Much of the focus in the current Penn State case is on the graduate assistant who witnessed one of the sexual assaults. Responses from many people indicate they believe that they, or anyone, would have done something differently. The grad assistant says that he did intervene, and did take other action in the form of reporting what he saw, but this doesn’t feel like nearly enough. He should have swooped in, rescued the child and beat the hell out of the man. That’s what the rest of us would do.
I have often encountered the conviction that people are certain about how they would act in a traumatic situation. If their partner hit them or someone cornered them in a bedroom at a party with the intent of assaulting them, they would scream or fight or call the police. The harsh truth is, none of us have any idea how we will react if that ever happens. Oh, we might behave as we think we would. Or we might not be able to believe it is really happening. Or we might freeze from fear. Or we might excuse the behavior because we know and trust and like or love that other person.
Which brings us to the bystander effect, and the bystander approach. The bystander effect refers to the behaviors, observed in many situations, of bystanders witnessing something awful happening to someone and doing nothing. The bystander approach is the attempt to change that, to help bystanders feel responsible and learn to take action.
Let’s keep this anchored in prevention.
I did once intervene to stop a rape. I was working late on a Friday night on the second floor of a downtown office building. I heard a woman scream, jumped to my feet, told my coworker to call the police, raced down the stairs and out in the direction of her voice. There was considerable street party and bar activity nearby, but no one else heard the scream, or, if they did, they didn’t understand it was real, or, in any case, didn’t respond.
With some thought for my own safety, I stayed in view of the street and other people as I crossed a parking lot, calling out. As I approached the building on the other side of the lot, a man emerged from the shrubbery and ran. Then the woman who had screamed emerged and we grabbed each other with fear and relief. The police arrived a few minutes later.
Did that action help that woman? Yes.
Did that action make any difference for the other 10 women who were probably raped in that community that weekend? No. Nor did it do anything to affect the culture that supported those 10 rapes. It was intervention by a bystander but it wasn’t prevention.
The work I have done to engage people in thinking about sexual violence has been much more valuable for prevention. The work I and numerous others have done over the past decades has led us to this point. This is no longer a hushed conversation and bystander education got us here, even though we didn’t use that term. There are thousands of people in this country actively working and thinking and talking about ending sexual violence. We are thinking about how to involve thousands more. We will teach them how to be responsible bystanders. Great, except when we run into the culture of individualism in this country. Sexual violence is a societal problem that affects individuals. It’s not an individual problem and individual heroic action won’t solve it.
Consider another, a hypothetical, incident. A college student at a college party sees a man lead an obviously drunk woman into a bedroom. The bystander intervenes in some way that interrupts the probable rape while also remaining safe. It’s possible I guess.
Did that action help that woman? I hope so.
Did that action make any difference for the other 10 women who were probably raped in that community that weekend? Maybe. No doubt there were other bystanders who witnessed the intervention and learned that it could be done and got some ideas about how it could be done. And perhaps those people were at other parties and saw this happening and were able to intervene.
Did that action affect the culture of that campus that supports sexual violence? Probably not.
I was a hero in town after the night I stopped that rape. Big ego. Big deal.
This is why bystander training will only be effective if we keep explaining that it’s not about heroism. We’re all bystanders and we all have opportunities throughout every day to make an impact. Most of the programs that use this approach in the field of sexual violence prevention are clear. They are teaching that this is not about a single event. This is about learning how to think about this problem, how to recognize the cultural supports that allow these things to keep happening, and how to talk about it with each other and then beginning to learn the skills to help prevent it.
I’m glad I intervened that night. I wish someone had intervened for those boys at Penn State. Sometimes we need heroes and sometimes we should be those heroes. But that’s not what will end sexual violence.
Carol Mosely was a sexual violence prevention educator at the University of California at Santa Barbara for 14 years. She continues work with campuses through We End Violence and is currently developing an interactive online prevention program. www.WeEndViolence.com