The Failure of Bystander Intervention

Bystander intervention is less a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more an evolved form of victim blaming.

It’s the first day of student orientation at your new college and along with your map and spirit swag, you find a small pamphlet on sexual assault. You open the pamphlet and read. Inside you discover that you have the power to identify and end sexual assault one attack at a time. The pamphlet shines with the light of truth and justice. It turns into diamonds. You are on a horse. You are Captain America. You wear your best blue tights to the local bar and you’re on the lookout for the very clear and obvious signs of sexual assault described in the pamphlet. Confusingly, these signs seem to include many things your friends do every day. Nevertheless, in superhero mode, you’ve pledged to recognize non-consensual sex as wrong. You bring an assault to the attention of potential allies, as instructed, but they seem to have not read the pamphlet: they have a different definition of consent. Instead of helping you confront the perpetrator, they ask you if the victim has been drinking, and tell you to mind your business.

In reality there’s no green glow highlighting difficult situations, and violence takes many different forms. The paper promise of a world in which sexual assault is never permissible, forged one messy and violent intervention at a time, cannot be fulfilled, or at least not by one solitary hero. There is an entire culture of violence upholding sexual assault as normal, as just sex. Outside of college guidelines, sexual assault has yet to be collectively defined in a way that truly supports victims on practically any level.

Yet, among government, non-profits and mainstream feminists, bystander intervention is the current favored prescription for ending sexual assault. Jumping into violent situations at all costs is positioned as a way to save victims who are not supported on any real societal level.

Bystander intervention, as defined by the Harvard Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, is “a social science model that predicts that most people are unlikely to help others in certain situations” and is designed to “teach people to overcome their resistance to checking in and helping out.” It seems, at first glance, to be a good, simple solution for people concerned about sexual assault, one that transforms passive bystanders into activists, relies on community instead of carceral approaches, and removes the victim from harm’s way. The concept of intervention feels good, evoking pleasant visions of Princes Charming protecting damsels in distress and superhero women swooping down to lasso perpetrators. Yet the bystander model implicitly allows whoever is the most skilled with violence to control the outcome of the situation and leaves women’s protection up to the chance outcome of a duel.

Relying on who is most physically capable on a given day and on the unpredictable response of the perpetrator is not the answer to ending sexual assault. In fact, bystander intervention further serves to uphold a culture of patriarchy in which whoever can most effectively carry out violence, on institutional and physical levels, is most able to successfully carry out his agenda. There can be serious consequences to physically intervening. Bystanders who “did what they were supposed to” have ended up injured, incarcerated or killed.

On November 15th, a 23-year-old German student, Tu?çe Albayrak, was put into a coma after intervening in a group of men harassing and assaulting two teenage girls in a bathroom. One of the attackers retailated by striking her in the head, which eventually lead to her death two weeks later when her parents decided to remove her from life support. What happened to Albayrak is horrendous, and a travesty of anti-violence strategies. But apart from praising her actions as brave, there is limited nuanced discussion about how Albayrak followed mainstream anti-violence instructions to intervene in dangerous situations, and was murdered as a result. While she made the best decisions for herself and the two teenage girls in this situation, this is an important statement against bystander intervention being a prescription to end violence.

Bystander intervention was initially developed by the national movement to end sexual assault as a means of response to emergencies. But what is defined as an emergency? While acts of sexual violence are often rhetorically treated as if they were extraordinary incidents, in practice they are normalized as everyday interactions. Taking advantage of drunk girls, yelling obscenities on the street, grabbing, groping, forced kissing, belittling, badgering, and verbal sexual coercion are all examples of assault not deemed “emergencies.” These behaviors have been socially sanctioned and are considered acceptable, alongside many other sexually predatory behaviors. When we license men to treat consent as a matter for negotiation, predatory behavior becomes the norm. Think, for example, of the guy who “just wants to put the tip in,” or responds with public character attacks when you don’t cave to sexual pressure, or withdraws emotionally to punish you for disobedience, or slyly separates you from your friends for easier coercion. How can rapists be deterred (or even identified) when no one see any of these actions as violent to begin with?

In a culture of violence, both victim and intervening bystander have little support to rely on and are likely to be re-victimized after the original assault. In this light, bystander intervention appears less as a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more like an evolved form of victim blaming. Minimizing the difficult work of challenging the institutions that support violence, it shifts the responsibility of ending violence to those most vulnerable to it.

Until recently, many official organizations supported the patriarchal idea that sexual assault and intimate partner violence were personal matters. Now, they recast this violence as a public matter for concerned citizens, conveniently avoiding the matter of a culture of abuse that runs the continuum from federal government to school playgrounds. These playgrounds are where we first learn the stacked rules of consent. Childhood bullying is not isolated wrongdoing but instead the socialization and normalization of violence. It’s how our children learn the rules of engagement. In schools, boys are routinely forgiven for ignoring girls’ boundaries, children who transgress gender and sexuality norms are targeted for abuse, and schoolyard monitors wave away these occurrences with claims of “boys being boys.”

The ideology of intervention continues a mainstream anti-violence narrative of “if I can help one person…” or “if this can stop/prevent one rape from happening…”. This is a problematic and dangerous concept of violence. Even where bystander intervention is successful, disrupting one assault is not the same as ending violence. It’s not even violence prevention. In fact, it upholds the structure of rape culture: Individual interventions mean little when the reality is that we need to turn our entire culture on its head. We have to look beyond the girl saved by the hero in the local paper, beyond isolated situations of chance intervention, for answers to ending violence. This requires us to look deeply into the chasm of a national identity built on legacies of violence, one in which women’s bodies are a landscape over which men do battle to protect or have access to, and native and black bodies are seen as inherently violable.

As Mariame Kaba writes in No Selves To Defend: A Legacy of Criminalizing Women of Color for Self-Defense, “History is replete with stories of women (of color) who were precluded from invoking self-defense in the face of violence. In fact, too many have been and are criminalized for protecting themselves.” We have shifted and extended accountability from victims to now bystanders before we have even begun to challenge power on its fundamental levels. Intervention models do not address the violence of the carceral state that both victim and bystander have to face. Marissa Alexander and Cece McDonald, for example, were both criminalized for fighting their attackers, rather than celebrated for their bravery.

When we look at these intersections of womanhood, of blackness, Latinidad, indigeneity, disability, class and trans identities, we find stories of how people are policed through a perceived criminal hypersexuality that marks them as deserving of assault. One example is the recent case of Model Tahiry Jose from VH1’s Love and Hip Hop. After an assault in a nightclub, media coverage included headlines such as “Tahiry fights man in a club.” Responses marked her as an equal aggressor in her assault and denied her victimhood. These attitudes are prevalent not only in the media, but in other institutions such as the courtroom. If we are serious about confronting sexual violence, we must ask ourselves difficult questions. Who is allowed to be a victim and is considered worthy of defense? What happens when the perpetrator of violence has more access to institutions and narratives of humanity than the victim?

Many mainstream anti-violence narratives have reproduced the patriarchal idea that “real men” aren’t rapists or perpetrators of sexual assault. Thus we see the creation of the figure of the sexual assault perpetrator: a coward who only acts in secrecy, and, once the light of justice shines on him, he scurries into the darkness like a cockroach or disintegrates like a vampire in sunlight. This allows men to distance themselves from engaging anti-violence narratives, absolves them from having to examine their own behavior, and protects perpetrators who are upstanding members of the patriarchal community from being identified. It positions violence as an abstraction that exists outside “real” people. But in fact, perpetrators are our partners, brothers, husbands, cousins, esteemed community members and neighbors. Far from being lone wolves, abusers often have power over their victims and their community. We know, for example, that police officers beat their partners at double the national rate.

Living in this culture of pervasive violence, we all develop our own practices to feel safe. In the case of street harassment, the victim may well know better than an unknown bystander how to deal with the situation. Whether it be with a forced smile, a fake number, a gentle rebuff, or even running away, we have our own ways of addressing violence in our lives, methods that keep us alive. One-size-fits-all intervention models can often escalate the levels of violence far beyond what the initial assault may have entailed.

Where should we be directing our gaze and shifting our efforts to end sexual assault? The answer actually is intervention and confrontation, but not the kind that relies on non-profits and the White House to direct us. Instead, we have to work on developing deep and personal understandings of violence in our own lives. We must acknowledge how we are complicit in violence and often unknowingly violent to those who are marginalized by our social positions. This process of inner confrontation requires deep learning and engagement as a daily process. We have to grapple with the idea that violence exists within us and exorcise our collective demons while supporting victims and keeping them safe. Bystander intervention is a last-ditch effort that should be made personally with as much awareness and support possible, not an automatic responsibility.

Treating sexual assault as primarily a question of isolated incidents and one-off acts of heroism is, in the end, just another way to ignore how violence is normalized and minimized in our everyday interactions. Highly visible assault perpetrators are not criminal exceptions, but manifestations of this broader culture of violence. Until we confront the violence inherent in many concepts of romance, dating, and sex, and look at assault and violence as pre-existing conditions of daily life that need to be challenged, we are chasing feathers in the wind while large institutions continue to operate on an unfettered axis of violence.

On a global scale, humanitarian intervention is a pretext for colonial war. At the level of interpersonal violence, bystander intervention can be a pretext for criminalization and further violence. Both systems of intervention privilege whiteness and uphold state violence as both aim and method. What if we intervened not as bystanders in individual situations but collectively against institutions, cultures and state apparatuses of violence? What would an anti-violence movement look like that challenges the very foundation of this country? This movement would challenge a foreign policy that favors prescriptive solutions applied through military force and violations of sovereignty and consent. It would challenge the domination of women’s bodies and lives. It would challenge a masculinity that feeds off the emotional and bodily terrain of women in the same way as we exploit land resources. These forms of violence are not isolated events but rather a system of interlocking, interrelated and interdependent forms of domination. We don’t need more heroes, but a new structural understanding of sexual violence.

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