Bystander intervention and fighting oppression

The debate over bystander intervention has gotten some press lately, with Lauren Chief Elk and Shaadi Devereaux writing an essay against it, and Jesse Singal writing a response to them at Science of Us. Both make some points that I agree with, and neither’s characterization of bystander intervention really describes the bystander intervention workshop that I facilitate for the local rape crisis center. I do want to acknowledge, before I get into the weeds here, that how someone characterizes bystander intervention is likely to be heavily influenced by what programs they have experience with, as there are a lot of different models out there.

I agree with Chief Elk and Devereaux that bystander intervention programs that emphasize playing Batman (even if they qualify it with “But of course you should keep your safety in mind”), or that emphasize going to authority figures who, like the rest of society, may buy in to societal myths about sexual violence, and whose arrival on the scene may have very negative consequences for innocent people, are not a solution at all. I also agree with them that anti-violence movements need to look at violence in a much broader and more intersectional way, a way that considers racism, classism, queerphobia, how the US conducts itself in the world, and so on. An example of a (not anti-sexual-violence, but anti-partner-violence, which is closely related) organization that I think does this pretty well, is The Network/La Red, which conceives of itself as a social justice organization that happens to provide direct services around partner abuse (which it sees as part of larger structures of violence and oppression), while also organizing and participating in coalitions against both other forms of interpersonal violence, and against structural violence and oppression. What leaves me unsatisfied with their essay (other than the very limited view of bystander intervention, which I’ll get to in a moment) is the lack of concrete suggestions for what we can do in the here and now. Dismantle rape culture, patriarchy, and structural violence in general, yes, let’s do that. That’s going to take a while. Confront the role of violence in our own lives, yes. What actions follow from that?

I agree with Singal that harm reduction is a wonderful thing and that idealism vs harm reduction is a false choice. I also agree with him (though perhaps working from different examples) that bystander intervention need not be about playing Batman. However, his examples are a little dubious. He links to various universities that use the Step Up model, a model that, while it emphasizes considering one’s own safety, also appears to frame intervention as a choice between either a very direct approach that may be risky, or calling 911 (which brings us back to the problems with authorities that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the need for wider cultural change as a crucial part of anti-violence work). Step Up is also, judging by their sample training materials, extremely centered around (presumably cis) men assaulting (presumably cis) women. He links to anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback!, which, while I don’t know enough about the Green Dot model that they use for bystander intervention to comment on it, is an organization that’s run into some intersectionality problems lately, which led to some chapters leaving the organization*. Oddly, he appears to buy into the “fix the system” vs “do something helpful in the moment” dichotomy that he’s decrying, since he discusses bystander intervention as something apart from fixing the system, even though research on bystander intervention programs shows that both individual and organizational/societal sexism and heterosexism decrease the chance that people will intervene.

Like I said in my first paragraph, I facilitate bystander intervention workshops (as well as consent workshops for youth, and many other kinds of workshops and trainings) for my local rape crisis center. I think our curriculum is pretty good! Contrary to Chief Elk’s and Devereaux’s images of bystander intervention programs, I don’t think it teaches people to play Batman! Here’s what I like about it:

– People are required to take one of our “101” trainings, which cover the dynamics of sexual violence and how it happens, bust myths about sexual violence, cover issues like “so why don’t some people report?” and teach basic, survivor-respectful responding skills, before they can take the bystander intervention training.

– It acknowledges that people can commit sexual violence or experience sexual violence regardless of gender.

– To a large degree, it is a training about challenging rape culture, which, through the material in the prerequisite 101 training, is linked to other societal problems like homophobia, transphobia, and mass incarceration. It emphasizes that you’re going to see rape jokes, misogynistic comments, and possibly-ambiguous early-stage situations, far more often than you’re going to see someone dragging a blackout-drunk person into their room. The interventions that are brainstormed and discussed are much more about how to address the former than the latter. For instance, there’s a scenario in which you have a friend who is mocking the survivor in a news story about a female teacher raping a male high school student, and the group brainstorms about what you could say or do.

– The choices, for whatever level of situation, go beyond “Say something direct or call 911.” For instance, depending on what is happening and what you feel safe doing, you might distract one of the involved parties, change the subject, get up and walk out of the room (for instance, if your friend just made a rape joke), move to a location where you can see the parties’ facial expressions and body language, and so on, rally friends for support, check in with the harassment target later to support them, tell other friends about so-and-so’s behavior, and so on.

– The many reasons that people don’t intervene are discussed and treated as frequently valid and not pathological. Bystanders are not presented as being responsible for sexual violence. The point is to give people options so that they aren’t always just stuck there thinking “I want to do something about this situation but um,” not moralize at them. I think this is pretty important – aggressors are responsible for assault, not bystanders, and bystander intervention needs to not be just another way to place responsibility for sexual violence on everyone but the people who commit sexual violence.

*Just a thought, maybe citing an organization that recently ran into trouble for throwing people color under the bus in its fight against sexual violence, when you’re responding to the commentary of women of color on sexual violence, is not the best call.

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