The Wrong Way to Look at Rape and Bystander Intervention

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As the national conversation about campus sexual assault has grown louder and more urgent, one concept seems to keep popping up: bystander intervention, the idea of training people to step in to prevent dangerous situations from occurring, or to help out victims when they do.

To take an unfortunately classic example, if a guy is seen leading an extremely inebriated girl out of a frat party, many students’ natural response will be to think either that what’s going on is none of their business, or that stepping in to make sure she’s all right would be too awkward. Bystander-intervention programs try to fight against this tendency, and they’ve caught on around the country, as an interesting NPR segment explained back in April. The idea is to give people the tools they need to navigate tricky social situations while keeping everyone safe, and more broadly speaking, to help promote the simple notion that people have an obligation to help each other out and to keep an eye on one another.

It’s a very promising area of research, and one that Science of Us has mentioned a few different times. So, naturally, I was intrigued by a headline I saw on the New Inquiry yesterday: “The Failure of Bystander Intervention.” If bystander intervention has actually “failed,” of course, it would represent a huge, ongoing waste of time and money on the part of people trying to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault.

But the essay, by Lauren Chief Elk and Shaadi Devereaux, misunderstands what these programs are and makes some rather unfounded assertions about them. It’s worth reading, though, because it highlights some really important divisions — and misconceptions — going on in the debate about sexual assault.

From very early on, the authors treat bystander intervention as a program geared at turning people into ninjas constantly swooping into dangerous confrontations. They describe its proponents as offering up the “paper promise of a world in which sexual assault is never permissible, forged one messy and violent intervention at a time”; they write that “[j]umping into violent situations at all costs is positioned as a way to save victims who are not supported on any real societal level.”

This is a dishonest description of bystander-intervention programs. Yes, there have been tragic incidents in which people trying to prevent assaults have been injured or even killed. But if you talk to any bystander-intervention advocate, they will tell you that the last thing they want is for people to jeopardize their own safety for the sake of being a “good” bystander, and five minutes of Googling will reveal that this sentiment is echoed just about everywhere bystander-intervention programs are found. “We don’t ever want you to get hurt trying to help someone out,” explains Hollaback!, an anti-street-harassment organization that leans heavily on bystander-intervention techniques. “Always think about safety and consider possibilities that are unlikely to put you in harm’s way (e.g., calling 911, getting a group together, etc.).” “When deciding to intervene, your personal safety should be the #1 priority,” notes a military website offering bystander resources. “Putting yourself in harm’s way is not an expectation,” says Kent State, and plenty of other schools couch their bystander-intervention programs in similar messages.

But beyond their factual inaccuracy in describing what bystander intervention is, Chief Elk and Devereaux also make some really strange claims about why it should be spurned by right-thinking people:

The ideology of intervention continues a mainstream anti-violence narrative of “if I can help one person…” or “if this can stop/prevent one rape from happening…”. This is a problematic and dangerous concept of violence. Even where bystander intervention is successful, disrupting one assault is not the same as ending violence. It’s not even violence prevention. In fact, it upholds the structure of rape culture: Individual interventions mean little when the reality is that we need to turn our entire culture on its head. We have to look beyond the girl saved by the hero in the local paper, beyond isolated situations of chance intervention, for answers to ending violence. This requires us to look deeply into the chasm of a national identity built on legacies of violence, one in which women’s bodies are a landscape over which men do battle to protect or have access to, and native and black bodies are seen as inherently violable.

Imagine applying this logic to other sorts of crimes. Why should we pull over individual drunk drivers when the best that will accomplish is preventing a single crash? After all, the broader societal factors that lead to drunk driving — alcohol advertising, sprawling cities that lack public transportation, and macho culture that encourages overindulgence at the bar — will still be in place.

No one claims that bystander intervention will undo the many aspects of entrenched misogynistic culture that make rape more likely; rather, these programs are aimed at preventing violence in specific, on-the-ground situations, and changing social norms so that people are more likely not to look the other way when others are in danger. This, to Chief Elk and Devereaux, is a fundamental sign of the bankruptcy of the approach.

And that’s the problem with a lot of talk about rape and campus safety: the positing of a false choice between idealism and harm reduction. Harm reduction, a concept usually invoked in the context of drug abuse, takes the stance that the world is an imperfect place, it isn’t going to change tomorrow, and as a result, we should do what we can to mitigate societal damage in the meantime. For this reason, it’s always controversial: Even though needle-exchange programs have been shown to reduce the spread of AIDS and other diseases that tend to spread through drug-user networks, and therefore make society safer on the whole, there’s been consistently fierce opposition to them on the grounds that they “encourage” drug use — from people who ignore the fact that addicts need little “encouragement” to continue to shoot up.

A similar debate is going on here. In the long run, hopefully the fight against rape culture will reduce the number of rapists and potential rapists. But right now, these dangerous individuals are still around, they’re still victimizing people, and preventing them from doing so is obviously a worthwhile aim. In this way, bystander-intervention programs can be seen, at least in part, as a harm-reduction approach to sexual violence — but that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace other approaches at the same time. Chief Elk and Devereaux — and others — imply an intractable conflict between addressing the underlying causes of rape in the long term and teaching people how to help keep themselves and their friends safe today and tonight and next week. But there isn’t one.