Bystander Intervention is all about “protecting a buddy from getting into trouble” according to the NYT

There are a lot of problems in this New York Times article about preventing rape through bystander intervention. While I think bystander intervention programs are a good tool, I’m bothered by the way intervention is being taught – or, at least, how it’s being presented this morning by the NYT.

From the way this article is written, I get the sense that bystander intervention programs – especially those targeted toward male athletes – are more about protecting men from the consequences of “bad behavior” rather than protecting women from assault. In the article’s fifth paragraph:

“While the public discussion on sexual violence has primarily focused on the physical and emotional damage done to women, it is also true that getting arrested for sexual assault can mark a young man for life.”

And soon after that:

“Several male athletes at a training session last month seemed to feel that bystander intervention was as much about protecting a buddy from getting into trouble as saving a woman from harm.”

Is that really what it takes to get this message through to people? Intervene and you’ll keep your buddy out of “trouble”? “Trouble” usually means losing a scholarship or maybe getting suspended from school – but most likely not jail time. “Saving a woman from harm” … well that means keeping her from experiencing a violent crime. One of these consequences is not like the other. A student athlete who talks with his fellow athletes about intervention even had this to say:

“’Maybe you don’t get the girl,’ he said, ‘but you’ll keep your scholarship and still be on the team.’”

Wait, what? Shouldn’t it be: “Maybe you don’t get the girl, but at least you won’t be a rapist”?

Do these athletes really have so little empathy for women that it’s a better motivator for them to protect their friends than to keep women from being raped? That same narrative, I’m afraid, will just as often encourage men to cover up a friend’s predatory behavior. And the behavior is predatory – not an accident – but I’ll get to that.

The “protect your buddy” framing works partly because, according to some of the talking points participants come away with, women are fickle creatures who are always just accusing people of rape. Who wouldn’t want to protect a friend from that? From the same athlete quoted above:

“’If there is 1 percent doubt in my mind,’ Mr. Rowe said, ‘it’s not worth doing it. Unless she gives consent, she can say, ‘I was raped,’ and it’s your word against hers.’”

Um, yes, she can say it was rape … because if she doesn’t give consent it *IS* rape. Rowe further muddles the message about what is rape and what isn’t by presenting a scenario that’s supposed to be clear-cut … but where the woman doesn’t actually say “yes, I want to have sex with you.”

“’If a girl wants to have sex,’ he continued, ‘you’ll know it. She has that look in her eyes. She’s been talking to you, she bothers you, she walks by you all night, the whole thing, you talk, you let it evolve.'”

Refusing to acknowledge that consent has clear boundaries and instead saying that you just “let it evolve” is only going to enable rapists. Nothing in the above scenario indicates this hypothetical woman wants to have sex with this hypothetical man – maybe she just wants to ask him out on a date? Make out? Get to second base? If he’s not sure, and there’s no bystander to save him from himself … maybe he should just ask her what she wants to do. And then do what she says.

Another trope about rape that this article (and, apparently, the bystander intervention programs it profiles) perpetuates is that most rapes are accidents or mistakes – and that bystanders can just help these guys make better choices.

“Sgt. Richard Cournoyer, a Connecticut state trooper, has investigated a dozen sexual assault cases in the last few years involving University of Connecticut students. ‘These aren’t people jumping out of the bushes,’ he says. ‘For the most part, they’re boys who had too much to drink and have done something stupid. When we show up to question them, you can see the terror in their eyes.’”

Yeah, terror because they didn’t think they’d get caught. Sgt. Cournoyer’s assumption that most rapes are committed by “boys” who have “done something stupid” isn’t even supported by the few hard facts presented in the article in which his quote appears.

“’What I hear from men,’ says Ms. Gelaye, the University of Massachusetts vice chancellor, ‘is they feel like they’re the targets, they’re the problem.’ The fact is, most aren’t. Research by Mr. Lisak indicates that about 3 percent of college men account for 90 to 95 percent of rapes.”

David Lisak is a clinical psychologist, forensic consultant and one of the nation’s most prominent sexual assault researchers. In his 20 years of research into the type of rape these intervention programs are supposed to prevent (date/acquaintance rape), Lisak has concluded three things (among others):

1. Rapists make up a very small percentage of the population;
2. Most rapists are serial rapists who have committed, on average, six rapes each;
3. These rapists INTENTIONALLY use alcohol as a cover for their own actions and to ensure that their victim will be discredited if she does come forward.

This profile of who a rapist actually is – rather than what most people quoted in this article want a rapist to be (someone who made a mistake, someone who didn’t know what he was doing) – actually gives me hope that bystander intervention will work. Rapists also operate on a program, and it needs to be disrupted. But we should be honest with bystanders about what they’re actually doing: Shutting down a (likely) serial rapist who’s engaging in predatory behavior.

There’s one other thing in this article that bothers me about how it characterizes the success of these intervention programs. First, success is about keeping your “buddy from getting into trouble,” but then toward the middle of the article success becomes more about encouraging people to exhibit basic human decency.

There are two examples, a recent one from UMass that profiles a classic “stranger rape” and an older one from the University of New Hampshire that details a gruesome gang-rape in a dorm room. In the former scenario, a group of students passing by intervened and succeeded in pulling the man off the woman. In the latter scenario:

“Several students, including the resident assistant, knew what was going on but did not put an end to it. Nor did the roommate intervene as the three boys tried to pressure the girl into saying it was consensual.”

These two stories highlight rapes that really are outliers when it comes to how most rapes are perpetrated. In the first, the attacker quite literally pulled this woman into the bushes. In the second, there are witnesses who saw and heard the attackers crowing about (and admitting to) what they were doing. I’m not sure what a bystander intervention program has to offer in either of these cases. In the first, onlookers saw a woman obviously being attacked and did the right thing. In the second, onlookers saw a woman obviously being attacked and chose to look the other way.

I guess the lesson is to not look the other way – but only if it’ll save your buddy from losing his scholarship.

Oh, and for a good primer on how rapists actually operate, visit one of the best articles on one of my favorite blogs ever: “Meet the Predators” on Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.

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