We all have stories to tell
Dear Engaged bystander: I absolutely believe that ALL of us have many bystander stories to tell. In fact, if we interact with people every day, we have a story would could tell every single day. If we look at a time in our lives where we were being teased, sexually harassed or worse and someone did something – there is a story to tell. Or if we look at a time in our lives where we saw someone else who was uncomfortable or teased, sexually harassed or worse and we said something or did something to stop what was going on – there is a story to tell.
For Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), I tested my theory. I started to talk with people in my life – my neighbor, my hairdresser, a friend, a friend of my daughter’s, and the education director at my synagogue – with the belief that each one of them would have a bystander story to tell.
It is true that it took a few minutes for each one of them to tell me a story. First, I had to explain what I meant by “sexual violence” – the incident could be any number of things along a continuum of behaviors. It did not have to be a violent sexual assault. Then they found it easy to come up with a story where no one stepped in (e.g., to interrupt the sexist joke or watch while someone yelled at their spouse or child in the supermarket). It felt like people had a “filing system” for the stories where someone was hurt or might have been hurt. But the positive stories were not as easy to access. But with a few more questions, the stories did begin to emerge.
Each of these stories can be found on the SAAM CD, but I would like to give a little background. The first conversation I had was with Michael, my hairdresser at Chameleons. He hears many stories from many men and women every day so I knew this would be relatively easy for him. And his place is very politically active, often donating a day of their work towards a charity or raising funds for an event in town. So when I asked him the question and made it clear that any kind of story along the continuum of behaviors would do, I realized that he had tons of stories to tell. The most poignant ones were when kids came in and spoke about how they were bullied and asked for his advice. He gave them support for who they are, gave them options about what to do, and make sure that they did not feel so alone with their struggles.
But the story I wrote about was how his mother was sexually harassed at a rehab facility. I wanted the story of someone older, to show how our programs and materials have to address behaviors across all of the years of our lives. I also just loved how she was unwilling to let this happen to her again or to anyone else. She was not ashamed about what happened but indignant that she would be treated this way. She also knew that a lone voice does not have as much power – so she told Michael and he too got involved.
So what happened? I know that that particular orderly never worked with his mom again. I also believe that giving a voice to these stories do make a difference. In this case, I heard through Michael that she was so pleased to know that her story would be heard through the SAAM campaign and possibly reach others who have been in the same situation. My own opinion is that when we do share these stories, when we hear what others have done, it gives us hope AND gives us options about how we can act if we are faced with similar stories.
So please do share your stories and I will share a few others in the days to come!