I was first introduced to the concept of bystander intervention in a course on sexual violence theory that I took as an undergraduate at Yale. I would later workshop the method with students as part of the university’s ongoing efforts to shift the campus sexual climate toward one of respect and mutual desire — and away from a larger culture that normalizes sexual violence. Bystander intervention is a means through which to disrupt a troubling, potentially predatory interaction before it moves to a private space and escalates.
That so few actually intervene in troubling interactions has in some part to do with what sociologist Jaclyn Friedman has coined the women-as-gatekeeper model of heterosexual sex: that is, the cultural narrative that positions men as pushers and pursuers and women as gatekeepers, responsible for resisting sexual advances (so as to appear not-slutty, second-date worthy, etc.).
She writes about sex being treated as a commodity in our culture, saying, “This model pervades casual conversations about sex: Women ‘give it up,’ men ‘get some.’” Because of this narrative, we’re prone to dismiss interactions that we, as bystanders, witness — outside a club, at a frat party, on the subway — and know to be concerning. Still, when we’re faced with that guy at the bar who chooses to ignore our visible discomfort and hit on us, we could use someone else to diffuse the situation, to make it just a bit easier to escape.
And that’s where we get to make a choice.
If I see that a woman is stumbling-drunk and the guy with her doesn’t seem to be concerned for her well-being, if I come across someone getting hit on looking guarded and panicked, if I hear my roommate telling that new guy she met on Tinder “no” through the exceedingly thin walls of my apartment: I say something. Ask her if she’s okay, casually bump into her in the bathroom and check in, offer her cab fare — it’s less the shape of the interruption that matters so much as the interruption itself. Contrary to the myth of the stranger in the dark alley, sexual assault and rape are typically perpetrated by acquaintances and friends, and they happen in scripted and patterned ways.
Along the way, my brain has thrown up roadblocks. Thoughts like:
“What if I misread the situation?”
“What if the girl doesn’t want my help and rejects me?”
“What if everyone thinks I’m a weirdo for saying something?”
These are all legitimate concerns. But I’ve also felt the certainty that my fear of embarrassment doesn’t at all match what could be at stake if I didn’t intervene.
So often we feel powerless. That’s understandable: our agency stands to be compromised in very real ways. But as I watch my friends respond by taking to the streets, forming coalitions and finding new ways to uplift their communities, I’m emboldened in my belief in our power as people to fight back against the institutions and individuals who seek to endanger us.
Photo by George Marks/Retrofile via Getty Images; collaged by Emily Zirimis.