Dear Engaged Bystander: As my year as the NSVRC blogger comes to a close, I thought about who are the people who can provide insights to carry us all forward. Jackson Katz immediately came to mind. He is one of the first to apply bystander thinking, interventions and strategies to prevent sexual violence. So I am thrilled to have had a chance to speak with him and add his words to these last few blogging days.
For those of you who don’t know Dr. Katz, here is a brief bio: Jackson Katz is an activist, educator, author and filmmaker, internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in the field of gender violence prevention education, particularly in the sports culture and the military. He co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program in 1993. MVP is one of the original bystander programs; it has been widely influential in the burgeoning field of bystander intervention. In 1997 he created the first worldwide domestic and sexual violence prevention program in the United States Marine Corps, a program he still directs. He and his MVP colleagues also work closely with the Air Force, Army and Navy in the development of their bystander programs. You might also know him through his educational videos for college and high school students, including Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity
(2000), Wrestling With Manhood
(2002) and Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies and Alcohol
(2004) or his book, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (2006).
Joan: What advice can you give to those of us invested in bystander approaches to preventing sexual violence?
Jackson: I believe that bystander intervention – broadly understood – is the future of sexual assault prevention. But to be effective, we need a common and comprehensive understanding of the term ‘bystander.’ I prefer an expansive definition of ‘bystander’ that is rooted in social justice philosophy and education. Many people think of a bystander as someone who is present at the scene of a potential incident. Part of the confusion is how the word ‘bystander’ sounds; it sounds like it means ‘someone who is standing by.’ The way we have always used the term in the MVP program is to describe anyone who isn’t either a perpetrator or a victim in a given situation but is in a position to intervene before, during or after the act. Or a member of a peer culture that contains abusers or victims. Or an authority figure in a position to enact prevention strategies. In that sense virtually everyone is a bystander. The critical question is: are you an empowered/active bystander or an inactive/passive bystander?
To really transform our culture we need to go beyond simply teaching individuals the skills they need to intervene in given situations. We need to expand our thinking beyond the individual 20-year-old college or high school student, drinking at a party. For example, a person in a position of institutional authority, whether they’re a governor or mayor, university or college president, school superintendent or the principal of a high school, who does not use their position to initiate, fund and lead sexual violence prevention efforts, he or she is being a passive bystander. Individual skill building is important, but we need to look at systemic solutions. Unfortunately most people hear the word ‘bystander’ and only look at the very narrow frame of the individual response at the site of the abusive act.
Joan: Can you further explain the social justice-oriented approach to bystander intervention?
Jackson: We have different levels of responsibility depending on where we sit on the continuum of social power. Of course individuals have a responsibility to act in their everyday lives and social worlds. But I am concerned that many bystander initiatives have moved away from the social justice roots of the bystander approach in a way that is both degendered and decontextualized. It is useful to compare our approaches to working against ending sexual violence with anti-racist efforts. For example, do blacks and whites have the same responsibility to work against racism in America? Most of us would agree that while we all need to fight racism, whites have a greater responsibility to act. The same is true of sexual violence. Do women have the same responsibility as men to interrupt sexual violence? When men commit the vast majority of it? (Whether the victims are women or men, girls or boys.) I believe women and men have complementary roles to play, but let’s not pretend that responsibility for prevention is shared equally between the sexes.
In our work to develop the MVP program in the early 1990s, social justice was our guiding philosophical foundation. The question I was most interested in was: how do we get more men to speak up to challenge other men about how some of us behave toward women? At the time there were very few men involved in sexual assault prevention work. At MVP we settled on a strategy to address men not as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, but, as we said, as ‘empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers.’ It was similar to challenging whites to speak out about racism, or heterosexuals to interrupt heterosexism. Also, my idea to start MVP was not about the problem of sexual assault perpetrated by male student-athletes. It was about the role that sports play in the larger culture and particularly male culture. Men in sports often have enhanced status, and so we wanted them to use that status to help make it more acceptable for men to start challenging each other about how we treat women along a continuum of behaviors, ranging from sexist jokes and comments to sexual and domestic violence. Fairly soon thereafter we made the program mixed gender, addressing similar dynamics within female peer cultures and empowering women as bystanders as well. We’ve trained many thousands of women and girls, but we’ve never lost sight of the fact that ending men’s violence is more of a men’s than a women’s responsibility.
Joan: How does this social justice approach challenge us in a way that individual change may not?
Jackson: Solutions to social problems of the magnitude of sexual violence have to be social and institutional solutions. For example, there is no excuse for any college or university that has an athletic program NOT to have mandated sexual assault and relationship abuse prevention education for all student-athletes, coaches and athletic administrators. If a college or university does not have this kind of programming – and hundreds do not -- it represents a failure of leadership at the level of the athletic director or university administration. Sexual assault prevention education should be part of the student-athlete experience – for men and women, from the first moment a young student-athlete steps onto campus. For this to happen will require a shift in our expectations about the role of campus leaders – university officials, athletic administrators, and coaches. If they are not offering and requiring these kinds of programs, they are being passive bystanders and hence complicit in sexually abusive behaviors, many of which can be prevented. The same logic about institutional responsibility on college campuses applies to leaders of Greek systems, housing, and other entities.