. Preparing people to address such behavior regardless of context will better benefit all campus community members.

Also, a model that only trains bystanders on party situations fails to acknowledge college students who do not drink or have sex, for any number of reasons. These individuals need to be able to find and identify their stake in violence prevention work, even if they’ll never spend a weekend night at a fraternity party.

No opportunities for change for perpetrators

Bystander intervention can take a limiting approach to understanding potential perpetrators. It reduces those who commit sexual violence to “monsters among us” who look and act a certain way, asking bystanders to memorize the specific characteristics and match them to problematic individuals. Bystander intervention never asks participants to turn a critical eye upon themselves or their communities.

Additionally, bystander intervention often relies on old data which assumes the vast majority of sexual violence on college campuses is committed by “repeat offenders”. With this kind of understanding of sexual violence it can be easy to lose hope, as these offenders seem impossible to reach or change. Even with successful intervention the aggressor can slip away into the crowd.

Newer research finds those who commit sexual violence may fall into different groups. The impact of the sexual violence does not change but their attitudes and behaviors may have the potential for change. If we adopt forms of education beyond bystander intervention we can address those individuals, and the environments they are socialized in, before they are in a position to commit sexual violence in the first place.

Victim blaming reinvented as bystander blaming

People sometimes worry even if they attempt to intervene, an aggressor could easily target someone else and continue to cause harm regardless of the actions of the bystander. They raise concerns they have not done “enough.” Sexual violence is the sole fault of the person who committed said violence! But bystander intervention makes it all too easy to blame an incident on the actions of or failure to act by bystanders. There are valid reasons to not intervene, like safety concerns or fear of retaliation. And even if someone does intervene and does everything “right” it doesn’t adequately address the aggressor’s behavior.

No long term plans for change

Because bystander intervention waits for the visibility of potential violence before action occurs, it does little to address why violence happens in the first place. Bystander intervention alone will not stop violence, even over time. However, there are things individuals can do to help create safer, happier, and healthier communities, and work towards the elimination of violence.

What can we do instead?

Call out harmful, sexist, or violent language, even when it is a joke. Even comments with good intentions can normalize the presence of violent language.

Be critical of media and what explicit and implicit messages it conveys about gender norms, sex and sexuality, and violence.

Set community standards and a plan for accountability.

Practice a culture of consent: ask before touching someone, borrowing their possessions, or sharing sensitive or personal information. Help others understand and practice consent in non-sexual contexts.

Disrupt the harms of “hookup culture” which creates the expectation of sex at any cost.

Educate yourself more about how to support survivors, especially survivors who may hold historically marginalized identities.

Educate others: share what you’ve learned with your peers and start necessary conversations about standards of consent and respect in your communities.

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