Dear Engaged Bystander: I know that to really change our culture around bystander enagement, we can not do it alone. In fact, it makes no sense for me to write about bystander engagement in isolation – it violates the very spirit and values we need to break the isolation of sexual violence. So I have been looking for ways to have other voices in this blog and this week, I wanted to feature the new blog by BARCC (the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center). The video blog about racism make an essential point for our movement as well.
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.
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 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.