Bystander Intervention in Combating Sexual Assault

Bystander Intervention in Combating Sexual Assault

(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.


Why Men are Critical to End Violence Against Women

Why Men are Critical to End Violence Against Women

Men are critical to end violence against women for numerous reasons. Here, we will consider three:  1) the fact that men are most likely to be the perpetrators of assault, 2) that peer education amongst men is an effective way to get men to acknowledge this problem, and 3) that fighting violence against women involves addressing the larger problems of rape culture and patriarchy, which are perpetuated by and affect all members of society, including men.

Perhaps the most obvious reason men need to be part of the solution when it comes to ending violence against women is the fact that the majority of perpetrators are men. As we have seen throughout the semester, men are the most likely abusers across the spectrum of violence, from child abuse to sexual abuse to interpersonal violence. Of course, while the majority of abusers are men, these men make up a small minority of the overall population of men in society; thus, we need to ensure we are not condemning men as an entire group. We cannot avoid the fact, however, that those most at risk of becoming abusers are men, and thus the task of stopping violence against women involves men as a very fundamental component.

In combatting this issue, we benefit greatly by having male advocates who work to educate their peers on the epidemic of violence against women and what they can do to stop it. This is especially powerful because men are often more likely to listen to the perceived authority of other men than that of women. We can see this in a number of contexts; for example, if a man is hitting on a woman in a bar, he is more likely to leave her alone if she says “I have a boyfriend” than if she says “I’m not interested.” In our society, men are conditioned to place higher weight on the opinions and properties of other men. We can take advantage of this fact by recruiting men who want to fight back against violence perpetrated against women, as these are the educators that men as a whole, and especially those with patriarchal attitudes in general, are most likely to listen to. Men are also unlikely to volunteer their time towards addressing this problem; we see this in the gender breakdown in our class and in the accounts of male advocates that we read and watched in class. Thus, we need a select few men to go out into the community and bring the problem to their peers directly.

Lastly, we must recognize that combating assault involves addressing the much bigger problems of rape culture and the patriarchy, which are perpetuated by and affect everyone, including men. Violence against women, while tragic, is just a symptom of these larger issues, and thus we need to change attitudes on a fundamental level to make long term, lasting improvements in society. It is the patriarchy that conditions men to abuse women and that positions women to be vulnerable to abuse. This is not to say that men are complete winners in our patriarchal society; it is the patriarchy that silences male victims of abuse and limits the societally acceptable expressions of masculinity. Men are, however, the big-picture winners in a patriarchy, and it is going to take change from them as well as from women and all other genders to address these broad patterns of power and subjugation in the long term.

The Relationship Between Abuse, Body, and Recovery

The Relationship Between Abuse, Body, and Recovery

(This post draws upon the article “The Missing Piece” by Shirley Vanderbilt and the book The Obsidian Mirror by Louise Wisechild).

Abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse, contributes significantly to body memories due to its physical nature and the fact that perpetrators are frequently family members the child is supposed to trust. Sexual abuse is by nature physical; it involves an adult taking a child’s body, a child that cannot understand and thus cannot consent to this activity. These events are both physically and emotionally painful for the victim, and the two become tied up in one another in the form of body memories. For example, if someone grabs a survivor’s shoulder in a similar way her abuser did to force her into sexual activity, that grab could elicit flashbacks in the survivor, where she reexperiences the abuse and the emotions she expeienced at the time. The physical nature of the abuse makes the victim/survivor especially suseptible to to these body memories. Additionally, when children experience abuse, the perpetrators are most often family members; few other adults have as much opportunity to take advantage of a child’s trust and vulnerability. The betrayal of a family relationship is something much more fundamental that the betrayal of a friend or a stranger; these are the people the child is told to trust, to listen to, to count on to take care of them. When abuse shatters the sanctity of that relationship, it cuts much deeper that other forms of abuse. This betrayal of such a fundamental relationship built on trust leaves a victim all the more open to forming body memories that remind them of their experiences, almost as a warning not to trust others the same way again.

Survivors of assault experience significant shame due to the way these memories manifest themselves in their bodies. Physical and sexual abuse changes the way we relate to our bodies, and thus our physical reactions may not be “normal” by society’s standards, resulting in internalized shame. For example, some survivors find it difficult to be sexually intimate with their partners, especially when they are not the initiators of such contact. This difficulty can directly lead to body shame, as the survivors feel like there is something wrong with them for not feeling a particular way about their partners. They may believe that something is permanently wrong with their body and may feel like inadequate partners due to their body’s “incorrect” response. On the other extreme, some survivors engage in extremely promiscuous behavior, almost as a way to try and demonstrate some control over their bodies. This still may result in significant body shame, as these individuals may still feel used and may internalize societal judgement and shaming as a response to their promiscuity. The disconnect between body and mind that abuse creates can create body shame in a number of forms, and it can take significant work for survivors to rebuild that connection.

As an example of this phenomenon, we can consider Louise Wisechild, who detailed her abuse and recovery process in the book The Obsidian Mirror. Louise experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather, her uncle, and her stepfather, and thus faced significant trauma that manifested itself in body memories. The extreme physical nature of this abuse left her vulnerable to the formation of body memories which, when triggered, brought her back to these appalling events. Throughout her recovery process she experienced significant shame and disconnect from her body. She found it difficult to be sexually intimate with her longterm girlfriend unless she herself initiated activity and faced difficulty relating to her body, unable to really feel herself interacting with the world. When combined with the emotional abuse she experienced at the hands of her mother, which manifested itself in a harsh internal critic named Sarah that picked apart her every fault, Louise was vulnerable to intense body shame. Just like many victims and survivors of abuse, the physicality of what she experienced robbed her of her connection to her body, resulting in shame about the ways in which she was “wrong” or “broken” or unable to perform adequately as a girlfrield. Over time, she was able to confront this shame and her body memories through both therapy and body work in the form of massage. This recovery process took years, however, demonstrating just how deeply physical and sexual abuse can affect survivors.


Rape as a Weapon of War in the DRC

Rape as a Weapon of War in the DRC

(This post draws from the Al Jazeera English story Rape in DR Congo: A ‘weapon of war’).

According to the above story, more than 200,000 people have been raped in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998, the vast majority of them women. In this nation, women are treated as the property of their husbands and fathers. Thus, when a soldier rapes a woman, he is sending a message to that woman’s male “owners” that those owners have no power and that their property can be easily and violently stolen from them. In this way, rape is an extremely powerful weapon of war, both tearing down the women who are subjected to this horror and their male family members who are humiliated and subjugated in the process. This obscene human rights violation cannot be allowed to continue, and those soldiers and rebels perpetrating rape need to be brought to justice in the DRC. The major question remaining is how.

Recently, the United Nations issued an ultimatum to two army battalions that are believed to be the largest perpetrators of rape. The UN has a mandate that directs them to support the Congolese army as they fight off rebel groups, but they must also ensure that the army does not engage in human rights violations against civilians. Due to the rape epidemic, the UN has stated that they will cease assisting these two brigades unless real changes are made to arrest and punish those members who commit rape. While the authority of the UN is a benefit to this particular approach, there are still several weaknesses to this proposal. First, it is very difficult to sanction select battalions while simultaneously supporting others. These groups are often interconnected and share resources, so the UN would still be indirectly providing assistance to the worst perpetrators. Additionally, while this approach does target Congolese soldiers, it does nothing to address the rebels that are also committing rape on a massive scale. Many argue that this threat of suspension is not an aggressive enough stance to take, and that is will take a larger scale commitment to end such a massive problem.

Another solution involves calling upon the Congolese government to implement reforms on the army and justice system in the DRC. Many are calling for the government to take a stand against these atrocities and to restructure the army in such a way that rapists are not continually rewarded for their actions. The government has made statements saying that they would like to make these reforms, but nothing has happened yet. Some argue that the Congolese government only has control over the capital city anyway, and thus they have little power over the country and the army in general. Thus, international help is necessary to implement these changes and to hold the Congolese government accountable to ensure that reform happens.

Epidemic rape is a problem impacting the entire Congolese society, and it is going to take a large-scale, society-wide approach to solve it. Solving such a problem requires both the will and the means to do so; not only do you need groups that have the necessary motivation to tackle the problem, but you need groups that, when combined, have enough means (power, money, resources) to actually have an effect. This is why the UN and the Congolese government need to come together to create a long term plan to combat epidemic rape that moves beyond a few sanctions. To present, very few DRC soldiers have been sanctioned for committing rape. Only very low level commanders and soldiers have been held responsible in any capacity, and their numbers are still very few. We need to begin sanctioning the commanders of offending brigades, in the hopes that these high-level punishments will send messages that resonate with the entire Congolese army. These punishments would demonstrate that soldiers are not immune to punishment just because of a high rank, and that everyone involved will be held accountable for rape.

As a more long term effort, the UN and the government need to be addressing society-wide conditions that allow such atrocities to continue. There need to be efforts to improve economic condition, to improve attitudes towards women, and to educate the population as a whole. Without these fundamental efforts, societal attitudes will not change and the population will still be at still be at risk for such mistreatment of women. Just as rape culture is something that needs to be addressed in the United States, work  needs to be done to address the rape culture of the DRC. This is going to involve much more than just a few sanctions and a few commanders in prison.

Differently-Abled Children and Abuse

Differently-Abled Children and Abuse

Across the board, children with disabilities are at a higher risk of all forms of abuse when compared to non-disabled children. This abuse can happen at home, by family or family-friends, or at school, by teachers and other caretakers. It is tragic that those already disadvantaged by the way our society treats ability and disability face a higher probability of being abused, and thus it is critical that we examine why this is the case and how we can stop this trend.

There are a number of reasons that may explain why disabled children are more frequently abused. Parents and other adults who care for disabled children are often under higher stress due to the unique requirements of raising a child with a disability. Some parents who cannot properly manage their stress may lash out against their own children, physically abusing them out of frustration.

Additionally, as disabled children are often even more reliant on their caregivers than children in general, they are at higher risk of abuse or neglect as there are more opportunities for abuse or neglect. For example, a child who cannot easily take food from the refrigerator due to their cerebral palsy is more dependant on their mother for meals than a child who can acquire a snack from the fridge. Thus, there is more opportunity for neglect.

Thirdly, disabilities make it harder for children to reach out for help, making them more vulnerable victims for those who may seek to abuse children. In an example given by the CDC, children with hearing or speaking problems may be more likely to be sexually abused because they are less likely to be able to resist and inform others about their experience.

As there are so many different adults who collectively care for any one child with disabilities, one may ask if the adults who are not directly abusing the child are possibly complicit in the abuse conducted by one of their own. In other words, are these other adults somehow involved with the wrongdoing perpetrated by one of the child’s caretakers? I would argue that these adults are only really complicit if they see signs of abuse and do nothing to investigate them. For example, according to the CDC, signs of abuse could include unexplained cuts and bruises, complaints about the genitals, and constant hunger or thirst. While all children require adult advocates, this is especially true for disabled children, who face additional struggle and stigma as a result of their conditions. Thus, it is critical that parents, teachers, and caretakers speak up if they see signs of abuse that may be coming from some other adults that make up the childcare team. If they choose to remain silent, however, then they are shielding the perpetrator and are undoubtedly complicit in the tragedy that is abuse committed against children with disabilities.

Sexual Harassment and Small Business

Sexual Harassment and Small Business

Small businesses with less than fifty employees operate under very different regulations than their larger counterparts. These regulations deal with a wide variety of workplace issues, from taxes, to health care, to human resources management. Here, we will consider the fact that small businesses are not required to have specialized Human Resources (HR) departments and the implications for these circumstances on victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. While forgoing an HR department may make economic sense in the eyes of a business owner, as they may not have the human capital to warrant nor the resources to maintain such a department, this situation can prove detrimental for their employees who experience sexual harassment at work.

Without a trustworthy HR department on hand, and employee who experience workplace harassment may have nowhere to turn for help. If one of their workplace equals is harassing them, say a waiter harassing a waitress, that waitress may be able to go to their shared supervisor for help. Due to the nature of small businesses, however, there is a significant chance that the waiter may have some significant relationship to the supervisor, perhaps a father/son relationship, significantly decreasing the chances the waitress will receive help. By speaking up regarding the harassment, she would actually be putting herself in a worse position by criticizing her boss’s son.

If their supervisor or the businessowner is the one doing the harassing, the situation is even more dire. In this case, there really is no place for the employee to turn. One might think that they could report this harassment to the police, but in most situations, the sexual harassment experienced at work is not severe enough to be considered a crime. While there is no doubt that the harassment is detrimental to the employee and in no way appropriate, the police cannot step in unless the employer actually breaks the law in some way.

Thus, speaking up about sexual harassment at a small business is very risky due to the unique challenge of not having an HR department. If an employee resists their supervisor’s advances or challenges the advances of a valued employee, they risk losing their job. Many people in this situation have to weigh whether or not the pay from this job is worth the harassment they are forced to contend with. While it may be beneficial to get the harasser in trouble or to stand up against a toxic boss, many harassed employees choose not to report in order to maintain job security and a steady income.

From the above information, it is clear to me that we need a better system to handle harassment in small business settings, one that makes it easier for harassed employees to come forward about their experiences without fear of financial or economic retaliation from vindictive employers. Perhaps we can make workplace harassment a crime, forcing the police to get involved when there is not an HR department to handle the situation internally. Regardless of how we move forward, we must recognize that victims of sexual harassment at small businesses are placed in a very tricky situation from which is it nearly impossible to escape unscathed.


On Hookup Culture

On Hookup Culture

(This post is a response to the Salon article Hooking up as a core requirement:  Casual sex in college isn’t optional anymore, “it’s an imperative” by Philip Eil).

I’ll start with a reflection on my positionality:  as an undergraduate college student in my early twenties, I am naturally suspicious of any Gen-X or Baby Boomer who makes declarative statements about my generation. I would argue that there are enough articles out there criticizing Millennials about their apparent entitlement, impatience, and laziness to legitimize my suspicions. Thus, I will admit that I went into this article highly skeptical of the claims Wade was making, as hookup culture is an often demonized social phenomenon associated with Millenials. I also tend to be wary of anything that looks like it might want to suppress sexual expression, something we’ve seen frequently since the Victorian Era. While there were points where I disagreed with Wade, however, I do really like and appreciate a number of ideas she addressed.

As a point of disagreement, I personally would widen “hookup culture” beyond just drunken sex and makeouts. To me, hookup culture is more like a social environment where sexual activity outside of a relationship is more acceptable, and that behavior may involve alcohol or not. I do not wish to deny that alcohol is very often a factor in hookups, and is especially prominent in instances of sexual assault, but do want to assert that the hookup culture of colleges does involve soberness, too. Reflecting on my own experiences, I have been in a couple situations that involved some sort of “hookup,” but did not involve alcohol or any sort of formal romantic relationship. For me, these were a way of exploring my sexulaity and I think are maybe some of the more positive examples of hookup culture at work.

Wade also discusses what she called a modern obsession with sexuality on college campuses, but I’m not sure if this is really a new phenomenon. In the middle of the last century, women frequently went to universities seeking their MRS degrees, and while this was more relationship seeking than sex seeking, sexuality does play a role. I think this history is important to acknowledge in studying how the role of sexuality in the college setting has changed over time.

I do still want to highlight two points Wade makes that I think are really important. She acknowledges that while students may be talking about sex more now than ever before, that does not necessarily mean they are having more sex, just that that sex looks different to that of generations before. Too often arguments about moral decay center around the scandalous amount of sex the new generation is having, and I appreciate that Wade addressed this myth.

Additionally, Wade addresses the unique position of women on college campuses. In the environment of hookup culture, if you do not engage in casual sex, there is a sense that you are not truly a “modern” or “liberated” woman. This is a perverse situation where “freeing” women from sexual repressions means forcing them to engage in sexual activity they may not be comfortable with. This is an important piece of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position of young women in society today.

Here at MSU, I think our student body is too big and too diverse for there to be the isolation that Wade speaks about with regards to those who decide to “opt-out” of hookup culture and drunkworld. We have so many organizations and student groups, both official and unofficial, that make it easy for even very introverted people to find those with similar passions and interests. Yes, we do have a significant portion of students who like to go out drinking and engage in hookup culture, as is clear to anyone who has ever stood on a corner and people-watched on Grand River on a Saturday night, but I do not believe it is as harmfully pervasive as Wade suggests. I think this may be more the case on smaller campuses, where there are less options about who to know and what to do, and thus less ability to opt-out of these activities.