The Bystander's Dilemma: How To (Actually) Help

You’re walking down the street and you see a woman being “hollered at” by a couple of dudes. They are making kissy faces at her - along with some more obscene gestures - and like the gentlemen they are most certainly not, insinuating that her day would be better spent in their lascivious company. It is 10:00 a.m. on a Thursday.

You’re at a concert. Between the thumping bass, the fog machine, and the strobe lights, you see a girl up at the front try and hop on the stage. Everyone around her is too into the music to assist except for one enterprising young man who decides that HIS form of help will be to support not her spine or upper back to keep her safe, but south of her lower back, in the “bandonkadonk” region. He seems to be pleased with the help he’s provided. She seems less excited about it.

It’s 2:00 a.m., at a party at a friend of a friend's. Things are starting to wind down. Those who came with people have already left and people are starting to pair off. This is also the twilight hour where the inebriation levels have reached their most “I’m going to feel this in the morning” levels. But the partygoers don’t care, for there is no tomorrow. You see a friend of yours chatting with a guy, a word here that means is being half dragged half carried into a “quieter” part of the house.

What do you do?

Your first impulse might be to intervene in each of these situations. This impulse will most certainly and immediately be followed by another urging you to not get involved. This moral tug of war stands at the center of bystander theory.

In all of the above situations we have a bystander that is witness to some form of sexual assault or another. Some range from explicit problematic action, and others are just grey areas. Most importantly, though, is that these events are taking place in pseudo-public spaces. In all of these cases, you’re The Bystander.

The push to intervene is a direct result of the specific ideas our society has around heroism. For some, heroism is the white knight saving the princess from the castle.  For others, the traveling hero slaying the dragon to save the nearby village. And in modern times, news cycles constantly have puff pieces referencing “local heroes” who’ve saved countless babies from fires, cats from trees and little jimmy’s from well. Moreover, those who were around recall the stories of the people on the plane that was headed towards the twin towers in a collective attempt to thwart the hijacking.

While this form of heroism is admirable, it places a premium on intervening only in 1) cases where the stakes are high (not only for the hero, but for the victim),  2) cases in which there is a measurable and immediate transfer of danger to the hero and 3) cases that only happen in rare instances.

This mode of heroism is sufficient when dealing with dragons and terrorists, but what happens when heroism becomes less glamorous, and the evil that’s being thwarted runs rampant in our society?

Photo by Mario Azzi VIA Unsplash

Photo by Mario Azzi VIA Unsplash

In all cases a bystander is faced with a moral dilemma: “Should I intervene and save someone from a bad situation or should I do nothing?” Most of the time when faced with this choice, most of use choose flight over fight.

That said, this response is completely reasonable. When intervening in cases of sexual assault, society rewards us for not deviating from the status quo. Because we don’t live in a culture where people can intervene directly, it will ALWAYS be risky to call someone out for inappropriate behavior. Most times, the best outcome one can expect is that the intervening party will be socially ostracized and at worst that the unwanted attention towards the victim will get transferred to the “hero”.

This is exacerbated by the fact that most perpetrators of sexual violence are men. Men are also disincentivised from intervening on behalf of victims of sexual assault because the behaviorhas become so normalized. While not facing direct danger themselves, men, at least in this day and age, are acting in an antisocial manner to call out other men for sexual assault even when they know it is the right thing to do.

For women, the situation is even more dire. victim blaming is the norm when dealing with cases of unwanted sexual attention.  Be it street harassment and catcalling or unwanted touching, people are quick to find the victim at fault for the way they were dressed, or for having been in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. And should you find a woman who’s willing to stand up for herself or another woman during an assault, the situation can become exacerbated by her defiance in the face to this mistreatment.

We don’t intervene because we’re are afraid. We are afraid of what consequences we may face by sticking our necks out. If you’re a man, it may be because you don’t want to be cast out from the patriarchal tribe. If you're a woman, it's because standing up for yourself might lead to things getting worse for you. If one hasn’t spent their entire life cultivating a discipline of making courageous choices, even smaller interaction and engagement can send him/her down a social anxiety rabbit hole that prevents action.

So what's a person to do? Doing nothing is clearly not the right answer, but in most cases intervening in the moment is incredibly dangerous.

I got a chance to talk with Min Min Um-Mandhyan, the Director of Development and Communications at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. From my conversation with her I learned that as it stands right now, Sexual Assault prevention is handled from an institutional level as a public health issue. Like other public health issues, the solution takes a far reaching preventative approach to removing these problematic patterns from society.

The work that’s being done currently follows the CDCs prevention model, which is categorized by early prevention. Look back to your childhood. If you’re like me you may have memories, fond or not, of Scruff McGruff the Crime Dog, Smokey the Bear, the DARE Tiger, etc.. The work done in our formative years are the reason why our generation smokes less and recycles more. This same model is being applied to sexual assault prevention as a public heath strategy.

The bystander approach uses positive messaging and sustainable techniques to curb instances of sexual assault. This approach removes the pressure we feel to single-handedly create social change through a one-time presentation or by intervening directly un unsafe spaces. Working with bystanders focuses on building skills, developing meaningful relationships, and fostering community ownership. This prevention method takes the responsibility off the bystander to directly intervene and shifts it to the community and other institutions.

Sexual assault affects people on an individual, community and institutional level. From talking with Min, I recognize that in order to prompt lasting change we have to change communities and institutions rather than police infractions at an individual level.

With all this in mind, here are a few tips to make sure you are able to continue to keep fighting the good fight.

1. Keep your people honest

The most influence we have in preventing sexual assault/harassment is making sure that no one you consider a friend perpetuates it through action or ignorance, and that the people you care about know what their resources are and that you’re there for them. If everyone in the world followed this model, then the mere threat of social pariah-hood would be enough to change the culture. This is obviously a lofty goal, but it's as good a place as any to start!

2. Report everything (even if you don't want to)

This is the true meaning behind “If You See Something, Say Something.” This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to directly confront a perpetrator of sexual violence, but it does mean it is your responsibility to report instances of sexual assault to the proper authorities. This may not be fun, but it is absolutely necessary. Not all reporting leads to action, but it always helps to report activity that doesn’t jive with you. Your report could be the stone that causes an avalanche of direct support to a particular area and all it costs you is a bit of your time.

3. Support victims

Supporting victims after the fact is a great way to intervene. You might not be able to prevent their experience from happening, but immediately following a negative experience, offering yourself as a resource is a meaningful gesture that lets the person know he/she is not alone. Let victims know you’ve got their backs, and offer any support you feel comfortable giving them. A caring hand goes a long way.

4. Help create safe spaces in your community.

Most sexual assault takes place while people are out at clubs, bars and other nightlife establishments. Because of the state of inebriation of all parties involved, intervening in these cases is easily the most dangerous because you aren’t in your right mind. That being said, there are people available who’s job is LITERALLY crowd control. Petitioning your local bar or club to make sure their staff are trained to spot sketchy situations is a great way to be a helpful bystander in a more indirect way. You support their business by giving them your money. Have them repay the favor by creating safe spaces.

We should all feel encouraged to do what we can with what we have and know that there are more ways to “step in” than to literally “step-in.”