In 1964, the sexual assault and murder of Kitty Genovese in America shocked people. While a man attacked, raped, and killed this young woman for over half an hour, 38 men and women witnessed the assault and did nothing to help. This event launched new research and programs about the "bystander effect". This one event also marked the beginning of an approach by programs and researchers to move bystanders to act more responsibly. People in a bystander role often describe feeling scared, alone, and afraid to say or do something in the face of violence. They say that they fear making someone angry, possibly misunderstanding the situation, or even triggering further violence.
Yet over the years, the bystander intervention approach has recognized that saying or doing something is not necessarily a single event by a single hero. In fact, in many situations, there are a variety of opportunities, and numerous people who can choose to intervene.
Importance of a Bystander Approach
Although some anti-sexual violence groups focus much of their efforts on stopping victimization and others on stopping perpetration, both approaches share common goals, namely to create a safe community and to hold the perpetrator responsible for his or her crime. Much of the important work in both fields takes place AFTER someone has been harmed. However, with the bystander intervention approach, the work is broadened to address the behaviours of others - the friends, families, teachers, clergy, and witnesses that surround any act or pattern of abuse - thus offering an opportunity to also address behaviours BEFORE sexual violence has been perpetrated in the first place.
Benefits of the Bystander Approach
Breaking the silence around sexual violence is a critical strategy in prevention. Yet, often the ensuing dialog includes questions to the victim like "How could YOU let this happen?" or "Why didn't YOU say anything?" With bystanders as active participants, the sense of responsibility shifts away from victims and toward the family, friends, and the whole community. The questions then become, "How could WE let this happen in our community?" and "How can WE learn to say something?"
With more bystander intervention, society's collective responsibility takes on a new role. Studies show that social norms can play a significant role in violence prevention, especially in communities such as college campuses (Banyard et al., 2004). Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), for example, shifted social norms of our society with their slogan, "Friends don't let friends drive drunk," a similar shift is also possible for sexual violence: "Friends don't let friends hurt others."
In previous decades, sexual assault prevention programs focused almost exclusively on the dynamic of men as perpetrators and women as victims of sexual violence. Child sexual abuse programs began as programs teaching children to say "no" and teaching adults to listen. The bystander approach shifts this framing and engages adults as agents of change - both men and women become equals in prevention.
The term bystander conjures up many, and sometimes conflicting, images. For some the word connotes a passiveness, an innocent bystander who could not, or did not, do anything in a dangerous situation. For others the term includes more engagement such as someone who witnesses a car crash and calls for help or someone who "stands by" a friend when he or she is being harassed.
The reality is that everyone is a bystander, every day, in one way or another to a wide range of events that contribute to sexual violence. Everyday, we witness situations in which someone makes an inappropriate sexual comment or perpetrates sexual harassment. Sometimes, we say something or do something, but at other times, we choose simply to ignore the situation. How do we make those decisions? Is there a safe way to increase the number of times and situations in which we might choose to act, and could that way also make sense for others?
Anyone who lives in today's society likely feels the impact of the sexual violence surrounding us. The visibility of sexual violence has become more apparent in the mainstream media, the news, on talk shows, and in the memoirs of famous people. In fact, most of society bears witness - is a bystander - to sexual violence.
Read more about Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention here.
1. National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
2. Not Alone
3. Vic Health
4. Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs