By Silvia Foster-Frau
On September 19, 2014 President Obama launched the “It’s On Us” campaign, the first initiative by the White House with the aim of raising awareness of sexual assault on college campuses. In a nation where only 32% of rape survivors report their assault, this campaign sheds light on the dark underbelly of college campus culture, and in this way makes a big step forward in the direction of gender equality. Along with raising awareness, the initiative encourages students to engage in bystander intervention in order to curb campus rape culture. Grinnell College was one of over 100 institutes of higher learning to participate in the national movement. According to the White House press release, “‘It’s On Us’ aims to fundamentally shift the way we think about sexual assault, by inspiring everyone to see it as their responsibility to do something, big or small, to prevent it.”
But does bystander intervention really shift the way we think about sexual assault? While the mission of “It’s On Us” to raise awareness of sexual assault on college campuses is commendable, it’s one-step solution of engaging in bystander intervention takes us one step back. It fails to fundamentally change rape culture, an aspect of gender discrimination entrenched in our society. Bystander intervention bandages the wound, but it does not cure a condition that affects campuses nation-wide. I challenge the effectiveness of bystander intervention by asking three questions: What are the risks in judging interactions as potentially sexually violent? Who or what should be held accountable for rape culture on campus? And how can we not just avoid individual rapes but reduce rape on a larger scale?
Numerous articles by feminist activists and journalists alike, including “Stepping Up to Stop Sexual Assault” by Michael Winerip, laud “It’s On Us” for providing the simple solution of bystander intervention for such a large, cultural phenomenon. However, the incommensurability of this statement—simple solution for complex problem—is inherently flawed. In Winerip’s op-ed, his very first sentence, “Bystander intervention is so easy to grasp, even by the most inexperienced college freshman, that the program may well be the best hope for reducing sexual assaults on campuses,” should raise red flags. Do we really believe that the problem of rape culture has a simple solution? According to Dana Bolger, co-founder of Know Your Title IX, “‘It’s On Us’ is so appealing precisely because it doesn’t require us to disrupt the status quo.” While I commend the White House for spreading awareness about a prevalent act of gender violence that has been kept under wraps until very recently, we can’t stop here. In order to reduce sexual assault, we need to create change on a personal and communal level instead of relying on other individuals, or bystanders, to identify and curb individual potential sexual assaults.
Bystander intervention relies on the premise that individuals can “identify situations in which sexual assault may occur” (“It’s On Us” White House campaign). However, the politics get murky when considering a history of sexual violence that has become normalized, as well as considering how we identify victims and perpetrators. Both of these factors contribute to a system of subjective judgments on whether or not an interaction is, or potentially is, sexually violent. In their essay “The Failure of Bystander Intervention,” Lauren Chief Elk and Shaadi Devereaux state, “While acts of sexual violence are often rhetorically treated as if they were extraordinary incidents, in practice they are normalized as everyday interactions.” Sexual violence operates on a scale, from catcalling to coercion, groping to sexual assault. So how do we decide what is rape or sexual assault and what isn’t? Elk and Devereaux argue that how we decide what is tolerable and what is assault is not necessarily correlative to the level of physical or mental pain the victim experiences, but these things are socially construed based on a variety of other factors (such as race, class, and gender) and their accompanying histories. Studies show that one way society determines the scale is by what causes the most physical, evident pain, as opposed to what causes the most emotional or mental pain. Furthermore, how can we know if an interaction is potentially violent when most sexual violence occurs after the party, in bedrooms? The problem with bystander intervention is that it assumes the possibility of objective analysis, but in reality, identifying situations that have the potential to lead to sexual assault is a subjective process.
Furthermore, the way that an individual identifies a dangerous interaction also relies on their* idea of “victim” or “perpetrator.” What image comes to mind when you think of a victim of sexual assault? What about a perpetrator? Most likely, your mind is relying on racialized, gendered, and/or class-based stereotypes. Studies show that the most common rape stereotype is that of a black man preying on a white woman in the street. However, this dynamic is not the most representative of incidents of rape. For example, women of color have a greater risk of rape than white women. Furthermore, this stereotypical scenario negates the most common type of rape: acquaintance rape. For years rape was condemned in conjunction with stranger danger, but the U.S Department of Justice has consistently reported that in most rape cases, the victim knows their* rapist. Elk and Devereaux pose the questions “Who is allowed to be a victim and is considered worthy of defense?” When an individual scans the room of the party for potentially dangerous social interactions, they are subconsciously profiling their peers. The stereotypes associated with sexual assault—such as black on white, man on woman, impoverished on upper class—are deeply rooted in our psyches, and it is these stereotypes that determine who the bystander intervenes upon. We must ask ourselves how the labels of “victim” and “perpetrator” are created and what stereotypes they rely on, and realize that these labels rely on categories inconsistent with the reality of rape culture. We cannot change rape culture by relying on bystander intervention because victim/perpetrator stereotypes and subjective notions of potential sexual violence blind bystanders—blind us.
So who should be held accountable for rape prevention? According to the White House: the bystander. However, while intervention can deter sexual violence, it also transfers agency from the victim to the bystander by not allowing the victim to choose their own response to the situation. In some situations, maybe the victim is not in a position to choose—they are intoxicated or incapacitated in some way. In this case, taking care of the victim/survivor is of utmost importance. However, in a situation of street harassment, perhaps the victim’s silence is their form of retaliation or retaining integrity, and by intruding upon the interaction, the bystander is undermining the victim’s agency. This is especially problematic if the bystander is a man and the victim is a woman, considering the history of gender inequality.
Bear with me. The White House favors bystander intervention as a tactic for combating sexual assault on campuses because it implicates men, not just women, in the issue of rape. While the attempt to engage men in the conversation is admirable, using bystander intervention as the foremost strategy for campus rape prevention directs discourse away from the men themselves and asks them to check the actions of other men, their peers. It doesn’t involve men looking inside themselves to address their own possible tendencies towards gender inequality but steers them to point out the faults in other men. The bystander intervention campaign deflects accountability onto another person, leaving individual mentalities contributing to rape culture intact. Additionally, bystander intervention directed towards men reinforces a tired narrative: men saving women from other men. The “damsel in distress” rhetoric recreates the gendered, unequal power dynamic at the heart of rape culture. Bystander intervention rearranges power dynamics in not-so-favorable ways, often times reinforcing gender inequality instead of disrupting it.
Additionally, by pointing to singular incidents, bystander intervention engages in rape avoidance as opposed to rape reduction. When I drag my intoxicated and semi-incapacitated friend away from a persuasive, coercive peer at an off-campus party, I am deterring one potential rape, which is commendable, but I am not taking steps towards reducing rape culture, which is heroic. Bystander intervention is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, mostly because it doesn’t keep that coercive individual away from any other women at that party. This is big, because most rapists are repeat offenders. There are many more victims than there are rapists, and bystander intervention shifts the focus away from the rapists and onto the victims. But we can’t just keep protecting numerous potential victims. We need to identify and sanction the perpetrators, of which there are far fewer. It is a small group of people that cause widespread sexual violence on a college campus. As previously mentioned, bystander intervention shifts rape culture discourse from an introspective examination of one’s own gender biases to the actions of our peers. This serves as another example of how bystander intervention works as a form of deflection. It solves the immediate symptom, but not the longstanding problem of gender inequality. We cannot rely on bystander intervention in order to be safe on campus because bystander intervention focuses on isolated incidences of violence and not on an established pattern of gender violence.
The “It’s On Us” campaign applies a band-aid solution to a complex system of power imbalances. The wounds of campus rape culture are part of a larger condition that affects the entire student body. I am not arguing that bystander intervention is not viable or necessary: I believe we should take care of our peers. I am also excited to be a part of an era where the presidential administration makes moves to address such an important, underreported, issue. But by employing bystander intervention as the nation’s number one solution in sexual assault prevention, the White House fails to disrupt the college campus’ status quo and treat campus rape culture from inside out. Grinnell College, with all the right intentions, supports a band-aid solution by adopting this campaign. We cannot rely on the White House, or the law, or other entities of higher power to change our campus culture. We need to create structural support systems for survivors and fair sexual assault procedures within our own communities. We cannot solve a community rape problem by relying on others to intervene when things get shady. We don’t need bystander intervention—we need personal, introspective intervention. And we need community-level intervention. The focus should be on I and we. But not you—not the bystander. It’s On Us to reduce campus rape culture.
(Grinnell College created it’s own video as part of the national “It’s On Us” campaign. While the video achieves its mission in raising awareness of campus sexual assault, encouraging us to “take reports of sexual assault seriously” and to “be a part of the solution and not the problem,” we still need to consider the unreliability of bystander intervention and the need to search beyond this solution to reduce campus rape.)
*I use their to avoid the he/she binary that excludes transgender individuals