Becoming an Active Bystander
In 1964, the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese shocked Americans from coast to coast. While a man attacked, raped, and killed this young woman for over half an hour, thirty-eight men and women witnessed the assault and did nothing to help. The shock and confusion surrounding this single event captured the country’s attention and launched a substantial debate into how people could watch such an attack, and yet do nothing. This one event launched new research and programs about the ‘bystander effect’
In 1998, eleven years old Akiel Chambers was brutally sodomized and murdered; and a community did nothing to help. In 2006, four years old Amy Emily Annamunthudo was strung up by her hair, tied to a door frame, punched twenty to thirty times about the body with clenched fists, burned with cigarettes on her body, raped, buggered, beaten and suffocated; and a community did nothing to help. In 2008, 8 years old Hope Arismandez was found in a cane field, brutally raped, buggered and stabbed to death; and a community did nothing to help. In 2012, Josiah Governor died after a severe beating and a community did nothing to help.
How can a caring community do nothing to help when persons’ lives are in peril? How can an entire community become passive bystanders? Many people in a bystander role often describe feeling scared and alone; they are afraid to say or do something in the face of violence. They say that they fear making someone angry, possibly misunderstanding the situation, or even triggering further violence. Yet over the years, the bystander intervention approach has recognized that saying or doing something is not necessarily a single event by a single hero.
In fact, in many situations there are a variety of opportunities and numerous people who can choose to intervene. With the bystander intervention approach, the work is broadened to address the behaviors of others– the friends, families, teachers, clergy, and witnesses that surround any act or pattern of abuse; thus, offering an opportunity to also address behaviors BEFORE violence has been perpetrated in the first place.
The Bystander Intervention Approach offers clear benefits:
Discourages Victim Blaming: Breaking the silence around sexual violence is a critical strategy in prevention. Yet, often the ensuing dialogue includes questions to the victim like, “How could YOU let this happen?” or “Why didn’t YOU say anything?”
With bystanders as active participants, the sense of responsibility shifts away from victims and toward the family, friends, and the whole community. The question then become, “How could WE let this happen in our community?” and “How can WE learn to say something?”
Offers the chance to change social norms: With more bystander intervention, society’s collective responsibility takes on a new role. Studies show that social norms can play a significant role in violence prevention, especially in communities such as college campuses. – Banyard, 2004.
Shifts responsibilities to the community rather than any one man or woman: In previous decades, rape prevention programs focused almost exclusively on the dynamic of men as perpetrators and women as victims of sexual violence. Child sexual abuse programs began as programs teaching children to say no and teaching adults to listen. The bystander approach shifts this responsibility and engages adults as agents of change–both men and women become equal partners in prevention.
The reality is that everyone is a bystander, every day, in one way or another to a wide range of events that contribute to sexual violence. It is the little things which you and I can say which makes us active bystanders.