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.

“What we can do is change community norms so that the perpetrator’s behavior is no longer acceptable,” says Jane Stapleton, who is co-director of Prevention Innovations Research and Practices for Ending Violence Against Women at the University of New Hampshire (UNH).

UNH’s program, Bringing In the Bystander, was developed nine years ago and has two components. The in-person program has two versions: a 90 minute session and a multiple-session, 4.5 hour program. Both teach undergrads how to safely intervene in cases where sexual assault may be occurring or where there may be a risk.

The Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program also uses the bystander model to empower students to take an active role in promoting a positive school environment. Originated in 1993, it was designed to train male college and high school student athletes and other student leaders to use their status to speak out against rape, battering, sexual harassment, gay-bashing and all forms of sexist abuse and violence. It has since expanded to include a female component.

Related Article: Title IX Sexual Violence Prevention Guidance

Many e
xperts recommend using this type of single-sex education program to connect with groups like athletics (football, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer) and fraternities. This type of education can help to counteract the single-sex, hyper-masculine environments that are particularly common in high school and college athletic programs and fraternities — the same environments that, according to research, seem to fuel sexual assault and other types of abusive behaviors, such as hazing and dating violence.

Ad Campaigns Can Help Change Attitudes
UNH also has a social marketing program, which demonstrates through posters and ads on buses, bookmarks, table tents, door hangers and computer screens how bystanders can intervene. The marketing and training programs don’t encourage bystanders to break up an attack themselves. Instead, these initiatives encourage them to call the police or a resident assistant.

“We’re modeling what bystanders can do to be supportive of people who have just disclosed that they have been victimized,” Stapleton says. It also helps to correct some of what experts call “rape-supportive” attitudes that exist among some men. The marketing campaign portrays common scenarios that men say they’ve witnessed before, during and after an assault, be it sexual violence, relationship violence or stalking.

“To find out what those scenarios were, we did focus groups with over 500 students and asked ‘What are the things you hear and see, and what are the things people have told you,’” she says.

The marketing program uses current students who are well-known on campus to be the individuals portrayed in the various scenarios depicted in the ads. For example, one ad encourages the audience to speak up when they hear stories that glorify sexual violence. It portrays three men engaging in the following dialogue:

  • Actor 1 says, “My friend Jeff is the man. He got this girl passed out drunk and then nailed her.”
  • Actor 2 responds by saying, “You’ve got to be kidding. Your friend raped her.”
  • Actor 3 chimes in and says, “You’re friend’s pathetic.”

In this way, UNH works to change attitudes and behaviors on campus. Evaluations of both the in-person and social marketing campaign demonstrate that these prevention strategies decrease participants’ belief in rape myths (see Common Rape Myths at the end of this article),  increase their knowledge about sexual violence and bystander behaviors, and encourages them to intervene before, during and after sexual violence. Bringing in the Bystander and Know Your Power have been adapted and evaluated on college and university campuses across the country as well as by the U.S. Army.

Related Article: Campus Law Enforcement Invited to Attend Crimes Against Women Conference

Alcohol Plays a Significant Role in Sexual Assault
Of course, no sexual violence prevention program would be complete without considering the role that alcohol (and drugs) play in these incidents. As many as 70% of all sexual assaults involve alcohol being imbibed by the perpetrator and/or victim.

Alcohol and drugs can impair the judgment of perpetrators who might disregard indications that the victim does not want to engage in sex. It can also impair the judgment of victims who might ignore risk cues. Additionally, a victim who consumes alcohol and then is assaulted often is blamed for the assault. Conversely, the use of alcohol or drugs by a perpetrator can be used to excuse his or her actions. In reality, alcohol is the number one drug used by perpetrators to help facilitate sexual assault.

It is for this reason that Security On Campus recommends schools adopt policies and appropriate disciplinary sanctions for students and employees who violate alcohol policies. Sanctions that are enforced consistently send the message that alcohol and drug abuse will not be tolerated.

It should be noted, however, that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) warns schools that these disciplinary policies could have a chilling effect on victims’ or other students’ reporting of sexual violence offences. This is especially true if the victims or bystanders were in violation of campus alcohol, drug or other rules when the incident occurred.

Because of this, OCR recommends that “schools inform students that the schools’ primary concern is student safety, that any other rules violations will be addressed separately from the sexual violence allegation, and that use of alcohol or drugs never makes the victim at fault for sexual violence.”

Offering alcohol-free events, such as homecoming, athletic events, concerts and parties can also help to provide students with alternate activities that don’t put them in as much risk for sexual violence.

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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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