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Stopping Sexual Assault

Bystander intervention gains attention in preventing sexual violence on campus

You’re at a party; you see a guy who is all over a drunk young woman — giving her even more drinks, perhaps in hopes of having sex with her later. What do you do? 

Too often, bystanders do nothing. 

According to Abigail Leeder, director of Sexual Violence Prevention and Education at the UO, there is no right or single way for a bystander to intervene in a potential sexual assault — though she says, “We encourage people not to put themselves in harm’s way.

“Calling the police is an intervention,” Leeder says.

She suggests asking people directly if they are OK with what’s going on. Ask, “Do you want me to walk you home?” Or, talk to the person who’s trying to get her drunk. Ask, “Are you sure she wants this?”

The UO, like other universities across the country, has been rocked by sexual assault allegations on its campus — the most recent contretemps over the school’s decision to countersue a rape survivor and access the student’s mental health records made headlines across the country. The UO has since returned the records and dropped the suit. The school said it was within its legal rights, but critics accused the UO of victim blaming.

In a 2014 New York Times article on “Stepping Up to Stop Sexual Assault,” Jean Stapleton, a University of New Hampshire researcher who runs bystander intervention programs at colleges around the U.S. and Europe, cites her favorite example of intervention — a “young woman who approached her drunken girlfriend and said, loudly, ‘Here’s the tampon you asked for.’”

Bystander intervention is one component of a healthy consent culture on campus, according to Leeder. A consent culture is one in which asking for consent before sexual interaction is normalized. On the other hand, a rape culture, something the UO has been accused of fostering, is one in which raping or surviving rape is a cultural norm. 

 Leeder says bystander intervention is “based on the premise that sexual assault is everyone’s problem and a community issue.” She adds, “The majority of people are not survivors or perpetrators [of sexual assault], but all of us can play a role in which it’s not tolerated.”

Leeder and Jenny Russell, youth advocacy coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon (PPSO), say that bystander intervention is not just useful in preventing sexual assault, but also in intervening in other oppressive situations such as racism, bullying, homophobia or transphobia. 

“These oppressive scenarios can happen spontaneously,” Russell says. She says calling out a rape joke or questioning someone using oppressive language can stop those situations from becoming normalized. 

Russell, who leads PPSO’s REV(olution) youth programs, says Leeder and her Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team (SWAT ) have presented to the Youth Action Council. And as part of peer education, REV members weave in bystander scenarios for students to act out in middle and high schools. 

“Research shows practice means you have better tools in the moment,” Russell says.

She gives the example of a person who says of a rape victim or survivor, “Look at what she was wearing,” to another student who is neutral or unsure. Students practice asking questions such as “What did you just say? Are you saying because of what she was wearing, she wanted it? No one wants rape.”

Russell says there are a lot of creative ways a bystander can respond. Rather than address the oppressor, a bystander might say to a third party, “Do you believe what she is saying?” Or make light of it and say, “It’s 2015 and you still believe that?”

Russell says, “As long as someone keeps physical and emotional safety in mind,” any interruption can alter a situation or affect the people watching and change their minds.

At the UO, Leeder says SWAT has done training for groups across campus, from fraternities to incoming students. In the summer the group performs a play, and during the school year it puts on interactive workshops that create scenarios and invite audience members to come up and practice intervention. 

Leeder says, “We often don’t have a chance to practice saying hard things and standing up for things that are true and right.” She adds, “There is a lot of pressure to go along with the group’s norms.”

She says that bystander intervention is “a promising practice and a lot of schools are talking about it,” in addition to other efforts to curb sexual violence on campus such as the UO’s online education module and its video campaign, “Ducks Do Something.”