Bystander approaches to sexual violence prevention

In 1964, the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese shocked Americans from coast to coast. While a man attacked, raped, and killed a young woman over an hour and half, it was reported that over 38 witnesses watched and did nothing to help. This story sparked research into what is known as the ‘bystander effect’ the phenomenon in which people do not offer help to another person in danger even though they are present. While the Kitty Genovese story has now shown to be a myth, as in actual fact several people tried to intervene or called for help and the police failed to respond, work around bystander intervention approaches have proven to be very effective in sexual violence prevention work.

Bystander intervention as a rape prevention strategy is most associated with the work of Vicki Banyard and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. The bystander approaches works from two key premises. First, that sexual violence is a social and structural and social issue rather than a problem of individuals. That is, sexual violence impacts and affects everyone, not just those who are direct perpetrators or survivors. Second, it works from an understanding of sexual violence as a continuum of behaviours ranging from healthy, age-appropriate, respectful, and safe behaviours to sexual abuse, rape, and violent behaviours. Between these two points are other behaviours, ranging from those that begin to feel inappropriate, coercive, and harassing.

In order for this strategy to be effective, individuals need to notice that something is happening, recognise the event as a behaviour along the sexual violence continuum, take responsibility for providing help, know how to intervene and choose to intervene safely.

From this perspective, people may intervene in situations at one end of the continuum, such as saying something at a party when a person makes inappropriate sexual comments or speaking out against a friend who is sexually harassing their partner. The idea is that this then stops these behaviours from progressing to acts at the other end of the continuum, thus stopping acts of rape and sexual abuse before they happen. The value of this approach is that it means each person can be engaged in preventing sexual violence by taking small and straightforward actions in less extreme situations.

You can find resources, publications and online e-learning courses for bystander intervention at the National Resource Center for Sexual Violence

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