Bystanders: Your Best Weapon Against Sexual Assault

Enlisting the help of male and female students, athletes, coaches, staff, teachers, administrators, fraternity and sorority members, and even strangers enables campuses to develop allies in the battle against sexual violence on campus.

This is the second in a series of four Campus Safety magazine articles covering sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking. Our next installment will cover the reporting and investigation of incidents involving sexual violence. To read our first installment on stalking, click here.

There’s no pretty or easy way to talk about sexual assault — the number of incidents in U.S. campus communities is staggering. Nearly one in four college women will experience a completed and/or attempted rape at some point during her college career, and more than two in five sexual assault victims are minors.

The numbers clearly show that campuses have experienced huge challenges in preventing, not to mention reporting and responding to sexual assaults appropriately. In light of these challenges, experts now suggest the best way to address sexual violence could be to enlist the help of both male and female bystanders.

Victim Blaming, Male Bashing Don’t Work
Traditional sexual violence prevention programs have focused primarily on women, imploring them to take self-defense classes and not drink too much alcohol, take drugs, go on dates with someone they don’t know or walk alone at night. According to Dr. Gary Margolis, who is managing partner for Margolis, Healy & Associates, this approach to sexual assault prevention education can be perceived as victim blaming because it focuses on the victim rather than the role of the offender.

Related Articles: Sexual Assault Statistics

“We know [predators] don’t need to use explicit violence to sexually assault you or to take advantage of you,” he says. “All I need is to use a glass of wine or two or three or four and a couple of shots of alcohol.”

Additionally, the traditional focus on young men only as perpetrators or potential perpetrators can make them defensive and resistant to sexual violence prevention education.

Instead, a better approach might be to encourage men to be allies for social justice, claims Michelle Issadore, who is executive director of and previously coordinated Lehigh University’s sexual violence prevention and response efforts.

“This needs to be about the fact that most men on a college campus would not engage in this type of behavior, and they don’t think it’s right,” she says. “It’s about appealing to them and not trying to change women’s inability to feel safe or move freely about campus.”

Schools Must Honestly Assess the Problem  
So how does an institution do this? According to Paul Kivel, an activist and writer on education and social justice, it’s not easy.

“People want specific programs and responses, but they don’t want to change institution- and system-wide culture and dynamics,” he says. “There is no magic bullet.”

He warns that institutions shouldn’t just do something for the sake of looking like they are doing something.

“So many people are trying one or two things, and then they use those things to say they are dealing with this issue, but they haven’t really changed their practices.”

Before any program is put into action, Kivel recommends a campus conduct an assessment that honestly looks at students, staff and safety at the institution. This can determine the levels of violence, incident response, and who is and isn’t making complaints. Focus groups, talking with organizations on campus that deal with survivors (such as women’s centers), conducting surveys, doing one-on-one interviews and analyzing incident reports are some ways campuses can get an accurate assessment of their situations.

That being said, there are primary prevention programs that can help to foster respect, equality, civility, healthy relationships and healthy sexuality in a campus community, reports the American College Health Association. Doing this requires top administrators, athletics, fraternities, sororities, faculty, women’s centers, counselors and others to support policies and practices that forbid sexual violence of any kind, whether the act is a sexist remark, rape or something in between.

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These programs can include classroom discussions, health promotion programs, advertising campaigns, counseling sessions and peer education.

Programs Can Change Campus Social Norms
The bystander model of prevention is becoming more and more popular with sexual violence experts. It is based on research by David Lisak indicating that there really are a small number of perpetrators on campus but there are a much larger number of people (bystanders) who essentially support sexual violence by either not intervening when they see something happening or they dismiss the behaviors, which sends a message to the perpetrators that their actions are OK.

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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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