By: Angela Amar, PhD, RN
A guy gives a girl several drinks. After taking sips from a blue drink, the girl remembers nothing else. Somehow they got into his car and drove to his residence hall. There, three more football players returning from a late night food run were approached to help the first guy to get her out of the car and into the residence hall. Other residents recall seeing the girl passed out on the floor of the hallway. Once inside the room, the men slap her to make sure that she will not wake up. They rape her, sodomize her, and even urinate on her. And they video and photograph the episode and send it off to circulate among their friends and teammates. She wakes up the next morning, bruised, bloody, and battered, with no recollection of what happened. She has vomit in her hair. The first guy tells her that she was so drunk he spent the entire night taking care of her. She feels badly and apologizes profusely. He later tells her that things are being taken out of context and that he and his teammates might get in trouble. She agrees to cover for him.
Then the surveillance tapes from the campus police are turned over to the local police. The video circulated across campus and she was brought in for a medical exam. We all know how the story ends; we can fast forward to the guilty verdict for two of the men and trials pending for the other two.
So many people saw parts of what was going on and not one intervened. There were multiple opportunities for these bystanders to have made a difference. No one called authorities. No one reached out to help the young woman. No one told the others to stop.
Bystanders are individuals who witness an emergency and, by their presence, can help, do nothing, or make it worse. In bystander education programs, students are trained to respond to situations of sexual violence. Acknowledging that sexual violence often occurs in social situations, bystander programs educate students to recognize risky situations and determine appropriate strategies to respond before, during, and after sexual violence. It changes the victim – perpetrator dynamic and makes sexual violence a community problem that necessitates a community response.
Several factors make it difficult for individuals to respond to sexual violence. First, you’ve got to recognize it as one that is a problem. Two issues make this difficult. First, it is easy to lump sexual violence in with sex and intimacy and make it a private issue between two people. Second, as I’ve heard many times in my research, sexual violence is often seen as a rite of passage for college women, especially while drinking. These beliefs can make violence seem like an anticipated and customary event rather than a cause for concern.
Another factor is audience inhibition. The more people are around, the less likely bystanders are to respond. We tend to feel that someone else will manage it. Fear of the social consequences of getting involved can be a deterrent especially if the potential perpetrator is socially influential. There is also the concern of misinterpreting or overreacting and looking foolish.
The situation at Vanderbilt serves as a reminder that there is something we can do to prevent and respond to sexual assault. Let’s hope our community rises to the occasion.
Amar, A. F., Sutherland, M. A., Laughon, K. (2014) Gender differences in bystander behavior. Journal of Forensic Nursing 10 (2) 84-91
Amar, A. F., Sutherland, M., & Kesler, E. Evaluation of a Bystander Education Program. (2012) Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 33 (12) 851-857