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Bystander Intervention: Addressing VAW

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death in an apartment complex in Queens.  After the incident, the public was outraged to hear that there were 38 people who did nothing to help her despite hearing her cries for help.  Although the number of bystanders that actually heard her cries has been refuted, her death inspired decades of research on why people do not intervene to help someone in need.  More than forty years after Genovese’s death we still struggle to understand the multitude of reasons why people do not intervene (see Sandusky. Lululemon. Yeardley LoveClementi.).  After a tragedy occurs, people admonish those who were aware of the abusive or violent behavior for not doing anything or not doing enough.

There are two problems with this form of public scorn.  First, the criticism often overemphasizes the role of the bystander and inappropriately shifts the blame from the offender who committed the violence to the bystander who did not stop it.  A few years ago, I attended a workshop where a convicted sex offender and his wife spoke about the years he was abusing his grandchildren.  At the end of their presentations, the workshop facilitator asked if anyone had any questions for the panelists, and a few people raised their hands.  Each of their questions asked his wife in one way or another: “how did you not know what was going on?”  No one could look at the offender in the eyes and say: “how could you?”

Second, we are not superheroes that can swoop in to save the proverbial “damsel in distress.”  Witnessing a violent crime can be shocking if not traumatic for a bystander.  Your brain tries to convince you that what you are seeing is not actually happening.  Denial and minimization are easier roads than admitting the horror that people perpetrate.  Many people, especially those who have been fortunate enough to be unaffected by violent crime, prefer to believe that we live in a “just world” where violence does not happen to people unless they deserve it.  If the person brought the violence upon himself or herself, we are somehow absolved of our responsibility to try to help.

In my research in this area, I find that victim blaming becomes a convenient excuse for inaction.  This is particularly true in situations of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.  When we are not focusing on the bystanders’ inaction, we focus on the victim’s behavior.  We ask “what was she doing wearing THAT?” or “why did she let herself get so intoxicated?” or “she should have known better than to date someone like that.”  The persistence of these attitudes has dangerous consequences: we do not try to help, victims do not seek help and offenders are not held accountable and re-offend (pdf).  In addition, my research has found that women internalize these messages and consider themselves safe from harm if they, say, wear pants instead of a skirt to the club, don’t hang out with the “wrong people” or drink before going to a party so they don’t get drugged.

I’m going to assume that the readers of this blog are less likely to victim blame and more likely to try to help survivors than the general population.  So I ask you: what would it take to create a world where bystanders felt they could stand up to or speak up for someone in need of third party assistance?  Each of us has a different threshold and tolerance for when or why we might try to stand up to or for someone in our lives.  We have to reframe our understanding of the breadth of roles bystanders can play.  The early bystander intervention research in the 1970s primarily focused on the role bystanders could play during an incident.  However, in cases of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, potential interveners are not necessarily present during the incident.  According to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (1993-1999),  bystanders were not present in 71% of rapes or sexual assaults and in 64% of violent crimes perpetrated by intimate partners (Planty, 2002).

Therefore, we have to take a step back and consider each level of prevention within a socioecological framework (pdf).  Often, in situations of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, friends and peers of the victim or perpetrators are most likely to witness, if not the actual act of violence, the precursors or the aftermath, therefore we must expand our understanding of when bystanders can intervene – not just during an incident but also before or after.  This is important because, frankly, no matter how tough I am or how important these issues are to me, I am not ever going to physically interrupt a potentially violent situation.  I have other skills to offer, however, as a friend or a stranger to someone.  So do you.  Each one of us can play a role in addressing violence against women – whether it is interrupting a rape joke or lobbying for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  To end sexual assault, intimate partner violence and stalking, we need to not only challenge offenders and support survivors but we need to challenge the culture of silence surrounding these crimes.  Each one of can play a role – no matter how small – as bystanders.  As Marian Wright Edelman once said: “we must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”

D13_176_030About the author: Last December, Jane Palmer defended her dissertation entitled “‘A few times I have knocked on doors at parties…': Peers as bystanders in preventing and responding to dating violence and sexual assault on a college campus” in the doctoral program in Justice, Law & Society at American University.  She is currently a post-doctoral associate at Rutgers University School of Social Work’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children, where she is working on an evaluation of the effectiveness of a campus-based bystander intervention and sexual violence prevention program. She is also a research associate at the National Institute of Justice and an adjunct instructor at American University.
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Categories: Violence

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1 reply

  1. The perspective presented here is important. I believe we are all bystanders – people who witness abusive behavior or suspect it is going on and do nothing to object, whether before, after or during the event. This applies to interpersonal actions as well as those by government entities, such as police, military, congresspeople or presidents. We need to point out those failures to act, as well as to recognize that none of us knows what we will be courageous enough to do, until we are tested.
    Ginny NiCarthy, author of Getting Free and Seeing for Myself: A Political Traveler’s Memoir

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