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Bystander Approach Teaches That Others Play Role In Preventing Sexual Violence

BOSTON — Many colleges are reaching out to students to help stop sexual harassment and assault. They’re teaching what’s known as the “bystander approach,” which marks a shift from relying solely on women to protect themselves to the idea that bystanders, both men and women, have a role to play in preventing sexual violence.

Creating Active Bystanders 

On a weekend afternoon at Northeastern University earlier this month, a group of students held what they called a “Prevention Festival” — handing out chocolate ice cream, candy bars and pamphlets about sexual assault.

Dayna Altman organized the prevention festival at Northeastern. (Nancy Cohen for WBUR)

Dayna Altman organized the prevention festival at Northeastern. (Nancy Cohen for WBUR)

Brandon Rigby, a 22-year-old accounting major who stopped by, was surprised to read in a pamphlet that one in five female students will be victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

“I would have thought it was much lower,” he said. “That’s pretty high.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost half of the women and more than a third of the men who’ve experienced sexual violence in their lives were first sexually assaulted between the ages of 18 and 24, when many people are in college.

Dayna Altman, who studies human services and psychology at Northeastern, organized the festival.

“I’m very interested in empowering victims of sexual assault and violence as well as making sure everyone’s aware of the issue, especially on college campuses,” Altman said. “And also advocate for active bystanding.”

An active bystander is someone who intervenes to interrupt behaviors in social situations that could lead to sexual violence.

A group of men from the fraternity Phi Delta Theta attended the festival to pledge their support. Among them was Daniel Asulin, a junior who says it’s possible to intervene calmly.

“If something actually doesn’t seem right or, you know, a guy’s being a little too aggressive or something, just like lean in and just be like, ‘Hey man, like, why don’t you just ease up a bit?’ Like, ‘She doesn’t seem to be, you know, going with it,’ ” Asulin said.

Asulin hasn’t been trained in bystander intervention, but many colleges offer it. Northeastern and UMass Amherst instruct resident assistants and athletes. MIT trains students in dorms, fraternities and sororities. And Westfield State University this month held its first-ever training session. It was for male athletes.

Everyone Plays A Role

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, efforts to prevent sexual assault focused on women. Young women were advised not to drink too much and to leave parties with someone they knew.

Jane Stapleton, co-director of Prevention Innovations at the University of New Hampshire, says back then the thinking was sexual assault is a problem for women so it’s up to women to fix it.

“We thought, well, if women changed their behaviors then they won’t get assaulted and unfortunately that doesn’t work,” Stapleton said. “Men still continue to sexually assault because we’ve sort of done nothing, or we haven’t taught anybody anything on how to stop men’s behaviors.”

Stapleton says instead of looking at women as victims and men as perpetrators, the thinking now is everyone is affected and everyone has a role to play in interrupting relationship violence.

The bystander approach was developed about 20 years ago by Jackson Katz. He initially focused on training male athletes. Katz says his goal is to invite men into the conversation, rather than indict them.

“A lot of men will say this is not my problem, I’m a good guy, I don’t rape women, I don’t harass women,” Katz explained. “And what the bystander approach allowed us to do is to say to those men, look, even if you yourself don’t engage in the abusive behavior, if you don’t speak up and challenge and interrupt guys around you, then in a sense you are helping to contribute to the perpetuation of the attitudes and beliefs, and sometimes behaviors, that contribute to this problem.”

‘Why Should I Get Involved?’

As part of the prevention festival, Betsy Gardner and Tyler Cooper from Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society trained six women and one man in bystander intervention.

Twenty-year-old nursing student Angelica Recierdo, who was taking part, read from a prepared scenario what a bystander might be thinking after seeing a man slap a woman at a party.

“If nobody else is stepping in why should I? It could get ugly. He could turn on me. Besides, if he treats his girlfriend that way and she stays with him, why should I get involved? But if I don’t do something I’m saying it’s OK for a guy to abuse a woman. What should I do in this situation?”

Everyone attending the training said they would want to do something, including 19-year-old Dani Duke.

“It’s on your shoulders once you’re made aware about it, especially if it’s a friend and somebody you care about,” Duke said. “Even if it’s someone you don’t know. If you see it happening or you know it’s happening, you should do something.”

Tyler Dohrn agrees. The 22–year-old psychology major from Newbury College says by intervening he might help both the potential victim and perpetrator.

“By saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t something that’s OK. What are you doing to your partner and what are you doing to yourself?’ So I think it’s helping everyone in that situation.”

Intervening doesn’t have to be confrontational. Bystanders have turned on lights or shut off music at a party to interrupt unwanted sexual attention. The training doesn’t tell students what to do. It encourages them to come up with ways they’d be comfortable stepping in.

Mary Smith, a 25-year-old psychology major, says she’d get other bystanders to help.

“That helps me kind of think about what actions we can take as a team and I think that would also help with your own sense of personal safety too,” she said.

‘All We Have To Do Is Speak Up’

Northeastern also has an entire course on intervening. English major Sarah Banis is enrolled. The 20-year-old says she intervened once at a New Year’s party — a guy was following and touching a friend of hers who had told him to leave her alone.

“I just turned around and I said, ‘She already said no once so why don’t you just stop? Like she’s clearly not into it!’ And that is exactly when he did stop and left her alone,” she said. “All we have to do is speak up.”

Banis says several years ago she had a friend who was raped and who became emotionally distraught, crying every day. “It motivated me to make sure that I can do everything in my power to make sure no other person has to go through that.”

Banis hopes to become an English teacher and plans to bring bystander training to high schools. She says we have the tools to prevent sexual violence, but we need to use them.

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