Bystander intervention education is great. I really believe in its power to make the world a better place, and to make college campuses safer and more welcoming for all. But I also believe that bystander education won’t do much to prevent sexual assault until we agree that sexual assault is a gendered issue, and that sexism is still a big, fat, effing problem.
Let me explain.
Bystander education teaches students how to step in and intervene when they see or hear something that’s not okay. When they witness someone in trouble. But it will never be effective at combating sexual violence or harassment if we can’t even agree on the basic premise that yelling at women on the street is not okay. Or that having sex with a really, really, blacked-out, drunk person is not okay. If that’s where students are stuck, then bystander education is a waste of everyone’s time. Those students don’t need bystander education. They need Sexism 101.
But do students get taught Sexism 101? Ever in their 12 years of grade school? Nope. Not one bit. Why not? Because we – the adults – can’t even agree that sexism still exists.
DESPITE THE FACT that most women experience street harassment on a daily basis. DESPITE THE FACT that most women would love to “Lean In,” except for that whole bit about how it so often backfires because nobody likes an assertive woman in the workplace. DESPITE THE FACT that most women have experienced being groped by a stranger at a dance club. DESPITE THE FACT that even the supposedly-feminist “girl’s” toys are pastel pink. DESPITE THE FACT that news about women is a separate category on news sites as if women were a special interest group instead of half the population. DESPITE THE FACT that intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for pregnant women. DESPITE THE FACT that Game of Thrones Director Alex Graves thinks a textbook rape scene isn’t rape. DESPITE THE FACT that rape-threats and death-threats are “just another day at the office” for female bloggers. DESPITE the wage gap, slut shaming, “BLURRED LINES,” and multiple pro-rape Fraternities, we still can’t reach consensus that women are marginalized in America.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, respectable, educated people still argue that sexism isn’t a thing anymore. That we are living in a “post-sexist” America. (Just like we are living in a “post-racial” America, amirite?) But not only are they arguing that feminism succeeded and we’re fine now, they’re giving space in publications like the New Republic to voice the concerns of MRA’s who think that men are now the primary targets of gender discrimination, and who have been known to harass, stalk, and bully feminist writers and activists to further their cause.
Some college students respond really well to bystander intervention education. They recognize the problem and want to help. Other college students think that bystander education is unfair and “biased” because sometimes men are the aggressors or perpetrators in various scenarios.* Try telling them the truth – that even though most men do not rape, 99% of rapes are committed by men – and they argue back that that’s one-sided. Biased. Unfair. Demonizing. The only sexual assault prevention education they’re interested in is one in which men and women are “equal,” regardless of the reality.
*The scenarios I use feature men, women, and the gender-neutral “Jamie” as aggressors, yet that special minority of students will still accuse me of bias against men.
As an educator, you have two choices. You can pretend that men and women are “equal” when it comes to sexual assault, thereby validating this inverted thinking and perpetuating the fallacy that women are just as likely to rape men as men are to rape women. And you can rationalize it by telling yourself “Well, if that’s what I have to do to get them to come to the table and talk about this stuff then it’s worth it.” You could do that. But you’d be wrong.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not equal. They are not even. They are not fair. They are gendered issues. Who are most likely to be victims? Trans people and women. Who are most likely to be perpetrators? Men. Sorry. That’s the reality.
Am I suggesting that men are evil? That men are hardwired to be horrible, violent, abusers? No. Not even close. Men and women are shaped by the society they live in, and our society is one that tells young men that women are asking for it, that drunk women are “DTF,” that women lie about being raped because they regret having sex, and that real men want sex all the time no matter what. That a boy being raped by a woman at age 8 will help him grow up to be a “beast” at sex. That being offended by homophobic slurs makes you a “pussy.” That the worst thing you can ever be accused of is being feminine – or gay, because it’s basically the same thing.
And even so, men who grow up in that society, espousing those hideous, sexist beliefs, usually don’t rape people. Except for a small few. But those hideous, sexist beliefs of the majority allow the violent few to rape with impunity. Because who would ever believe that drunk slut anyway, right?
All the bystander intervention skills and techniques in the world won’t make a damned bit of difference to a student who won’t accept the simple premise that rape is real, and it is gendered. That “false rape accusations” are not happening as frequently as actual rape. That sexual harassment is actually harassment, and not a compliment.
The White House recently created a Sexual Assault Task Force and handed down a bunch of new mandates for colleges under VAWA and the Campus SaVE Act and Title IX. One of those mandates is bystander education. And I think that’s good and right and important. But nowhere in that recent White House report did it say anything about addressing sexism. Nowhere is anti-sexism education mandated. Some colleges have Women’s Studies programs and Women’s Centers and those are amazing. But plenty of schools don’t. And at those schools, no one is standing up and acknowledging that sexism plays a major role in campus sexual assault. No one is mandating that first year students take an anti-sexism seminar.
What about primary and secondary education? Grade schools have taken up the anti-bullying flag, but still, no anti-sexism flag. It’s okay to talk about being an active bystander and standing up to bullies, but it’s not okay to talk about sexism because the grown-ups still can’t agree that it exists.
Until we start teaching anti-sexism, bystander education can only do so much. When it comes to primary prevention – actually preventing sexual assault from happening – bystander education is not our silver bullet.
Until our students understand what sexism is, what it looks like, and the role it plays in perpetuating sexual violence against women and other marginalized groups in our global community, bystander education will not be effective as a primary prevention strategy to combat rape. Unless our students can understand and identify situations of sexual harassment and assault, bystander education will remain a solution to a problem-they-don’t-believe-is-actually-a-problem.
As an educator charged with the task of bystander education, I am frustrated. I love doing bystander education because when students are ready for it, it is the most fulfilling and inspiring and uplifting part of my job. But lots of students aren’t ready for it because they have no understanding of sexism or gender discrimination or gender violence. And who takes responsibility for that? Where is the accountability for that?