Bystanders are Key to Preventing Sexual Assault

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Katie Edwards

Katie Edwards

David Finkelhor

David Finkelhor

Humiliating and painful as it was for all involved, the recent trial of a St. Paul’s School alumnus illustrated well the dynamics that contribute to sexual assaults among youth. More than just a perverse St. Paul’s tradition of “senior salute,” a generalized subculture exists in many high schools where sexual exploits become a currency of social status, where perceived peer pressure to engage in sexual conquests creates the incentives for a sexual assault.

The incident between Owen Labrie and the female student unfolded in a secluded mechanical room, yet with an audience of other students who were involved both before and after and who provided strong motivations for the participants.

Labrie talked about what he was going to do and bragged about it later with his friends. Friends likewise encouraged the victim to meet with Labrie, and were keen to hear about the outcome. As testimony in court showed, the victim also shared her distress after the incident.

But the audience that can fuel these offenses can also be the key to preventing them. A new generation of programs for adolescents, such as “Coaching Boys Into Men,” “Green Dot” and “Shifting Boundaries,” target bystanders rather than potential perpetrators or victims. These programs are proving to be effective at reducing rates of sexual assault and other forms of violence and increasing support for victims.

Such new programs are typically classroom-based and focus on changing norms and behaviors to cultivate what some programs call “upstanders” or “positive bystanders.” These programs work to mobilize the power of the peer culture to deter sexual assaults and support victims in the aftermath of assaults.

A first component of the programs is making responsible norms more visible and ascendant. They use local survey data to show that sexual assault really is a problem in their school. They also use the data and testimonials from respected peers, and school and community leaders, to highlight that most boys do not support predatory and aggressive behavior and that youth overestimate the number of their peers who are engaging in sex.

[Related: How to Tell If Child’s Sexual Behavior Is Age-appropriate]

The programs also offer facts that dispute myths about rape, with exercises that help garner empathy for victims. They inform students about laws and the meaning of consent, with analogies to other domains of personal control, like using people’s personal possessions. They inspire youth to recognize the influence they can have in preventing sexual assault in their schools and broader communities.

The programs also provide the opportunity to acquire and practice positive bystander skills. Through scenarios and discussions, adolescents brainstorm specific strategies they can use if they encounter a high-risk situation — an intoxicated boy making advances toward an intimidated girl, someone being importuned to send naked pictures of a peer, a friend talking crudely about his date or a social media post deriding the victim of an assault.

As part of these effective programs, adolescents also practice how to support friends in the wake of assaults, arming them with school and community resources, and effective expressions rather than judgmental or intrusive ones. Sadly, a majority of teenagers will have the opportunity in a given year to deal with such an episode among their peers and put these new skills to use.

While effective programs emphasize the youth bystanders, they also work to influence parents, teachers and school administrators to be aware of toxic subcultures and model the kinds of attitudes and behaviors they want to see embodied in their children. They advocate for broader school and community policies and initiatives that also help to prevent sexual assault, like detailed school protocols for responding to sexual assaults and training for all school staff.

Programs built on these successful models need to be disseminated much more widely. Most high schools are relying on single-session lectures or videos that are not comprehensive or engaging enough to change norms or behavior. Not only are these widely used approaches ineffective, they are not well liked by adolescents.

As we are drawn into the unusually compelling details of this St. Paul’s case, we should avoid the inclination to interpret it as yet another sign that the problem of sexual assault is simply ubiquitous and intractable. In fact, we are making progress in our effort to reduce its scope and impact. A better result of the national publicity around the case would be a new resolve to make the culture of adolescence much more resistant to the tragedy and trauma of sexual aggression. The widespread adoption of evidence-based bystander-oriented prevention programs could be a major advance toward this goal.

Katie Edwards is assistant professor of psychology and women’s studies and affiliated with Prevention Innovations Research Center and the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. David Finkelhor is professor of sociology and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

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