(This post draws from John Kalin’s talk at TEDxColbyCollege).
The majority of conversations about sexual harassment and assault focus on the victim and the perpetrator, so it can be easy to think these are the only role we need to focus on in combating this problem. Equally critical to stopping sexual assault, however, is the role of bystanders, or people nearby who may be able to see the signs of an impending assault and step in to prevent this crime from happening. This tactic, known as bystander intervention, involves getting more than just those already concerned about sexual assault to become a part of the conversation. Examples of bystander intervention include checking in with friends or strangers you see who may be too drunk, letting people know if you see their drink being drugged, and tactfully confronting those around you who appears to be searching for a potential victim. Bystander intervention works better the more bystanders there are with a skills and willpower to intervene. So how do we avoid “preaching to the choir” and make sure we reach a wider demographic of potential bystanders? In his talk for TEDxColbyCollege, student-athlete John Kalin has a number of ideas on how to bring more people “into the choir.”
Kalin makes a point about the importance of positive prevention. This involves framing the message around sexual assault not on what we can’t or shouldn’t do, but rather about what we can do. Positive messaging like this feels much more active, getting the recipients to feel active, like there’s something they can do to address the problem. Stopping rape is about more than not raping, it also involves proactive measures like checking in with drunk girls at parties and making sure people get safe rides home. Kalin argues that we should focus on these proactive measures in order to make our messaging resonate more with our target audiences.
Another excellent point Kalin makes is the need to interject messages into the correct spaces, that is, where sexual assault is most likely to happen. This will ensure that the audience receiving the message is the one best positioned to actually do something about sexual assault. This tactic reminds me of the Surgeon General’s warning and images of diseased lungs on packets of cigarettes. That messaging is put on cigarette packaging because smokers are the target audience. We need to take a similar strategy to encourage bystander intervention in cases of potential sexual assault. Posters like the one above are seen all around MSU’s campus, but they are especially important to have in places like frat houses. For example, there could be rules that require these posters be displayed throughout frat houses, with periodic random checks to make sure the houses are complying. MSU could also work with local bars to have these posters displayed in the bathrooms. By having a uniform campaign in these different settings, we have a repetitive (and thus memorable) message that meets people where they are, both literally and figuratively.
Using these tactics, I believe it is possible to bring more people into the choir. It is important, however, to not just assume that these campaigns work. We also need to design effective ways to measure student attitudes towards sexual assault and participation in bystander intervention actions to find out if our efforts are really having an effect. Only then can we say for sure that we are having a serious effect on rates of sexual assault.