BY EMELINE ARMITAGE
Bystander Intervention Training [BIT] is being pushed in colleges across the nation, including at Hopkins, as a way to change a campus culture and work to decreases occurrences of campus sexual assault. According to the National Public Radio (NPR), BIT is designed to change social norms and encourage both men and women to intervene in situations of sexual violence. It sounds wonderful — a way to help end sexual assault on campus that involves the greater community.
But I believe that BIT is in desperate need of criticism.
I know it sounds cynical: How could someone criticize something that is being implemented in order to diminish sexual assault on campus? But we must challenge the solutions set in front of us in order to strive for something better. Given the administration’s disastrous past with dealing with sexual assault cases, it is especially important to criticize any solutions they put forward since they have only proven themselves incompetent in dealing with campus sexual assault issues. If the administration cannot even follow the federal law regarding campus sexual assault, why should the student body have any faith that they can implement competent policies to control it?
Last year, writers and activists Shaadi Devereaux and Lauren Chief Elk published “The Failure of Bystander Invention” in the magazine The New Inquiry in which they critiqued several aspects of Bystander Invention Training. They wrote that “[Bystander Invention Training] positions violence as an abstraction that exists outside ‘real’ people.” Basically, creating this stark division between the “bad guys” (rapists) and the “good guys” (bystanders) ignores the complex way intimate partner violence and sexual assault manifests in our cultures. The “bad guys” are not men in trench coats hiding in the bushes but rather “our partners, brothers, husbands, cousins, esteemed community members and neighbors.”
Whether or not the creators of BIT programs mean to perpetuate an antiquated ideological framework of sexual assault (and many of its defenders have outright denied this charge), the binary concept of “bad guys” and bystander heroes is dangerous.
Accepting the idea of a bystander as outlined in BIT can have dangerous and violent consequences as the training program ignores many deep-seated societal issues that greatly affect rape culture and sexual assault. Many BIT programs advise participants to call the police when observing a violent or potentially violent situation, yet many survivors do not want the police to be called.
A Time Magazine article, titled “Why Victims of Rape in College Don’t Call the Police”, outlines the reasons why: Survivors don’t want to become a social pariah, they don’t know what legally constitutes rape, they are afraid that the police won’t believe them and they will have no control over their case. According to the United States Department of Justice, only 18 percent of convicted rapes end in a conviction. In an investigation, facing one’s rapist and recounting violent situations can be extremely traumatizing and many survivors choose not to go to the police because the vast majority of the time, re-experiencing the traumatic event doesn’t help convict a rapist. The choice to go to the police should be left for the survivor, as they are the only ones who know their level of trauma and if they want to risk going to the police.
Similarly, in many of the BIT curriculums I looked at, I rarely saw any mention of race outside of statistics and never saw race mentioned in a context of how law enforcement responds. A Reuters poll published in January 2015 showed that only 30 percent of black Americans “trusted the police to be fair and just.” Bystanders should not force people to deal with the police when the police may react violently and escalate the situation. Also, the police themselves may be perpetrators of sexual violence. The Daniel Holtzclaw case, in which a police officer was charged with sexually molesting 13 different black women, has brought national attention to the issue of sexually violent police who are especially violent toward marginalized communities like people of color and trans women. The Cato Institute reports that sexual abuse comprises nine percent of complaints against police, although due to underreporting, the number of incidents is probably much higher than what the statistics show. Again, forcing survivors to interact with a potentially violent party is irresponsible, but BIT curriculum advises bystanders to call the police for any situation they identify as potentially violent.
Finally, BIT also does not acknowledge the racial biases that the bystanders may have. The study “Racing to help: racial bias in high emergency helping situations” published in the National Library of Medicine found that white participants responded more slowly and found the situation less severe when the victim was black. (This response was unique to white participants as black participants did not demonstrate the same emergency racial bias.) BIT cannot tackle rape culture without recognizing the racist elements that perpetuate the victimization of men and especially women of color.
BIT programs, although well-intentioned, cannot be above rebuke. The major sexual assault issues the University has experienced in the past are systematic issues: reporting, transparency and the prevalence of rape culture on campus (even with seemingly innocuous everyday language — I have heard people say they were “raped” by a test far too many times).
By focusing solely on programs that prevent individual violent acts, the University is sidestepping the major systematic issues that lead to many of these violent situations. BIT can prevent individual sexual assaults, but it can also lead to dangerous situations by ignoring the complex societal culture around rape and sexual assault.
I don’t have all the solutions, but I believe we must start working toward BIT alternatives and that analyzing its problems is one way to start. Again, I don’t want come off as too cynical: If BIT can help someone prevent one sexual assault then the training worked for that individual situation, and I appreciate the work Alyse Campbell, the Sexual Assault Prevention,
Education and Response Coordinator at Hopkins, has done. But stopping one incident will not prevent the systematic issues that perpetuate violence. How many heads need to be cut off of the Hydra until the University and student body are willing to confront the deeply embedded roots of violence and sexual assault? I hope no more, and I hope we can begin to move past using BIT as a quick-fix solution to our campus’s issues with violence and rape.
Emeline Armitage is a sophomore International Studies major from Cleveland.