The Importance of Bystanders in Cases of Sexual Assault

The Importance of Bystanders in Cases of Sexual Assault

(Photo: Andrea Belvedere via Flickr)

During Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this fall, the country was gripped by the story of an alleged sexual assault. One important piece of his story related to Mark Judge, a high school friend of Kavanaugh’s who is said to have witnessed the alleged incident. Judge’s presence brings up the question: What should bystanders do, when witnessing sexual harassment or assault?

I interviewed Peggy Orenstein, author of the 2016 best-seller, Girls & Sex, an examination of the emotional and sexual lives of girls. Orenstein is working on another book, now looking at the intimate lives of boys. She’s been asking, what responsibilities do boys take on when they witness their friend engaging in non-consensual behavior?

Orenstein: Do you ignore that person? Do you pretend it didn’t happen? Or do you say, ‘Well, he’s otherwise a good guy.’ How do you handle that when you’re in a friend group?

Since the #metoo movement started a year ago, we’ve been talking a lot about what steps young people like us can take towards preventing assault here at YR Media. Reporter Jeremías Arevalo, 18, speaks on the complicated experience of being an “active bystander.”

Arevalo: I sometimes go to parties, with a couple of friends. Most of the guys do look out for the girls, which I think is a really good thing. I thought, ‘That’s great, right, like my friend is a girl, we’re all going to be looking out for her.’

I remember that happened recently. We went to a party, and me and my friends were just staring at this guy who was dancing with one of my [female] friends, and we were just mugging him, making sure he wasn’t doing anything bad.

While many young people don’t know what to do after witnessing sexual harassment or assault, experts are working to build awareness around the importance of bystanders stepping in. YR Media interviewed Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the leading experts in K-12 sexual harassment prevention. 

Shakeshaft: I think the training that’s done — a lot of it isn’t very good and very thorough. Not just training kids, but also bystanders. What’s your responsibility if you see this happening? If you are a bystander to violence, or you hear about it, if you act on it, you change the culture.

Shakeshaft is on the front lines of trying to change the culture. She advises school districts on training staff and students in personal space and consent, as well as bystander intervention.  

Arevalo, who recently graduated high school, brought up another benefit of being an active bystander that might not be visible to experts.

Arevalo: Just as much as we would talk to that one female friend about what signals to give us, I think us guys should have a talk with each other [about] how not to perpetrate [that behavior] ourselves. 

If you’re thinking ‘Oh, I’m here, I’m protecting my friend, it’s all good,’ then you might not think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do something bad.’ You might put yourself at a higher status. 

Being an active bystander does not necessarily preclude a person from also perpetuating sexual harassment or abuse. Arevalo feels that young men should have conversations with one another, to work towards acting as consistent, self-aware allies–and to check themselves.

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