I have done some work in the past to advance bystander intervention approaches to sexual assault prevention. In the days that I volunteered at Middle Way House, a local intimate partner violence and rape crisis shelter, I compiled a review of bystander intervention curricula, hopefully to extend MWH’s own anti-sexual violence curriculum. Here, and at Kinsey Confidential, I have written about bystander intervention, as well — including using the approach to eliminate racism and its consequences.
I really like the notion of bystander intervention because it moves beyond victim-blaming, to place both the problem and the solution on society. For sexual violence, this means recognizing the way that sexism purports an ideology that characterizes women as sex objects, and is manifest in organizations that promote or facilitate sexual violence. It is much harder to focus exclusively on the perpetrator’s intentions (“maybe he got carried away”) or even the victim’s “guilt” when these incidents occur within a rape culture. I see it as the missing complement to understanding social problems sociologically — that we must see the solutions as society’s responsibility, as well.
A Recent Test
A few days ago, I heard screaming from a nearby apartment. Being nosy, I peeped out of my window to see what all of the commotion was. I could locate the screaming to an apartment where a couple (I presume) argued. I could make out some of what they said — something about a misplaced cellphone and, apparently, misplaced blame for its disappearance. I watched as long as my fleeting interest held.
But, I felt that the arguing was quite heated. I began to worry that it might develop into something worse. It did. “What did you say to me? WHAT DID YOU SAY?” the man demanded. Short of anything physical, this kind of verbal threat concerns me; it’s tone is hostile and intent is likely meant to scare the recipient. And, through the small gap in their blinds, I could she him shake the woman and then push her against the wall. Panic set in. “I have got to do something,” I thought to myself.
First, I called 911. The dispatcher calmly asked, “is it still just verbal at this point?” Good – another concerned neighbor beat me to calling. “No, he just pushed her against the wall.” The police were sent to respond. I felt my bystander intervention advocacy tested. Do I run over, especially if it becomes more violent? (How could I live with knowing something worse happened if I didn’t act?) No, I have to live here for a while longer; my partner’s and my own safety cannot be overlooked. I decided to call and text friends and family who either work in violence prevention or law enforcement — “what else can I do?” That was it. They all assured me that it was in the police department’s hands now.
The police did arrive soon after. I could hear their knock at the front door; a dog began barking. Fortunately, their arguing had settled slightly after I called 911, though the times of silence were no more settling for fear he had further hurt her. I could not see or hear anything for a few minutes after the police arrived.
Then, the man, shirtless, darted behind the building. I do not know whether he dashed passed the police, or even jumped from the second-floor apartment patio. One police officer walked slowly behind him. Then, I could hear police interviewing the woman, though it sounded as though they were badgering her. She left with them to her own apartment. After a while, the three police cars parked at the edge of the woods, which he ran into, left. I was a little unsettled by a perpetrator being on the loose, so I peeked out every once in a while. I noticed a police officer remained behind, probably to apprehend him if he returned.
I had considered notifying my apartment complex about the incident. But, I was not sure what would come of it. Coincidentally, they emailed me the next day about a maintenance request I had not put in. So, I let them know then. With an apology for the disturbance, they let me know was evicted; he had that day to leave or be forced out by a Sheriff the next week. I heard a commotion early the next week. I presume he did not go willingly. But, he is gone for good. But, the arguing suggests he was probably with his girlfriend/wife as he moved out. This is what worried me.
Yes, I am relieved he was evicted. It turns out this was the third time police have come for him. And, I realized it was the second intimate partner violence incident within a week. The previous weekend, I heard a woman’s frantic screams, but police were already involved so I did not investigate further. Another nosy neighbor said to her boyfriend as they passed me, “I don’t know why she would scream that much about a broken window.” She was probably screaming in sheer terror because this man, her boyfriend/husband who has a history of attacking and terrorizing her, was coming after her (again). (This is my point about the problem of culture. These people dismissed her as overreacting and never thought about her or him again.)
He is gone from this neighborhood, but who knows whether he moved in with her. She is not out of harms way. If their relationship ends, he may continue to perpetrate violence against others (and may already be doing so).
This, of course, was not the first time I have been tested. There are many ways in which I have had, and sometimes taken, the opportunity to intervene in preventing violence and its consequences. For, intervening is not merely about the immediate violent situation. I can intervene by challenging comments and jokes that justify, glorify, or ignore violence. I can support victims of violence, even as simply as offering emotional support, saying “I believe you” and “this is not your fault”; if they allow, and I am equipped to do so, I can offer resources to leave on-going violent situations or rebuild their lives. I can work to educate others, especially to see violence as a social problem and prevention as a community responsibility.
I still do not feel that I did enough. But, in the grand scheme, I did as much as I could safely do, and I continue to work on violence prevention at broad level. The situation forced the reminder that my gift is in education, in research, in disseminating knowledge, and speaking out in general. It is important that I do my part from these strengths and my own perspective, rather than trying to be superman. And, I hope others will (continue to) do their part, as well.