Bystander intervention – the encouraging of bystanders to intervene before, during, or after an assault – has been embraced over the past ten years as a major step away from victim-blaming messaging, which focused on telling individuals how to modify their own behaviors around things like dress, drinking, and going out alone as a way of preventing sexual assault. But are these two strategies really that different? I’ve written about bystander intervention in a generally positive way before, but recent incidents and other activists’ writing on the subject have made me take a closer look at the problematic nature of this strategy.
Throughout 2014, bystander intervention messaging was in the spotlight in the U.S., with first the launch of the White House’s 1 is 2 Many campaign in April, followed by the Its On Us campaign launched in September, both aimed at preventing sexual assault on college campuses.
As an example, here is a recent PSA released by the Its On Us campaign:
This PSA shows a party scene in which an obviously-intoxicated woman is about to leave a party when a guy grabs her and says “oh no no, you’re not leaving already?” and starts trying to convince her to stay. Then the camera focuses on another guy sitting on a couch, watching the scene, and as he gets up to walk over to them, a voiceover says “This isn’t a PSA about a sexual assault. It’s about being the guy who stops it. ” That’s bystander intervention messaging in a nutshell: when we see something happening, it’s up to us as individuals to respond.
This messaging strategy invokes feelings of community responsibility, which at first I thought was an attempt to reframe the issue from an individual framework to a systemic framework, but it doesn’t actually do that. Bystander intervention messaging does little to illuminate systemic issues. It does not shed light on the pervasive rape culture or the institutions that fiercely protect individuals who choose to rape. As Lauren Chief Elk and Shaadi Devereaux state in their recent New Inquiry piece, “bystander intervention appears less as a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more like an evolved form of victim blaming.”
Under its warm and fuzzy cloak of community responsibility, bystander intervention messaging keeps the focus steady on the individual level, the only difference being a shift in who those individuals are. If a sexual assault happens, an individual can still be blamed – and that individual we’re all pointing to is still not the actual person committing the assault. It feels a little like a classic “look over there!” sleight-of-hand situation.
This failure to reframe the problem as a systemic issue makes it seem like the community needs to step in because holding people accountable is an impossible goal. It’s not. Particularly when it comes to college campuses, where we know that serial rapists commit 9 out of 10 rapes.
Dozens of colleges and universities are currently under investigation for mishandling investigations and refusing to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. This is an institutional problem, not a community problem. Schools need to stop protecting rapists, and improve the way they handle sexual assault cases. The overall focus needs to shift from individuals – whether victims, perpetrators, or bystanders – to the institutions allowing the problem to continue.
The problems with bystander intervention go beyond a simple failure to reframe, due to layers of privilege involved. Lauren Chief Elk shared some deeper analysis on Twitter a year ago (and many times since then), including her personal experience intervening as a bystander:
When a woman of color challenged the behavior of white, wealthy athletes, she was the one attacked and monitored. This example illustrates how the mainstream messaging strategy of bystander intervention sells a version of heroism that sounds broadly accessible, but in reality is only socially and legally protected in certain circumstances.
There are related models that invoke community support and involvement without transferring the responsibility of assault prevention to community members. #YouOKSis started a lot of conversations about how to safely check in with someone in a street harassment situation to make sure they’re okay, but also to “make the harasser aware that somebody is watching, that somebody is paying attention, that someone is conscious”. The 2014 Feminist Public Works subway ad campaign in Philadelphia took a similar approach, as did the Bell Bajao campaign launched in India a few years ago, in which men were encouraged to interrupt domestic violence situations in a nonconfrontational way to simply communicate that the community is watching. It seems like there is some space for strategies like this to serve as a powerful form of community education and involvement, if the pressure for change remains focused on systemic issues. What do you think?