Everyday, we see situations where someone makes an inappropriate sexual comment or perpetrates sexual harassment. Sometimes, we say or do something. At other times, we choose to ignore the situation. How do we make those decisions? Is there a safe way to increase the number of times and situations in which we might choose to act?
Bystander Behavior and Sexual Violence
In 1964, the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese shocked Americans from coast to coast. While a man attacked, raped, and killed this woman for over half an hour, eventually killing her, 38 men and women witnessed the assault and did nothing to help. The shock and confusion surrounding this event captured the country's attention and launched a debate into how caring people could watch such an attack, and yet do nothing. This one event launched new research and programs about the "bystander effect."
This one event also marked the beginning of an approach by programs and researchers to move bystanders to act more responsibly. People in a bystander role often describe feeling scared, alone, and afraid to say or do something in the face of violence. They say that they fear making someone angry, possibly misunderstanding the situation, or even triggering further violence. Yet over the years, the bystander intervention approach has recognized that saying or doing something is not necessarily a single event by a single hero. In fact, in many situations, there are a variety of opportunities, and numerous people who can choose to intervene.
With this new perspective or approach, people might intervene in less extreme situations, such as saying something at a party when a man is harassing a woman, or supporting a family member when confronting an abusive relative. This expanded approach includes a broad range of opportunities to intervene that can be as simple as a word here or there or more involved behaviors that let people know that you will take action.
Importance of a Bystander Approach
Although some anti-sexual violence groups focus much of their efforts on stopping victimization and others on stopping perpetration, both approaches share common goals, namely to create a safe community and to hold the perpetrator responsible for his or her crime. Much of the important work in both fields takes place AFTER someone has been harmed. However, with the bystander intervention approach, the work is broadened to address the behaviors of others — the friends, families, teachers, clergy, and witnesses that surround any act or pattern of abuse — thus offering an opportunity to also address behaviors BEFORE sexual violence has been perpetrated in the first place.
In the field of public health, primary prevention refers to intervention before anyone has been harmed. The bystander intervention approach is key to finding and expanding the possibilities to stop sexual violence BEFORE it is perpetrated. This bystander approach has been successfully used with a variety of social ills such as combating racism, intimate partner violence, and drinking and driving.
In many ways, willing bystanders are already part of the environment of those working in sexual violence prevention, response, and treatment. A significant number of clients in most rape crisis centers are family and friends of the victims, people who want to learn how to support victimized women, children, and men. Programs that work with child sexual abuse cases also involve the child's family in the healing process. By incorporating the bystander approach into these existing services, the families and their communities can become more educated about how to take action to prevent sexual violence. They may also be more willing to say something or do something when they see an opportunity to act.
The term bystander conjures up many, and sometimes conflicting, images. For some the word connotes a passiveness, an innocent bystander who could not, or did not, do anything in a dangerous situation. For others the term includes more engagement such as someone who witnesses a car crash and calls for help or someone who "stands by" a friend when he or she is being harassed.
While the term "bystander" is embedded in the research, we challenge each of us to create more engaging words and images. The reality is that everyone is a bystander, every day, in one way or another to a wide range of events that contribute to sexual violence.
Anyone who lives in today's society likely feels the impact of the sexual violence surrounding us. The visibility of sexual violence has become more apparent in the mainstream media, the news, on talk shows, and in the memoirs of famous people. In fact, most of society bears witness — is a bystander — to sexual violence.
If we accept the premise that all of us are affected in some way by sexual violence, how do we decide whether it makes sense to say or do something as an act of prevention?
Free Online Workshop: Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention
Click here to access this free online workshop produced by The New England Adolescent Research Institute Inc. (NEARI) and sponsored by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). Whether you are new to the field or an experienced professional, this course provides the basics for how to encourage friends and family to deter and possibly prevent sexual violence.
To Get More
There are blog posts, related videos and downloadable documents below to educate and empower you to be an Every|Day Hero against sexual abuse and assault. We will be constantly adding material to this website and welcome your thoughts, opinions and submissions. To contact us, click here.
The above material includes excerpts from the eBook written by Joan Tabachnick, and shared courtesy of NSVRC. This book looks first at what individuals, families and friends can do. Then it looks at what can be done as a community and in our society. Get the full eBook in the downloads section below.
Click below to listen to an interview on NPR with Mike Dilbeck
regarding the rape and sexual abuse scandal at Penn State