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The power of bystanders to end rape culture


In a few weeks, thousands of new college students will stream onto campuses across the country, trying to navigate the novelties of dorm rooms, dining halls, public transit and rooming with strangers.

It’s a lot to take in — which is why Sharyn Potter cringes when she sees sexual assault prevention crammed into freshman orientation.

Talking about preventing sexual violence is crucial, says Potter, executive director of research at the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, but the timing, frequency and depth of those talks matter.

Rather than blasting students with such an important message during a crazy adjustment period, Potter encourages campus leaders to think strategically about how to develop an ongoing conversation throughout students’ college careers.

Sexual assault prevention, rape culture and bystander intervention are hot topics these days, fueled by public outrage over several high-profile assault cases on college campuses, and experts say they’re encouraged by society’s willingness to finally discuss assault.

But surface talks or quick intervention tips don’t have the transformative power to really stop sexual violence, cautions Jackson Katz, an educator, author and creator/co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention Model, one of the country’s first bystander intervention training programs.

Though it may be uncomfortable, addressing sexual violence requires confronting deeper problems — like unhealthy gender stereotypes and peer cultures that perpetuate or tolerate abuse, society’s messages to boys (and girls) about what it means to be men, and violent pornography that celebrates objectification of women — all subjects beyond just learning how to stop a violent act, Katz says.

“There is so much potential in this moment to really address some of the issues,” Katz continued, “but what I’ve seen happening is a lot of institutions are taking the most noncontroversial and least-effective approaches. (We’re) having conversations about interrupting and intervening in gender-violence situations and we’re not talking about gender? To me, it’s absurd, and it’s a real missed opportunity.”

Bystander intervention

In late July, Christian Garcia and fellow bouncer Leroyea Simmons noticed a man sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman behind the Florida bar where they worked. They confronted him, pulled him off the victim and later identified him in a police lineup.

Garcia, who is also a University of Florida football player, told CNN he distinctly remembered the comments from a Gainesville, Florida, prosecutor who had spoken to the Gators football team about sexual assault.

“If a woman is drugged or intoxicated then she cannot give consent and therefore you cannot have any sexual relations with her,” Garcia told CNN.

In early June, former Stanford student Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting a woman behind a Dumpster. He had been caught by two passing graduate students, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, who yelled at him, tackled him and held him until police arrived.

It’s examples like these that have led to a surge of interest in bystander intervention and its ability to broaden the discussion beyond reduction of individual risk, said Katie M. Edwards, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and core member of Prevention Innovations Research Center.

“With the traditional message of ‘don’t rape, don’t get raped,’ people tend to be resistant and understandably defensive,” Edwards said. “But when you say, ‘Everyone has a role to play in keeping people safe,’ people tend to be much more receptive to those messages.”

Yet, despite the powerful potential of bystanders, there are complex, multi-faceted reasons why people don’t intervene — deeper, stickier reasons than just not knowing what to say or do in a pressure situation, says Katz.

One of those factors is the pressure of the “peer culture” — the expectations among friends, partygoers, fellow teammates, etc.

When there’s an assault within peer culture situations — where most assaults happen — it’s not just about stopping a violent act, it requires going against stereotypes and social norms and confronting issues of gender and power dynamics, Katz says.

“I’m convinced the reason why a lot of men don’t intervene, don’t speak up to challenge and interrupt other men is not because they lack the skills to do so, but they lack the permission to do so,” Katz says. “They realize that if they do challenge and interrupt other men, their manhood will be called into question. There’s a price to pay, often, for a young man to challenge or interrupt another man’s enactment of power and privilege. And that’s one of the reasons why so few guys do it.”

Pornography’s impact

Pornography may also be another reason why men don’t step up and intervene, according to a recent study, which found that men who watched aggressive, violent pornography, but not nonviolent porn, were less likely to say they’d intervene in a potential sexual assault situation.

While the findings are not too surprising, the study goes beyond the typical cause-and-effect question of whether watching violent porn contributes to violent behavior, says Emily F. Rothman, associate professor and co-director of the Violence Prevention Research Unit in the Boston University School of Public Health. “This is a different research question, and the answer is fascinating.”

“This study connects the use of degrading pornography to a larger issue — whether or not people intervene with those around them who may be sexually aggressive,” Rothman continued. “This issue is perfectly illustrated by the Brock Turner case: If college students are willing to intervene when they see or hear sexual harassment or violence taking place, that can help save people from being assaulted. If they are less willing to intervene, that is a problem.”

For study co-author John Foubert, a professor at Oklahoma State University and expert on rape, sexual assault and fraternities, the findings are simply another piece of secular evidence that pornography is harmful to the viewer, as well as those around them.

“That’s the point we need to make more strongly,” Foubert says. “This is not just a personal issue of whether you believe (porn) to be sin, believe it to be against your health or anything of that sort. The more people who are using porn, particularly violent porn, the less likely they are to help other people who are in harm’s way.”

Pornography as “entertainment” is so damaging because it presents women as objects for men’s pleasure, in increasingly violent and degrading ways, says Robert Jensen, a media scholar at the University of Texas, Austin.

“Porn that doesn’t abuse women is better than porn that does, but the real question is not ‘What kind of porn are people watching?’ but ‘Why are people watching porn?’ What is it about how we perceive gender and power that normalizes the sexual objectification of women?”

Space to think

Those are the types of questions that Katz poses during his trainings. Yes, they are awkward, but that’s where the true transformative power comes from.

“It’s not enough to say you don’t abuse women, but what are you doing to challenge and interrupt … abusive behaviors and the attitudes and beliefs that underlie a lot of those abusive behaviors?” Katz asks in his MVP trainings. “If you don’t speak up and interrupt, your silence is a form of consent and complicity in their abuse.”

During trainings, Katz asks people, most often men, to consider situations they might find themselves in, then asks them to think about their responsibility to the people involved.

What’s their responsibility to the woman involved? To their friend who may be about to commit a crime? Why do they feel that way? What are the gender and societal norms that shape their behavior? What is the peer culture of their group? Is that the way they want to act? Is that the type of person they want to be?

When people realize their roles and responsibilities in the bigger “social justice” picture, they will naturally end up discussing specific things they could do to stop sexual assaults, says Katz — whether it’s flipping on lights, turning off the music, pulling a fire alarm, distracting a friend or separating two people.

The important thing, Katz emphasizes, is that conversations about rape culture and bystander intervention aren’t mutually exclusive, but in fact connected issues that have the most power when they’re discussed together.

“(Some people think) you can either do bystander intervention or do social justice, but not both,” he laments. “We can do both, we’ve been doing it for 23 years.”

Bystander skills

But just because someone understands why they should be stepping in doesn’t mean they know exactly how to do it. That’s where “Know Your Power” comes in.

The social media campaign created by Potter’s Prevention Innovations Research Center shows college students situations they might find themselves in, and then models healthy bystander actions — with situations and responses designed by people who are part of the campaign’s target audience.

In one poster, three male friends are getting drinks at a party when the first one says, “I’m gonna get Kali so wasted that she can’t say no.”

“That’s messed up,” his friend replies with a concerned look on his face. “If you’re going to do that, you need to leave now.”

“If you want to get with a girl,” the other friend adds, “that’s not the way to do it.”

At the bottom of the poster are the words, “Know Your Power: Step In, Speak Up, You can make a difference.”

Studies show that when these posters are plastered across dorm halls, common areas, on library computer log-in screens and even on giant bus wraps, college students are more likely to step in and stop sexual violence, as well as show more compassion to those who have experienced it.

Bringing in the Bystander, the companion program to the Know Your Power media campaign, takes that awareness to the next level by providing interactive training. I buy Tramadol from them at least once a month. As of now, I didn’t have any problems with proceeding the payments, prescription or delivery. So, thank you, During the class, students and facilitators discuss the continuum of sexual violence as well as specific incidents and statistics in their communities. Students also practice acting out safe and appropriate ways to respond to relationship violence as well as commit to get involved before, during and after an assault has occurred.

“What we know about prevention is it’s not enough to just create awareness of the problem,” says Potter, also an associate professor in the department of sociology at UNH. (We need to) give people the tools to actually intervene.”

Those tools can be really simple, she says, and don’t require “flying in with your Superman cape.”

If something doesn’t look right at a party, do something about it. Turn on lights, turn off music, change the dynamics.

Both “Bringing in the Bystander” and “Know Your Power” have been studied extensively, and even mentioned in a White House report, and now the goal is to get the proven programs to a broader audience, says Potter. They’re currently evaluating the program’s effectiveness in high schools and this fall will be piloting a bystander video game for freshmen.

Several other programs are trying to tackle sexual violence and increase community or bystander involvement as well, like the Green Dot campaign, Step Up! Sexual Assault Bystander Intervention and the Where Do You Stand? Campaign.

And while recurring headlines of sexual assaults are disheartening, studies show that bystander programs are changing perceptions and making a difference.

A study of another bystander intervention program, also developed by Foubert, found that two years after taking “The Men’s Program” as freshmen, young men reported they had an “increased understanding of rape, a greater understanding that alcohol and intimacy are a dangerous combination, and that intervening when a friend appears to be attempting to hook up with an intoxicated woman is something that one should do.”

In fact, nearly 4 out of 5 of the surveyed young men said their attitudes or behaviors had changed, and gave concrete examples like, “I tend to moderate my friends’ (guys and girls) drinking when I see it is leading them to sexual activity they wouldn’t otherwise participate in,” one student wrote.

Another young man wrote, “A girl had been drinking a lot and wanted to hook up. I asked that she talk to me when sober. She said she didn’t have the courage to talk about it when sober, so I said it shouldn’t happen at all.”

While some had similar thoughts before the program, many attributed their changes in beliefs to attending The Men’s Program.

Whether it’s through classes, programs, media campaigns or soul-searching conversations, experts want everyone to understand the harms and precursors of sexual violence and work to change their own attitudes and actions, as well as commit to intervene in potential assault situations.

But the ultimate goal is that no one would need to.

In a one year follow-up study of students who had taken the “Bringing in the Bystander” program, a handful of researchers, including Potter, concluded that one of the best and often unmeasured outcomes is when “students socialize or interact differently after exposure to prevention programming.”

“This may mean that they are less likely to spend time with high-risk peers or in high-risk situations … (and may) … work to create a peer context with new and better norms,” they wrote, “norms that are clear that behaviors across the continuum of sexual and relationship violence are not acceptable.”