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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White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

Last week, the White House launched a second video PSA as part of its 1 is 2 Many campaign against sexual assault. Like the prior PSA (starring athletes Eli Manning, Jeremy Lin, Jimmy Rollins, Evan Longoria, David Beckham, Joe Torre and Andy Katz), the new PSA also relies on star power to carry its message, this time with actors (Daniel Craig, Benicio del Toro, Steve Carell, Seth Meyers and Dulé Hill) in addition to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

This year has seen quite a bit of action from the White House on sexual assault. On January 22, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report titled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” which identified sexual assault on college campuses as “a particular problem.” The president then formed a task force specific to campus sexual assault, which released its recommendations on the same day this new PSA was launched. The current situation is certainly not great. As of May 1st, 55 schools are under investigation for the mishandling of sexual assault reports. Fixing these issues is going to require a two-pronged approach: school administrations need get their act together in terms of ensuring confidential reporting, legal services, and counseling; and they need to get cracking on prevention efforts.

The new White House video PSA is aimed at prevention, and interestingly, though the 1 is 2 Many website says “Watch our new PSA on campus sexual assault” the video itself doesn’t seem particularly targeted to college students. Additionally, its planned distribution raises some questions: the PSA will air in select Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark movie theaters, over NCM Media Networks’ Lobby Entertainment Network (LEN), and in movie theaters on military installations and ships underway worldwide. I’m sure some of the movie theaters are near college campuses, but if this effort were really targeted to college students, I would expect something more along the lines of “this video will be incorporated into freshmen orientation programs.” If one looks just at where the PSA will be playing, the military is really what jumps out – not campuses. Oddly, though, the 1 is 2 Many website doesn’t mention the problem of military sexual assault anywhere, despite the fact that the mishandling of military sexual assault cases has been in the public eye pretty consistently throughout the past couple of years, due both to egregious incidents and the release of the documentary The Invisible War. It’s very strange to me that 1 is 2 Many and the media in general have been describing this PSA as focused on college students, when its message is clearly much broader.

The PSA video starts by stating that there is a “big problem” that’s “everywhere” including “college campuses, bars, parties, and even high schools”, and “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” Then it defines the problem as “sexual assault” and throws in the call to action: “It has to stop. We have to stop it,” followed by the definitional portion of the PSA, and a hefty dose of morals: “If she doesn’t consent or can’t consent, it’s rape. It’s assault. It’s a crime. It’s wrong.” That established, the PSA moves into bystander intervention, with various celebrities saying “If I saw it happening…” “I’d do something about it”, “I’d speak up”, “I’d never blame her, I’d help her.” The PSA ends by saying what should motivate this intervention: “I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution” and stating that it’s about “respect” and “responsibility” (appealing to a sense of values).

This PSA is revolutionary in that it specifically turns the focus away from victim blaming, and shines a light on the idea of someone who “can’t consent” which is important, given recent cases like Steubenville. The choice to draw on celebrity power is a huge plus, since people definitely sit up and listen to actors and athletes. There’s a clear sense of pressure from role models, and an appeal to shared values, which is always a good move (and perhaps a particularly great way to address the military population).

This PSA does, however, have some shortcomings. For one, it starts by defining the problem as something “big” that is “everywhere.” PSAs on gender-based violence do this all the time, and while it seems like it makes sense to set out the problem as a big deal, it’s actually a self-defeating strategy. If the overall goal of your message is to empower individuals to create change, the last thing you want to do is make the problem seem impossibly huge. It awakens a doubt in the back of the mind: if it’s this big of a problem, and hasn’t changed so far, isn’t it inevitable? How can anything I do make a difference?

This PSA has also gotten pushback for the statement that “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” This statement does two things: 1) it establishes/assumes that men need to think of women along the lines of a personal connection in order to see them as valuable and worthy of safety; and 2) it focuses only on female victims. Men are also the victims of sexual assault, but reports are much lower because men feel significantly greater pressure to remain silent about it. In the military, for example, men are thought to make up about 50% of sexual assault victims, but only 14% of reports. Hmm… with this in mind, it really feels like the focus on our “sisters, daughters, wives, and friends” is doing more harm than good, particularly given that this PSA is specifically being shown to military audiences.

I get that the PSA is trying to humanize victims and activate a sense of connection among viewers. While yes, I agree that a sense of personal connection shouldn’t be required to get people thinking about women as important, I do think that activating a sense of personal connection does get at the foundation of bystander intervention. People will step in to help their friends without thinking twice, but stepping in to help a stranger is a stretch. It isn’t automatic. It’s easy to start thinking things like: “This is none of my business. I don’t want to get involved. I don’t know what the whole story is here. Someone braver will probably step in. ” or “Nobody else is getting involved, so clearly this must not be a big deal” (in other words, the bystander effect). These are things we wouldn’t be thinking if the person potentially being assaulted was our friend/relative. The idea of the PSA is that everyone has responsibility for stopping sexual assault, which is a major shift from the victim-blaming messages we hear constantly about how women and girls are responsible for protecting themselves. This is a big change, and it’s not going to happen all at once.

That said, why can’t this campaign encourage bystander intervention among both men and women? Do we have to appeal to a gendered sense of “white knight” chivalry to encourage men to participate in shared responsibility for a community problem? A recent NPR article on bystander intervention does an amazing job of describing how both men and women can be part of the solution, even highlighting the actions of a college-age woman who successfully intervenes when a guy is harassing another woman at a party.

The last thing I want to say about the sisters/daughters/wives/friends construction is that there is a lot of silence around sexual assault experiences. A lot of stories don’t get shared, and so I think this part of the ad is also meant to be a wake-up call: yes, this probably has happened to your sister, your daughter, your wife, your friend. You just may not know about it. But hey, it also may have happened to your brother, your son, your husband, or your male friend. There are definitely ways this PSA could have worked to be more inclusive while still sending a strong message.

I really wish the video had gotten down to specifics in its final call to action. It sends a general “do something” message, which is inspiring, but not in a way that easily translates to action. What if each celebrity had instead said what they would do in a specific situation? Like “if I heard my friend tell a rape joke, I’d say it wasn’t funny” or “if I saw my friend leaving with a very drunk girl, I’d pull him aside and help her find a safe way home.” This would probably require a whole series of ads to accomplish, but modeling specific situations and responses is much more powerful than a general call to “step up and do something.” That said, this PSA is still a great first step towards creating a new social norm where it is unacceptable to ignore violence when we see it happening. If we want to accelerate the process, though, we need to start getting down to specifics, while paying attention to the full scope of the problem.

Lastly, I’m disappointed in the distribution of this message, given the fact that it’s coming from the White House. Having the message in movie theaters is great, but what about more frequently-used, mainstream media, like YouTube, Hulu, and Pandora? Doesn’t the White House have enough pull to make that happen? If this is going to be a broad message, then I want to see it everywhere. Where do you wish this message was being heard?

New Dating Violence PSA Communicates Through Dance

This great new PSA from the University of South Florida takes the unusual route of using the language of dance to show the warning signs of dating violence.

Speaking Without Words: Dating Violence

The person behind this unique effort is Andrew Carroll, Assistant Professor in the department of Dance and Theater at the University of South Florida. Before entering academia, he spent nine years as a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company in Philadelphia, and now he’s pioneering an effort to create educational videos on social justice topics. The nonverbal nature of his work makes it easily adaptable both nationally and internationally. This dating violence video is already being used by the Los Angeles School District, where 200 different languages are spoken, and internationally (Germany, Greece, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Belgium, and Belarus, among other countries). The CDC in Atlanta is also interested in using it their domestic violence programs.

Prior to this, Professor Carroll created a similar video on bullying in 2012. The bullying video was also quickly adopted by US and international organizations.

The concept of using dance to communicate and educate about a social justice issue is a great idea, because watching movement activates mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the brain cells that cause us to actually feel the feelings we see in others’ faces and the actions we see in others’ bodies (see my previous post for more info on how they work), and this generates empathy. Dance is not just ordinary movement, though; it is art. A dance performance like the one in this video is movement specifically designed to deliver powerful, amplified doses of emotion. Since evoking emotions is the number one most critical thing to make any message memorable and effective, using movement-based art to communicate makes a lot of sense.

I should clarify that I’m using the term “PSA” loosely with this video. It’s not an advertisement, but rather an educational tool. It’s much longer than a typical ad, and because it’s meant to be used as part of an educational program, it doesn’t have to have to be concise with its message. It can instead focus on evoking emotion and preparing viewers to delve deeper into the topic through discussion. However, I think this video’s potential for virality (it’s already making its way around the world) sends it into the public arena in a way that’s very similar to a PSA campaign.

Part of the reason the video is getting so much attention is the uniqueness of its nonverbal message. The only words that appear, right at the beginning, are: “Speaking Without Words: Dating Violence. Recognizing warning signs.” The rest is all dance. People have to use words to talk about this video, though, and it’s interesting to look at the choices they make. I first found out about it through this article by 10 News in Tampa, Florida, and the the thing that immediately struck me was that the entire article refers to “domestic violence”, not “dating violence,” even though the video itself specifically refers to “dating violence.” So are these two terms interchangeable? Not exactly.

“Dating violence” is a relatively new term, and is most often used in efforts specific to teens and college students.

“Domestic violence” is an older term, and it has a lot of strong associations. It tends to conjure up the image of an older, married, heterosexual woman being controlled and physically abused by an aggressive, violent man, like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy:

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“Dating violence” on the other hand, is relatively free from such associations and aims to expand the images we see when we think about violence in relationships. The CDC defines dating violence as “as the physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence within a dating relationship“. So the main difference is that we’re not talking about married people/people in a committed relationship here. People of all ages can experience dating violence, but usually the specific focus is on younger people navigating the dating world.

Here is an example of the kind of thing the term “dating violence” encompasses:

Source: That’s Not Cool campaign.

You can see how “two teenage girls in an abusive relationship” departs from the pre-existing framework most of us have in our minds around domestic violence. If you asked a few people walking down the street what “domestic violence” is, it would be pretty rare to get any response referring to teenagers, much less teenagers in a same-sex relationship. It would probably also be pretty rare to hear a teenager describe a peer’s abusive dating relationship as “domestic violence.” They’re just not the same thing.

It’s not always easy to choose between a very loaded, easily recognizable term like “domestic violence” and a less recognizable but more flexible term like “dating violence”, but it’s important to think about it, because it can make a big difference. While a highly-recognizable term might grab attention, a less recognizable but more specific term might bring about subtle shifts in understanding and help create a stronger connection with the target audience.

Looking again at the dance PSA video, it makes sense that a local news channel would choose to use the term “domestic violence”, since that is the term its target audience – the general public – is going to most quickly and immediately recognize. “Domestic violence” is guaranteed to grab people’s attention and draw them in, in a way that “dating violence” might not. However since the target audience of the video itself is much more specific to young adults, it makes sense that it uses the term “dating violence” instead.

As a final note on terminology: if you think about it, abuse within a relationship is still abuse whether the people in the relationship are 13 or 75, dating or married. This is why people in the violence prevention field usually say “intimate partner violence” as an umbrella term. Unfortunately, “intimate partner violence” completely fails at evoking emotion, making it a hard sell for any kind of advertising effort. Law enforcement and the general public stick with “domestic violence”, and this is definitely the term that resonates strongest with most people (though clearly, the image resonating with them may not be the image a specific effort is trying to convey). Another thing to consider is that “domestic violence” can also include violence among family members that do not have an intimate relationship. This is often referred to as “family violence.” Since the end goal of a PSA campaign is communication, not perfect academic correctness, the best choice is always going to be the one that gets your target audience both paying attention and connecting with your message.

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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!