Can “Active-Bystanders” and education work where police reporting fails in Sex Assault?

By Abby Cantrell and Zoe Strafford-Price

Programs across the nation hope to address the widespread problem of campus sexual violence by training students to be “active bystanders” who step up to prevent violence among their peers.

Sexual assault has become a common part of the college experience in the United States. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in five women – and one in 16 men – will be sexually assaulted during their time in college.

Universities are trying to combat this norm through training programs such as One Act at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The program encourages students and faculty to step in when they see a potentially dangerous situation occur.

“A lot of students don’t feel empowered to say something or do something,” said Cara Pugh, a senior advisor for the UNC student government. The issue with sexual violence is not just that it is happening at alarming rates on college campuses, but that students do not know how to stand up for and protect one another.

A key way to promote a program is to involve key figures on campus, including both student organizations and the university’s leaders. “Chancellor Folt has retweeted our posts,” said Pugh, smiling.  This exposure legitimizes the program and puts it beyond just the student realm.

Bystander awareness and intervention programs seek to change the culture on college campuses and educate students and faculty members.

“Sexual assault doesn’t start with the assault itself, it starts with the sexist joke a week before; it starts with allowing this culture to perpetuate on our campus,” said Tanvi Jayaraman in a Tedx Talk in 2015. Jayaraman created the first university-wide bystander intervention training program when she was a student at Stanford University.

UNC Student Wellness suggests that students “confront heteronormative, sexist, racist, and all other remarks, language, and jokes that support or enable the marginalization of any category of people.  Commit yourself to ending oppression in all its forms.” Further, it suggests that all “be mindful of consumer media,” that may promote unhealthy attitudes.

The consensus among experts is that sexual assault stems from harmful attitudes and other problematic behavior, and to combat this issue, universities must confront this fact. To create a campus environment where students feel safe walking alone will first require a change in the way these topics are discussed, and this will require action on the part of every student and faculty member.

Since 2010, over 2,100 students at UNC Chapel Hill have been trained by One Act.

One Act trains students to be active bystanders and speak up and take action when they see an incident occur. They give suggestions such as, “Decide with your friends in advance of going out: each person’s plan for staying safe, getting home, and whether or not you will leave with anyone other than the person/people with whom you arrived,” and “Watch your friends’ drinks. If you see someone spike another person’s drink—get help, let the person who has the drink know what you saw, or “accidentally” knock the drink over.”

Education is also critical in knowing how to approach a victim and offer the right form of comfort.

“When a survivor goes through sexual assault, it is the ultimate violation of their body . . . maybe physical contact isn’t the right way to go,” said Jayaraman. She suggests that while offering a hug as a form of comfort is a natural human instinct, it is not necessarily the correct way to comfort a victim of sexual assault. In the wake of such great trauma and violation, even physical contact from a friend may be jarring. Instead, she suggests those on college campuses should learn an effective way to communicate with their peers in the aftermath of sexual assault.

“Sexual violence is severely underreported,” said Rachel Valentine, community education director at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.

“Research utilizing self-disclosure shows that there are many times more survivors who have not reported their assaults tan there are that have, and our experience at the OCRCC is that most survivors choose not to report to law enforcement,” said Valentine. “There are a variety of reasons for that including distrust of law enforcement, protectiveness toward the assailant if they are part of the victim’s life – as most are, reluctant to share the story publicly due to stigma and shame, and fear of people’s responses.”

The current norm is for victims to be hesitant to share their experiences with authorities, or with anyone at all. According to experts, this puts others at risk because most cases of sexual violence are committed by repeat offenders. If victims could report these crimes without fear of judgement then future crimes could potentially be prevented.

“Only 5 percent of survivors will report their sexual assault to law enforcement,” said Jayaraman. The other 95 percent talk to those around them – fellow students, advisors and professors.

It is important for students and faculty to be trained in how to not only prevent sexual assault but handle the aftermath and provide the best support possible for victims. This means not only knowing how to act in these situations, but also what to and what not to say.

“When I was raped my first year of college as an undergraduate at Keene State, I was asked questions like this – what were you wearing? were you drunk? why did you end up in a room alone with him? And if you really didn’t want it then why didn’t you fight harder?” Said Johanna DeBari, The Human Rights Institute’s publicity liaison, in a TED Talk.

“The nature of these questions is important because they are perfect examples of victim-blaming. We are socialized in our culture to see sexual violence as somehow connected to the victim’s actions and thus when we try and explain the phenomenon we somehow decide to say let’s look at what the victim did or didn’t do rather than put the perpetrator in our line of focus instead,” said DeBari.

Following incidents of sexual assault, attention is too often turned to the victim – what they were wearing, where they were going, and what they could have done to prevent this crime from happening to them. Instead of asking what the victim could have done differently, DeBari believes the focus should shift to the perpetrators of these crimes and what society as a whole can do to prevent sexual assault.

Universities must also ensure their programs are comprehensive and include everyone on campus. “The next phase is where the men come into the conversation,” said David Mallen, assistant director at DuWell at Duke University. The key is to design a program that successfully encourage male participation, rather than portraying every male as the root the problem.

“It’s hard to engage men in a nuanced way,” said Mallen. “What guy goes to a program to feel like they’re being targeted? You have to pull them in, not repel them.”

Mallen agrees that the conversation should be focused on the actions of the perpetrator, and not those of the victim. “We’re dealing with the snake bite,” said Mallen. “We should be handling the snake.” He said a lot of programs handle how to get the victim out of the situation, but rarely handle what happens to the perpetrator.

Mallen said that the perpetrator can go and commit the act again because they know they can get away with such actions. The lack of punishment is rewarding harmful behavior.

Students may also have the instinct to protect their peers who have committed crimes, which makes it even more difficult for victims to receive justice.

Mallen said that this is especially an issue within the Greek system. One of the most vulnerable groups is first-year women in sororities; few victims report their assaults because they fear the repercussions for their assailant, who is typically a fellow student and often a member of a fraternity. “[They] tend to accept more egregious behavior from fraternity men because they are within their community,” said Mallen.

Programs like PACT – Prevent. Act. Challenge. Teach. – at Duke and One Act at UNC seek to combat this sentiment and encourage students to speak out against interpersonal violence they experience or witness. Mallen said you have to capitalize on the situation at hand to promote change.

“Education is a key point,” said Yash Nalla, a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill.

However, universities face the challenge of measuring the real impact such programs have. Some universities employ the use of online modules to educate incoming students on important topics like violence prevention and alcohol safety.

Some argue that these modules like Haven, an online sexual violence program conducted by Everfi and used by UNC Chapel Hill, is a good way to teach sexual assault awareness; Mallen said that such a system can easily be done passively in one window while scrolling through social media in another. “There is no real way to gauge the retention,” said Mallen.

Despite the fact that there is no real way to ensure students are fully absorbing the material, Mallen still supports the use of these programs. “It is the most effective way to ensure there’s a baseline education,” said Mallen.

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