Today’s post is a guest post for our awesome colleague Lisa!
“It’s a no-brainer you wouldn’t sit by and watch if you saw someone being kidnapped. But what if you saw a woman being led away, a woman who can barely stand up because she had too much to drink?”
May 7, ABC’s prime-time show, What Would You Do?, aired an episode asking this question. It explored people’s reactions to a man attempting to leave a bar with an intoxicated woman who was out alone celebrating her 21st birthday. Watching the promos for the episode, my immediate (and cynical) thought was that bystanders would do nothing. In actuality, the results of the show were a pleasant surprise. However, I would argue that the scenario cultivated by the show was one in which it was substantially easier to identify something was amiss and to intervene. Furthermore, the show neglected to name the threat as “alcohol-facilitated sexual assault,” preventing its message from having much real meaning. (See George Mason U‘s site for a breakdown of what I mean by this term).
The scenario is set up in a bar on the Jersey Shore (though in a noticeably classier one than those featured in the reality show of its namesake). The bar is well lit and it appears to be daylight outside. It is not busy; in fact, all bar patrons have their own stool and thus it is relatively quiet and easy to hear other conversations. In this setting, it is easy for the other patrons to hear the young actress tell the man that she does not know him. This line is repeated quite often, prompting people to tell the man to leave her alone and prevent the young woman from leaving with him. I will give credit where credit is due and celebrate the patrons for stepping up and assertively preventing the man from taking the woman out of the bar. However, I don’t know about everyone else, but when I’m at a bar, it is often dark, crowded, and so noisy I may even have to shout to be heard by my friends. To notice an interaction like this, one would need to be paying attention. It also may take a little more courage to intervene or perhaps require a higher standard of proof that something is awry.
This notion brings me to my next point, that it may not always so clear that the interaction poses a risk to the person in question. I would argue that it is unlikely that in a real-world situation the woman would have protested that she did not know the man. There is evidence that one way perpetrators are able to use alcohol and other substances to facilitate sexual assault is that the use of alcohol makes it difficult for people to detect ambiguous risk cues. For example, actions such as drinking or being led to an isolated place can be ambiguous because they can also be part of normal social behavior and flirting. Therefore, an intoxicated person may be less likely to perceive risk. This lack of perception of risk may make a person more likely to willingly leave the bar with someone (unlike the protests featured in WWYD). This reality calls for careful attention from bystanders and to recalibrate what is deemed as a warning sign (i.e slightly more subtle than the person shouting “I don’t know you.”).
Unfortunately we live in a society where alcohol consumption is gendered. People tend to perceive women who are drinking as sexually available and men who are drinking as aggressive. These expectancies set up a dynamic that not only enables alcohol-facilitated assault but wrongly places blame on the victim. As expertly stated in Jeanette Norris’s paper on alcohol consumption and sexual victimization, “Just as no one who is about to go out in public is expected to prepare to be mugged at gunpoint, neither do women preparing for an evening of socializing think about which man might sexually assault them.”
WWYD plays into these expectations in some respects. (You’ll have to catch the episode on TV to see this clip because it is strangely missing from the web video.) Their resident “relationship expert” offers a frightening nugget of wisdom excusing the appalling behavior of two young, married men (one an off-duty police officer) who joke with the young man about the potential of the young woman’s surprised reaction in the morning when she “wakes up with her pants around her ankles.” The expert explains these men likely feel they are missing out on their “days of freedom” and are living vicariously through the young man. Oh really, they are reminiscing about the good old days when they were single and could entice young women onto the beach and rape them? I found it gravely concerning that the show never addressed head-on the true issue at hand: alcohol-facilitated sexual assault. In fact, the word “rape” is uttered only once. Please, WWYD, call a spade a spade.
By now you might be thinking I’ve painted a hopeless picture. The show itself even concludes by stating that despite its results one cannot count on someone stepping in. To this point, I challenge everyone to change that norm. In spite of its many, many flaws, WWYD does offer a glimmer of hope in people’s humanity. Think about what made the people more likely to intervene in WWYD when the environment was small, quiet, and clearly dangerous and adapt those abilities to be effective in real-life situations. My favorite piece of WWYD’s naturalistic observation was that “once women got involved, it inspired others to get involved.” Sarcasm aside, there is power in numbers and if you speak up, others will be more likely to follow. I challenge everyone to question gendered expectations for drinking behavior and learn to recognize warning signs*, to step beyond the typical “don’t get involved” attitude, and to intervene when they feel it is safe to do so.
* Some things to be aware of include the greater likelihood that in sexual assaults involving alcohol parties do not know each other well (i.e. they are strangers, acquaintances, or casual dates) and both people may be consuming heavy amounts of alcohol.