The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

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:

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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?

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Street Harassment: Getting the Message

Street Harassment: Getting the Message

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Originally posted on Huffington Post on 4/4/2014. 

On April 1st, HollabackPHILLY (a project of Feminist Public Works) launched a series of anti street harassment ads in the Philadelphia public transit system, including subway car interiors, bus shelters and subway station platforms throughout the city.

This is an expansion of the small but high-impact pilot campaign we ran last year, that quickly went viral online, attracting significant local and national press. Our goal with both campaigns was to familiarize the public with the term “street harassment” (gender-based harassment by strangers in public spaces) and define it as a solvable problem, as opposed to an inevitable “fact of life.” However, this year we took it a step further, employing some killer messaging strategies that we hope will generate even deeper conversations.

Last year’s ads were almost exclusively definitional. For example, since most people are unfamiliar with the term “street harassment,” the below ad links the term with specific examples.

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Street harassment is often minimized as a “compliment,” and the below ad aims to start conversations around that issue, while linking the term “street harassment” to “unwanted comments.”

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This year’s new set of ads build on last year’s definitional work by broadening and expanding it. For example, the below ad distills why street harassment is a problem: harassment communicates that people’s bodies are open for public commentary, and limits our right to move comfortably through public spaces.

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This next ad highlights the seriousness of the issue, making a complete break from the common minimization of street harassment as “just a compliment” or “annoying.” Street harassment can make people feel unsafe in lots of ways — for example, street harassment is unpredictable. An example we hear all the time is how a simple, “Hey, beautiful” can quickly turn to, “Stuck up b*tch!” or worse when ignored. Never knowing what might come next means that even relatively mild statements can make people feel unsafe.

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Other ads take it a step further, straight into bystander intervention. The following two ads give specific examples of what a person can say to support someone who has been harassed, or how to call out someone who has just said or done something harassing:

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The following ads give examples of harassing statements, and pointedly shift the responsibility to respond from the victim to the bystander:

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Some of the ads focus on calling out a stranger on their behavior or giving support to a victim after the fact, while others focus on how we can react when those closest to us — our friends — are engaging in harassing behaviors. All of these ways of intervening are powerful and important. If we want to see social change around street harassment, we need to start building up social pressure both out in public among strangers, and privately within our inner circles. This means it’s time to start stepping in when we see harassment happening, because simply being a person who doesn’t harass is not good enough. According to the principle of social proof, our silence when we see harassment happening to others is easily read as acceptance, and reinforces in the harasser’s mind (as well as others witnessing the behavior) that the harassment is socially acceptable.

The shift from individual responsibility to a community sense of responsibility is commonly known as a bystander intervention approach, which has become a gold standard for gender-based violence prevention. Viewing the problem of street harassment as a shared responsibility is a revolutionary shift, not only because our culture emphasizes individuality at every turn, but because this shift puts the focus squarely on the harasser. If we’re active bystanders, ready to intervene, it’s because we see someone (the harasser) doing something wrong. What the victim is doing or wearing is not even part of the equation.

To get technical, this campaign works to establish a new injunctive social norm. Injunctive social norms regulate our perceptions of which behaviors we consider socially desirable or undesirable. There is another kind of social norm, called “descriptive social norms” which describe our perceptions of those behaviors we see as typical or normal. We avoided focusing on descriptive social norms in this campaign, because they tend to backfire by reinforcing a perception that the behavior the campaign is fighting against (in this case, street harassment) is in fact widespread, and therefore acceptable. One of the most famous cases of this happening is the famous “Crying Indian” anti-littering campaign in the 1970s, which actually resulted in more littering by reinforcing the perception that everybody was doing it.

One of the keys to successfully influencing injunctive norms through advertising is to be specific. Just telling people that a behavior is wrong is not the same as giving them the tools to change it. Our campaign ties the problem of street harassment to specific situations, like “Your friend just said, “Is that a dude?” within earshot of a woman walking by and. “You see someone persistently hitting on the girl sitting two rows up.” We also suggest some possible responses, like “That was not OK,” and, “Does that ever work for you?” to start getting people thinking about specific ways they might feel comfortable intervening in the moment.

While we work to broaden our messaging through social change strategies, the bystander-focused ads circle back to deepen the definitional work as well. The ads above delve into how street harassment specifically affects trans* women, the ever-prickly issue of telling people to smile, and the harassment of queer couples. Street harassment is an incredibly complex issue that doesn’t lend itself to a simple, watered-down slogan. Our campaign aims to be as specific and direct as possible, while making space to open up conversation.

We would love to hear your feedback on this campaign. Share your thoughts here.

 

Indian PSA holds up a mirror to street harassers

Indian PSA holds up a mirror to street harassers

An Indian anti-street harassment PSA video, “Dekh Le” (created by Whistling Woods International, a film school in Mumbai, India) has gotten a lot of press recently for holding up a mirror to street harassers:

This video was released on December 16, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the horrific gang rape that was reported around the world. It shows men staring at women in various public spaces, while in the background, a Hindi song plays, saying “Look how you look when you’re looking at me.

This video is great because it opens up conversation about street harassment, particularly staring/leering, which is regularly minimized as something to which women and girls “overreact.” I love that the creators chose to target leering behavior on the anniversary of the Delhi gang rape. It sends a strong message that rape culture is reflected in all of the behaviors that make women uncomfortable in public spaces. It also gets at the connection between street harassment and rape. Does most leering escalate to rape? Not at all. Are women and girls conditioned (with good reason) to fear that escalation? Absolutely. Sometimes a creepy look does escalate to an unwelcome comment, to groping, to following, or even to sexual assault. It can be incredibly difficult to predict in the moment how a situation will play out, which is why an action as seemingly minimal as a leer can send off alarm bells in a person’s mind. And even if it doesn’t escalate, having to endure rude objectifying staring and unwelcome comments in public several times a day is a psychological strain on its own and can result in people altering or restricting their use of public space. All by itself, leering is an invasive, oppressive behavior.

In the video, men’s stares are shown reflected back at them in mirrors that the women wear (a reflective helmet, a necklace, sunglasses, and a mirror on a handbag). The men see their ogling faces and immediately turn away, clearly ashamed of their behavior. I had a strong reaction to this moment, thinking “get real! that would never happen!”. To be fair, there have been reports of women who have talked to their harassers in the moment, explaining how the harassment makes them feel, and have had the harassers apologize and acknowledge the harassing nature of their behavior – so a positive response is not outside the realm of possibility. On the whole, though, I’m guessing the more likely response would be more along the lines of defensiveness: “I’m not like that” or “some women are clearly looking for attention” or “what, can’t people even look at other people anymore?”. This PSA is showing us an unlikely reaction to force us to think about why some people feel free to leer with no sense of shame, and why our culture allows that behavior to continue.

Leering is very different from “looking” or “noticing.” It stems from a deep-seated sense of entitlement to gaze at women as objects. This way of thinking is reflected and reinforced by the idea of the “male gaze” which refers to the dominant perspective in films, ad campaigns, and even comic books catering to a straight male observer; in other words, a heterosexual man is usually doing the looking, and a woman is usually being looked at, often as an object serving “merely as an instrument of sexual pleasure.”

The international anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback!, has been chipping away at the culture that enables street harassers for almost ten years now. In 2005, the year the organization started, a woman riding the subway took a picture of a man sitting across from her, masturbating. When the police refused to help, she posted the picture to flickr. It went viral, making its way to the cover of the Daily News, and sparking a citywide conversation about street harassment. Smartphone cameras are clearly an effective “mirror” to hold up, showing not only what specific incidents of street harassment look like, but how we as a culture look when we permit these behaviors to continue. The Hollaback! app allows for uploading both pictures and harassment stories to its blogs, now in 71 cities and 24 countries. [Side note: Buzzfeed reports that “in several regions of the world, some men feel entitled to leer at women in public places,” insinuating that this problem only happens in certain countries and cultures. This is blatant, incorrect otherizing of the problem. Street harassment happens all over the world, including the United States].

Some of the scenarios in the PSA strike me as being a bit subtle, which makes me wonder about how they will be interpreted. The guy on the bus, in particular, looks like he’s trying to make eye-contact and attempting a friendly smile. Even though the woman he’s smiling at gives him clear signals that she is not interested and does not appreciate it (thereby establishing that this is harassment), I worry that some viewers will interpret her response as an overreaction, because his facial expression looks more hopeful than salacious. On the other hand, this scenario could open up some great conversations about how, yep, persistent staring is still harassment, even if the leer-er is making a friendly face.

I love that this video uses mirrors instead of literally trying to turn the tables by showing women ogling men (which would be a total flop, since the power dynamic does not go both ways). It would be great if this ad went a step further and included a concrete call to action (maybe something about bystander intervention), but I think this is a great start.

As far as I know, this video is an online-only PSA which is meant to spread virally – and it’s doing a good job with over 1.3 million views! Hopefully some of these views are coming via mainstream websites, so it’s not just those of us interested in feminism/street harassment/advertising who are getting the message. Nothing gets me down like preaching to the choir. Have you seen any other great PSAs that focus on leering, or street harassment in general? Drop me a line!

Street Harassment in Egypt & Mirror Neurons

Street Harassment in Egypt & Mirror Neurons

The UN Women‘s Egypt country office just released a new PSA that invites men and boys to see what a day’s worth of street harassment looks like from a woman’s perspective. The slogan is “Put yourself in her shoes, instead of finding ways to blame her.”

This video is part of the “Safe Cities: Free from Violence against Women and Girls” project, which recognizes that sexual harassment in public spaces (street harassment) is a serious problem.

[It] reduces women’s and girls’ freedom of movement. It reduces their ability to participate in school, work and in public life. It limits their access to essential services, and enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. It also negatively impacts their health and well-being… sexual harassment in public spaces remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to prevent and address it.” Source.

The first thing that struck me about this PSA is the fact that it completely breaks from the idea that street harassment is a compliment. Nowhere in this video do you get the sense that the women enjoy it. Instead, the unwanted and harassing nature of the behavior comes across loud and clear. It’s also important to note that the four women in the video are all dressed differently, ranging from secular to religious dress, and yet they are all harassed.

The video starts with a woman in a cab, visibly uncomfortable at the way the driver is ogling her in the rearview mirror. She pulls her jacket around her, trying to cover herself up as much as possible to avoid his invasive gaze. The video then shifts to the viewpoint of another woman walking down a neighborhood street in broad daylight, harassed by a group of teenaged boys who block her path. Then we see through the perspective of a third woman getting on a crowded public transportation van. Within seconds, a man slides his hand onto her leg. She screams at the man, slaps him, and the other passengers start to react to her behavior (they do not appear supportive). The door of the van opens, and we see that she is the one expected to exit for making a fuss – not her harasser. In the last scene, we see through the perspective of a woman being menaced by a group of grown men on the street at night. This is by far the most threatening scene, because the men are grabbing her arms and we see her struggling to escape. We then see the women arriving home, and a voice-over says:

“When you start your day, are you concerned about your safety? Do you worry about what ride to take? And where to walk? Every day she faces humiliation. Anger. She lives in fear and she experiences violence. 90% of women respondents are subjected to sexual harassment in public spaces. Put yourself in her shoes instead of finding ways to blame her. Help to create Safe Cities Free from Sexual Violence against Women and Girls.”

Did you notice that nowhere in the video does it say “stop harassing women”? Instead, it takes an even more direct approach, and asks the viewer to see the experience through a woman’s eyes. The ad shows, and then tells, what a harassment victim experiences: humiliation, anger, fear, and violence. Its goal is to show that women do not enjoy or invite harassment, and that bystanders should be supportive instead of blaming. Countering the attitude that women bring harassment upon themselves is crucial. Even though research done in multiple countries (including the US) proves that women’s dress and behavior is not linked to harassment, the popular belief persists that women invite harassment through the way they dress, the way they walk, etc. In Egypt, there have even been government publications reinforcing this belief.

The overall strategy used in this ad is called “empathy marketing” and it’s grounded in the idea that facts and statistics do not convince people; stories and a sense of connection do. There’s also some serious neuroscience going on here. The way the brain processes images is very different from how it processes words. Showing, as opposed to telling, activates special brain cells called “mirror neurons” that create feelings of empathy. Mirror neurons are the reason we cry at sad movies and get excited about watching sports; they are brain cells that cause us to actually feel the feelings we see in others’ faces and the actions we see in others’ bodies. When you see a the star of a movie collapse into tears and you start to get misty, this isn’t simply because you feel bad for them (sympathy) but because the part of your brain responsible for sadness has activated in response (empathy). You are literally feeling the same sadness. Because we have mirror neurons, we can connect with another person and actually share their experience by watching their face and actions. [To learn more about mirror neurons, check out this fascinating video by NOVA.] It is incredibly powerful. Looking at this PSA again, it’s obvious that every aspect of it calls on our mirror neurons to do their job: first, we go through the harassment experiences literally looking at the world through another person’s eyes. Then, we see the facial expressions of several women matching a list of emotions that are elicited by harassment: humiliation, anger, fear. On a cellular level, we are stimulated to feel what they feel. Nice work, UN Women!

I wish I could find some information on whether this video is running on TV in Egypt, or if there are other ways that it is being distributed. So often, amazing PSAs are launched with no mention of plans for distribution, and it really frustrates me. I’m guessing that with UN Women behind this effort, the offline presence will be significant. If you know anything about how people are seeing campaign on the ground, drop me a line!