Prevention is critical in ending violence in our communities. For more resources and areas to implement prevention programs on your community, workplace, school etc:
- Start by Believing
- Paint Phoenix Purple
- Paint Pima Purple
- ADHS – Rape Prevention Education
- CDC – Rape Prevention Education
- Men Can Stop Rape
- A Call to Men
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. (NSVRC)
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. (NSVRC)
Instead, think of the “event” as being on a continuum of behaviors that demand specific interventions at each step. At one end of the continuum are healthy, age-appropriate, respectful, and safe behaviors. At the other end are sexual abuse, rape, and violent behaviors. Between the ends are other behaviors, ranging from those that begin to feel inappropriate, coercive, and harassing.
Each situation is an opportunity to intervene by reinforcing positive behaviors BEFORE a behavior moves further towards sexual violence.
Source: Adapted from The Touch Continuum, Anderson, 2000.
Source: Adapted from The Touch Continuum, Anderson, 2000.
In our society, there is little motivation for individuals to speak up and tremendous pressure to keep silent when they see or sense something is wrong. Often, people do not respond because they are concerned about their own safety, or they do not know what to do; they may also feel that the level of behaviors they witness do not warrant intervention. Individuals will more likely intervene when they have specific skills to recognize behaviors that are unhealthy or problematic and know how to intervene before abuse is perpetrated.
This means that programs should teach the skills needed to reward healthy behaviors and to say or do something when unhealthy or problematic behaviors are observed. An important and common feature of many programs is giving people an opportunity to practice what to do and say in various situations. Programs also need to outline what can be said or what to do with the friend or family member who demonstrates any of the behaviors along the continuum. This may include information about what to say around healthy relationships, especially between teens or between children.
Again, it is critical that people learn how to assess the danger in a situation, and also, when not to intervene for safety reasons. In some situations, intervention may mean seeking out other people, including professionals, and sometimes the anonymity of those involved must be assured.
Asking some follow-up questions after someone tells his or her story may reveal that other people played a role in how the situation unfolded. Such questions include:
- Did anyone do or say anything to help?
- Is there anything that someone could have done to help, but did not?
- Who else is/was in a position to do or say something?
College programs and policies provide a good example of some of these changes. In recent years, an increasing number of programs address men and women as bystanders in their college or university (Foubert et al., 2006; Banyard, 2004; Katz, 2006). Official university endorsement of these programs sets the stage for a new social norm that encourages “standing up” and “speaking out.” The education programs, especially those that involve student leaders in their outreach, reinforce this stated norm and also provide the needed skills and information. Although various bystander programs exist in a range of venues spanning all ages, it is at the college level that we see most of the bystander programs that have been formally evaluated and assessed.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has changed the landscape of anti-violence work, validating and funding key victim and survivor services across the country. VAWA also provides Rape Prevention Education (RPE) funds, which is the only funding for prevention programs available to most states. Many other laws (e.g., residency restrictions for sex offenders) have focused on increasing punishment for all sexual offenses. These may have unintentionally created disincentives for many individuals, families and communities to take appropriate action in less severe cases.
These legislative changes did not happen in a vaccuum, but were, in part, propelled by powerful stories told by victims and survivors over the past twenty years. In fact, as society began to recognize the prevalence and impact of sexual violence it also increased its commitment to stopping it. We can mark this growing recognition through statements from key organizations such as the American Medical Association, who declared sexual violence as an epidemic (AMA, 1995), and through the increased media reporting on sexual violence.
Additionally, the number of television programs which have story lines discussing sexual assaults as a form of violence has skyrocketed. This more sustained focus in the media helped create an environment for policy and legal changes that may ultimately improve the status and frequency of engaged bystanders.
- Encourage help-seeking behaviors. Because it is often hard for many of us to askfor help, a key role for bystanders is to inviteand encourage requests for assistance. This could be accomplished by highlighting stories of hope, responsibility, and change for survivors, and by making sure that those at risk to abuse know that they can get help. More recently, there have been a number of efforts to encourage those at risk to abuse to reach out for help while holding them accountable for any crime they had committed.
- Adopt policies to encourage engagement. There are many policies that organizations can adopt to promote the social norm of involvement and action. For example, policies may reinforce healthy sexual development in youth, such as the Our Whole Lives curriculum developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Policies may also focus on sexual harassment training sessions such as those conducted by public agencies working with youth. When leaders in organizations and communities begin to see themselves, and the people they work with, as involved bystanders, bystander engagement can become the norm.
- Celebrate the actions of bystanders. When we hear of a bystander intervention,we often breathe a sigh of relief rather than celebrating the bystander’s actions. Consider the impact of giving positive recognition; when a New York City worker recently leaped onto the subway tracks to save a student having a seizure, he was given the highest honors possible in that city. Each organization can begin their own award program to honor those bystanders who choose to intervene in situations big and small.