Bystander Intervention

Changing the Culture Around Sex and Alcohol

Michael Winerip’s article “Stepping Up to Stop Sexual Assault” was featured in the New York Times Education Life insert on February 9. It should come as no surprise to hear talk of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, as they have been abuzz with such talk for the past year, and it has been on the tongues of many a politician recently. I personally, at the nudging of a colleague, have been watching the saga unfold in the Chronicles of Higher Education, particularly as regards the trouble that universities have come under for improper handling of reports of sexual assault. In trying to wrap my brain around this issue, particularly what is the proper way to change the culture of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, I was blessed with Winerip’s piece.

The crux of his article is what he refers to as “bystander intervention,” wherein, particularly in social/party settings where there is drinking/drugs, another individual intervenes when they see a scenario that involves an intoxicated person with impaired judgment in a sexually charged environment. Winerip explains “the goal is to stop bad behavior before it crosses the line from drunken partying to rape.”

This concept is not foreign to me— I’ve inserted myself in between a countless number of drunken friends and strangers— but the term itself I did not know. Turns out, in a January 22 speech by President Obama addressing this very issue, he stated, “bystanders must be taught and emboldened to step in and stop it.”

It may be presumptuous to apply my personal experiences to the world, but I think women in my generation are much more familiar and comfortable with intervening in situations that we can identify as unwelcome or unsafe. Among friends we have long practiced the “buddy system” to protect each other when out in public and drinking, but dancing in public  I have even had a female stranger provided the kind service that “the buddy” friend would usually offer— dancing me away from a creepy man who was creeping up too close behind me.

Winerip gives further credit to this system, by explaining how it can work outside the confines of the close friend or female camaraderie circles. “Men as well as women have an incentive to make it work. While the public discussion on sexual violence has rightly focused on the physical and emotional damage done to women, it is also true that getting arrested for sexual assault can mark a young man for life.”

He goes on to say “Enlightened self-interest is a powerful motivator. Several male athletes at a training session last month seemed to feel that bystander intervention was as much about protecting a buddy from getting into trouble as saving a woman from harm.”

I do believe very strongly that the only way to change the high incidence of sexual assault on college campuses is to change the mentality surrounding what is acceptable sexual conduct when two (or more) people are intoxicated. I know that drunk driving is still a problem in our society, but among my generation at least, it has become socially acceptable to take away someone’s keys, and it is always a discussion that is had before the drinking starts. That was not by accident; intense campaigning by MADD and SADD in large part changed the culture that said it was OK to mix drinking and driving. This is the same kind of shift that needs to take place with rape culture, and starting by making it socially acceptable to intervene might be a step in the right direction.

One last quote from Winerip, citing the position of Enku Gelaye, the vice chancellor overseeing the University of Masschusetts’ campaign promoting bystander intervention: “The hope is that by giving the intervention a formal name and linking it to a prescribed set of responses, when something goes wrong, a light bulb will go off in students’ heads, they will recognize what they are seeing and will remember what to do.”

— Caterina Gironda

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