Researchers: Bystanders Have the Power to Prevent Sexual Assault

Published: October 9, 2018

When a student is sexually assaulted on campus, whether it happens at a party, a dorm or a fraternity house, a common question asked is where were the victim’s classmates, friends or other bystanders during the incident?

Amidst the allegations against newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for sexually assaulting a former high school classmate Christine Blasey Ford, the same question comes up. Where were Kavanaugh’s and Ford’s classmates during the alleged assault?

In response to this, victim testimony, the accuracy of memory and the justice system in America are now being looked at more carefully, reports WHHY.

According to Ford’s testimony, party guests failed to stop the alleged incident or even notice it happened at all. Key witnesses who were there have stated they did not see any kind of assault.

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Sexual assault researchers say that the bystanders to the alleged Kavanaugh/Ford incident responded in ways that are very common.

Over 50 years of research has documented the “bystander effect.” This is where witnesses fail to intervene in emergency situations. Studies have found that the presence of other people in a critical situation reduces the likelihood that an individual will take action, according to the APA.

The reasons for a bystander effect can vary and overlap. Often times, a witness will assume someone else will step up and help while others don’t realize what is happening at the time of the incident.

Some witnesses do not feel it is their responsibility to intervene or are afraid they will be negatively judged. Some allow their perceptions of victim worthiness to decide if they should help or not, according to this study.

The 2013 United States Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, mandated college campuses administer bystander training programs. The goal was to teach students the warning signs of sexual assault and show them how to safely intervene in certain situations.

A new study on the effects of these training programs has been released by professors Heather Hensman Kettrey from Clemson University and Robert Marx from Vanderbilt University. After analyzing data from more than 6,000 students across the United States, they found that bystander training works. Compared to peers who did not participate in bystander training, trained students were reported to have a greater ability and intentions to intervene.

Not only that, students who participated in bystander programs reported to have implemented the behaviors they learned more often than those who did not participate.

Kettrey and Marx say that the power to prevent sexual assault may lie in the hands of bystanders. They believe that the allegations against Kavanaugh show how sexual assault can go beyond a campus and how its prevention is a community responsibility.

“We, as a society, should strive to become better bystanders by noticing the warning signs of a potential assault, knowing strategies to intervene and remembering that we have a collective responsibility to prevent sexual assault,” the professors said.

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