Life is busy, and it is easy to become distracted or overwhelmed by what events are taking place around us. It is especially easy when something does not affect us personally, right here and right now.
This may be happening now as we are seeing and hearing frequently about sexual assault – locally and nationally. You may feel tempted to disregard the onslaught of information. Anything with the word “sex” can be taboo, and the additional grayness of sexual assault can be overwhelming. But learning to address sexual assault or harassment concretely can have the opposite effect. And it keeps it from being normalized, when each of us can do something about it.
In situations where we see the problem, we often believe someone else is going to do or say something. But that is not true. The “bystander effect” is a social phenomenon that means onlookers in a problem situation are less likely to act when others are present. If you are alone, you are more likely to take action to help someone out than if you are in a crowd. But your sense of responsibility to act is likely to decrease as the number of other onlookers increase.
At Fort Lewis College, the student group Wellness Peer Advisory Council has created and implemented an active bystander training that encourages everyone to be more aware and to take action – small or drastic – to step in when something does not seem right.
The training is applicable beyond the college context. Here are some tips:
1. Don’t rape and don’t sexually harass.
2. Be aware of what is going on around you. Unless we are really looking for something to happen, we are simply unaware. (Want to test your awareness? Check out the “Active Bystander Video” at www.fortlewis.edu/activebystander). If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
3. Decide to act. Recognize that if you don’t take action, chances are no one else will either. Sometimes, it can help to state your intention to act out loud; it makes it real and motivates you to follow through.
4. Know how to act. When it comes to sexual assault, we encourage individuals to be active bystanders to prevent predators or harassers from taking action. Three “d’s” can help.
Direct: If you intervene directly, you may confront the harasser head on. This might be calling loved ones out for sexist jokes, telling someone you are not OK with the type of language they are using or even telling someone who seems to be targeting someone else sexually to stop. It could even be asking someone who has experienced assault what you can do to support them or helping them get help. Distract: Distractions can be effective in redirecting someone’s behavior. If you witness sexual harassment, do what you can to grab attention from a harasser and give a potentially intense situation a break. Delegate: If you see a situation you feel needs intervention, be proactive and bring it to someone else’s attention. 5. Take action. Rape culture (including harassment) is not normal, no matter how normalized it has become. Our discomfort in speaking up or stepping up is worth it and can have a lasting impact. Even the smallest steps – a nonverbal cue, a distraction, a heads up, saying “not OK” – can be effective.
Kendra Gallegos Reichle is a licensed professional counselor and coordinator of Student Wellness Initiatives at Fort Lewis College. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.fortlewis.edu/activebystander.