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Basic Bystander Action

I used to hang around with this dude in college, way before I had discovered feminism or gender justice as a concept, who I thought even then had seriously messed up views about women. We did a radio show together for a while and on good nights, we'd hang out at one of the school grills and joke about how much sex we weren't having. On more than a couple of those evenings though, he would say something about just wanting to find a "stupid freshman girl" that he could use and degrade. He actually used the phrases degrade and violate when telling that joke, and it always made me uncomfortable as hell but I never knew what to say to him about it.

This friend later got into serious trouble for assaulting (not sexually) a female student who annoyed him, and in one of our last radio shows together before he drifted out of my friend group, I had to cut off his mic because he verbally assaulted one of our female interns (who was also a friend). He had serious anger issues, and everyone walked on tiptoes around him to try not to set him off.

I don't know if this old contact was ever a sexual abuser. But I do know that I was a bystander: someone who knew him well and had some affect on his behavior, I never called him on any of the things he did or said. I might have had the opportunity to prevent him from assaulting that other student, and I didn't do it.

I wish I had the vocabulary then that I do now. I wish I had someone like the awesome video blogger Jay Smooth to break it down. He put out a video in July of 2008 during the Presidential Campaign about how to talk to people about racist comments they make, and I thought it was so applicable to the work we do at BARCC that I wanted to repost it here. His video is about being a good bystander in the most basic way we can.

The research we have about rape perpetration tells us that the majority of assaults are committed by a small number of rapists, and this knot of people (mostly male), attack more than once. Depending on the study, this group is responsible for an average of somewhere around six or seven rapes. They were also responsible for a really high number of non-sexual assaults, domestic abuse, and other aggressive crime (this longish and scholarly paper describes a lot of these issues in further depth).

Generally, though, these perpetrators are not arrested, in prison, or suffering any substantial penalties for their actions. Dr. David Lisak over at UMass, who is doing a lot of the pioneering research on perpetration, uses the term "undetected rapists" to label this group not because they operate completely unnoticed, but because there is no major social focus on them and they aren't imprisoned. They aren't in prison, or outcast, because surrounding them is a very, very large swathe of the general population that doesn't notice them. I think of the relation between perpetrators and the rest of society like two concentric circles - the perpetrators in the middle in a really small, but nasty circle, and the rest of the population surrounding them. The part of the larger circle that's closest to the perpetration circle are folks who share a lot of the same anger at women and hyper-masculine beliefs; the major difference is that they just aren't rapists.

Unfortunately, it's hardly unusual for groups of guys, especially angry guys, to make comments about women that are, when taken at face value, about violence and control. I sat and listened to this college friend of mine say some abusive madness and I never once stepped in to tell him he needed to cut it out, because it was normal stuff for me to hear at that time. While I hope I didn't make a lot of stupid comments myself, it was not at all unusual for me at age 19 or 20 to be surrounded by dudes who talked about women as if they were obstacles to sex. I didn't step in with my fellow DJ until it got to the point that I thought he was going to get the FCC on my head for on-air sexual abuse.

In Shira's post a couple of weeks ago, she said, "The only way to keep from being raped is to never be in the presence of a rapist, and unfortunately, they don't wear signs." Thing is, in a lot of cases, they sort of do. Thomas, who I linked to last week, lays it out:

Guys with rigid views of gender roles and an axe to grind against women in general are overrepresented among rapists. That won't come as a surprise to most readers here, I expect. But it is important confirmation. Guys who seem to hate If they sound like they don't like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome...they're telling the truth. That's what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it. Emphasis mine.

Hating women is such a normal thing for our culture though, that this is harder to see than it should be. An angry young man making a statement about how he hates them bitches? Not the most noteworthy story of the year.

When places like BARCC think about preventing sexual violence in the first place, we think about where we can have the most impact. A bystander is someone who hangs out in the bigger of those two concentric circles, who isn't a perpetrator, but might know one. Focusing a ton of energy on changing the mindset of rapists is incredibly difficult, both because institutions like BARCC can't easily reach them, and also because they already have deeply formed opinions about sexual violence and aren't interested in modifying them. The people who surround them, though - they might be a different story. People who were in the position that I was in with this friend of mine, back in the day, for example.

The basic idea is to train those bystanders to make the social cover rapists use to stay undetected less effective. When doing misogynist things is less acceptable, then misogyny becomes less acceptable. Likewise, when doing things that support rape culture becomes less acceptable, rape becomes less acceptable - and much less hidden.

Which is why I loved Jay Smooth's vblog above (coming full circle now, I swear!): although he's talking about racism, his advice is directly applicable in the world of rape-prevention. Most of the people I talk to through BARCC or even in my own life about sexual violence aren't rapists. When they buy into rape culture (which is the dominant culture, by the way), it doesn't really help my cause to tell them that they are rapists or that they are bad, evil people. What is worth doing, though, and what does help expose rape culture, is telling them why what they actually DID was a problem. This way, I'm not threatening anyone's identity, I'm not accusing them of things that I can't prove, and I'm also not letting them off the hook easily. If someone had told me to call this friend out on the things he said and did, either he would have stopped doing them in order to keep me as his friend, or (more likely) he just wouldn't have had any friends.

And here's the bottom line: if we think of rape and sexual assault like a public health crisis, and look at the same things we do for potential epidemics, we should try to cut off the vectors for infection. If that core knot of rapists is so obvious to the rest of society because we've been having great "what you DID was sexist" conversations with everyone else, and people gradually stop doing things that support rape culture, then no one will want to have any contact with those perpetrators. If no one has contact with those perpetrators, they can't rape anyone.

This is of course a simplistic understanding of very large, very powerful social messages that come our direction, and most of my particular understanding of it is focused on a male-as-perpetrator model. Because my understanding is more narrow, a couple of other great articles and opinions about bystanders:

  1. Cara has a great post over at the Curvature about how important this bystander work is, and an interesting study about perpetrators.
  2. And my good friend Cuppy von der Cake on how community can play a real role in changing our social spaces.

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.


  1. cocktail dressesOctober 24, 2011 at 7:50

    Rape as well as sexual assault are crimes, whether or not they take place within marriage or between partners or ex-partners.

  2. Great point! Thank you for this perspective.

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