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?

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.