At the 88th annual Academy Awards on February 28, Vice President Joe Biden took the stage to raucous applause from Hollywood's glitterati. In front of 34 million viewers, he sounded the alarm about the country's epidemic of sexual violence.
"Despite significant progress over the last few years, too many women and men on and off college campuses are still victims of sexual abuse," he said. "Tonight, I'm asking you to join millions of Americans — including me, President Obama, the thousands of students I've met on college campuses and the artists here tonight — to take the pledge."
Part of a star-studded White House campaign that tells college students "It's On Us" to end sexual assault, "the pledge" encourages young people to identify and safely intervene in situations where potential victims are vulnerable to sexual assault, a novel approach to fighting campus rape called "bystander intervention." Thus far more than 300,000 people have taken the pledge online, including celebrities like Jon Hamm, Zoe Saldana and feminist favorite Matt McGorry.
Sexual assault is nothing short of a national epidemic. According to a 2015 survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities, at least 1 in 4 female college seniors experience nonconsensual sexual touching, assault, or violence during college. Two-thirds of college students say they have been sexually harassed. These numbers are even more staggering when one considers that according to the Department of Justice, 80% of campus sexual assaults go unreported (the American Civil Liberties Union has it at 95%).
In an interview with Mic's Antonia Hylton, the vice president described a series of town halls with college and high school students in which participants were asked what they would do if they could change one thing about the way colleges and universities combat sexual assault.
"I expected them to say more lighting, lighting in parking garages, more campus cops," Biden said. "You know what the number one thing was? Get men involved."
"You know what the number one thing was? Get men involved."
What is perhaps most radical about bystander intervention programs is that they represent a significant shift from previous efforts that assumed sexual assault is the responsibility of the two people involved in the incident. Historically, advocates' main line of defense against sexual assault has been to either teach men not to rape, or teach women not to get raped.
"You get defensive and alienated because most men are not rapists," said Dorothy Edwards, the executive director of Green Dot, a widely used bystander intervention program. "If men were told, 'Don't be the rapist,' women were told, 'Don't get raped' — everyone got tired of being put in those categories."
Bystander intervention models shift the culpability for sexual assault from individuals to the broader community. They assume we are all responsible for stopping sexual assault because sexual assault is not an individual problem but a systemic, cultural and social one.
But while It's On Us has been successful in engaging some of the biggest names in Hollywood and raising awareness of the issue, critics question whether bystander intervention programs can end the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses.
Bystander intervention strategies are based on the following premise: If you are faced with a scenario that lends itself to sexual assault — for instance, an intoxicated woman is alone at a raucous college party — you should intervene. That sounds simple enough, but social psychologists have found that humans are often hesitant to intervene in dangerous situations. Called the "bystander effect" or "bystander apathy," the impulse becomes stronger the more people are involved.
One of the most famous illustrations of the bystander effect is the 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. On the early morning of March 13, 1964, Winston Moseley, a machine operator and Queens native, approached 28-year-old bartender Genovese in a parking lot near her apartment. Scared, Genovese ran from Moseley, but he caught up to her and stabbed her in the back twice. Genovese cried out in earshot of several neighbors, but no one came to her aid. After Moseley fled the scene, she dragged herself to the rear entrance of her apartment complex. Moseley returned 10 minutes later in his car. When he found Genovese huddled outside the building, he stabbed her again and raped her.
A neighbor found Genovese and called authorities, but she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. At the time, the New York Times reported that a total of 37 people witnessed the altercation or heard Genovese's cries for help. Later reports have brought that number into question, but Genovese's story was the first to put the idea of the "bystander effect" into the public consciousness.
The bystander effect seems to defy common sense, going against the basic instinct to help others in need. In a seminal study on the topic, researchers Bibb Latané and John Darley devised an experiment to replicate the bystander effect with college students. Participants were told they would be participating in a discussion about campus life with students in another room, communicating via microphones and speakers. Latané and Darley then played pre-recorded remarks from one to five people, leading the participant to believe she was having a discussion with either one or several other students. After a few minutes, the test subject would hear audio in which one of the speakers speaking seemed to be having a seizure.
While 95% of subjects overall responded in some way in the first three minutes, the percentage of people who intervened varied dramatically depending on the number of voices test subjects heard. When students thought they were having a one-on-one conversation, 85% intervened, but only 31% of participants rose from their seats when they thought there were four other bystanders.
In group settings, bystanders look to one another for cues about how to respond.
Latané and Darley reasoned that when an emergency happens in a group setting, witnesses are less likely to feel it is their individual responsibility to intervene — the responsibility is diffused. In group settings, bystanders also look to one another for cues about how to respond. "An individual, seeing the inaction of others, will judge the situation as less serious than he would if alone," they wrote.
Potential negative consequences — and the risk of making the wrong decision — also dissuade bystanders from acting. "The bystander ... risks being a failure, getting sued, or even attacked or wounded himself," Latané and Darley concluded. They later wrote in The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? that knowing other bystanders, familiarity with the surroundings and the cohesiveness of the community in which the incident occurs affects bystanders' likelihood of responding; the more unfamiliar the scene and actors, the less one is inclined to help.
If bystanders find themselves paralyzed in instances of actual violence, how much less likely will they be to intercede when there is only the potential for danger?
Where It's On Us raises awareness for students to take responsibility for sexual violence on campus, another college focused program, Green Dot, trains students to overcome the psychological barriers and cultural norms that stop bystanders from intervening. Green Dot takes its name from maps it distributes on college campuses documenting instances of sexual assault (with a red dot) as well as moments in which someone intervened (green dots). The goal is to help students visualize the impact they can have in stopping the epidemic of sexual assault on campus.
Sexual assault is not an individual problem but a systemic, cultural and social one.
Edwards, the program's executive director, holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Texas Woman's University. A longtime researcher and advocate in violence intervention, she said she founded Green Dot after "years of failure" in reducing rates of college sexual assault. "We've been trying to do prevention for some time and the field wasn't seeing a reduction of sexual assault in college," she said. "We had to step back and think about what needs to be course corrected here and what are we really not privy to."
Edwards acknowledges that among the biggest obstacles to successful bystander intervention are the deep-seated notions people have about how to respond when faced with a potential sexual assault. Edwards said barriers to intervening can include anything from being afraid to "disrupt perceived social norms, not wanting to make a scene, being afraid of backlash or just being downright too shy to say anything."
At a party where everyone is getting drunk, revelers are not thinking of themselves as crusaders against sexual violence. They are trying to have fun, flirt — "get wasted." If a friend gets too drunk, they may be more likely to find it funny than dangerous. They may not think twice before leaving your friend to sober up on her own. Intervening means, in the middle of a party, identifying the situation as a potential scenario for sexual assault, then involving yourself in what, like domestic violence, is often seen as a private matter.
Green Dot provides training in high schools and universities to help students and staff stage interventions in situations such as these, tailoring responses to different personality traits. Trainees are encouraged to follow the "four Ds": make a direct intervention; distract or create a diversion; delegate (find someone else who can intervene); or delay your response, which means addressing the situation after it has happened, i.e., check-in with someone who may have experienced assault, especially if you weren't there to stop it.
"The reality is when you present all these options that are realistic, suddenly people are on board," Edwards said. "We have not been effective at offering realistic solutions — we have operated out of this idealistic world. Most people aren't pro-rape, they just don't have realistic options."
From the perspective of social psychology, bystander intervention sounds like a logical strategy to help stop sexual assault. But the range and complexity of situations that lend themselves to sexual violence can be hard to build curriculum around. Jane Stapleton, co-director of the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told Mic that the most effective programs understand the populations and scenarios students actually face; many programs, she says, have not been developed with their target audience in mind.
"Participants say, 'These people look like me, they talk like me, the scenarios used are ones that I am familiar with and the skill and intervention as ones that I can see myself doing,'" Stapleton said. "Identifying all those scenarios can be difficult."
Studying the impact of bystander intervention programs is difficult. According to Stapleton, one of the biggest obstacles in researching their efficacy is that measures of success rely on self-reporting. An ideal study would directly observe potential bystander behavior.
"Most people aren't pro-rape, they just don't have realistic options."
But the emerging literature on their efficacy is promising. Stapleton said that after years of developing and implementing bystander intervention programs at UNH, she has seen an "increased willingness to intervene, increased self-reported bystander behavior and a decreasing acceptance of the rape myth." In a 2012 study, UNH found that there had been a drop in instances of unwanted sexual contact or intercourse among its female students, from 21% in 2006 to 16% in 2012.
Another study looked at the impact of a bystander intervention project called The Men's Program, focused on fraternity brothers at midsized public university. Researcher John Foubert found that bystander intervention training significantly decreased offenses among fraternity members. Among first-year students who joined a fraternity and did not participate in The Men's Program, 6% reported committing a sexually coercive act during their first year; 10% of first-year students in fraternities without The Men's Program committed sexually coercive acts that year.
According to a study from Green Dot, schools that used Green Dot's curriculum saw a 50% reduction in the self-reported frequency of "sexual perpetration."
Ultimately, Stapleton said, while we have educated many people on bystander intervention skills, sexual assault doesn't happen in a vacuum. Participants are still "surrounded by cultures, environments and media that support and in some cases demonstrate sexual and relationship violence."
However promising the initial data, some critics of bystander intervention programs argue they are not a comprehensive solution. For one thing, what if no one is around to intervene?
But the main critique of these programs is that they don't address the causes of systemic sexual violence. According to Dana Bolger at Feministing, such programs fail to hold accountable "institutions that tolerate and perpetuate violence" and deny the "ways in which you exert power over less privileged folks in your life."
"Guiding your friends away from perpetrators at parties ... might help an individual woman avoid a rapist in an individual instance, but it won't stop that rapist from turning to the next girl down the bar," Bolger writes.
Similarly, some have argued these programs put the onus on the individual actors in a given scenario, where the room for error is great. As Melissa McEwan writes at feminist blog Shakesville, "Tasking potential victims with prevention, tasking bystanders with intervention, tasking survivors with formally reporting and prosecuting survivors and bystanders who don't engage with law enforcement on law enforcement's terms is not effective rape prevention."
In focusing on specific instances of sexual violence, bystander intervention risks missing the elephant in the room: rape culture, the constellation of assumptions and myths that normalize sexual assault. Rape culture suggests survivors were asking for it, that they are often lying and that women use accusations of rape as a weapon against men. These assumptions pervade the culture, whether through movies that normalize rape or the ways mainstream media talk about sexual assault (especially during high-profile rape trials). Dismantling rape culture is a large project — one that includes rethinking how we teach children about sex, holding institutions accountable for how they deal with sexual assault and changing the ways we treat survivors and talk about the problem. At best, bystander intervention is one important piece of a broader puzzle.
But it does empower college students to see themselves as part of the solution. "Feeling you can participate in however small way you can is a gateway to feel like you are part of something bigger, which is a gateway to create culture change and the societal pressure necessary to end rape culture," said Emily May, founder and executive director of Hollaback!, which employs a bystander intervention approach to help curb street harassment. "Culture change happens when people do a few small things, collectively, and over time."
As the vice president himself told Mic's Hylton, "This culture of ours is upside down. We've got to change it. Just as we've begun to change the culture — your generation, the millennials — have changed the culture on LGBT issues. You've literally changed the culture, and rapidly. We can do the same thing, where a woman no longer asks a question, 'What did I do?'"