Taking Action as a Bystander
A bystander is a family member, friend, classmate, teammate, or co-worker—anyone (male or female) who is in a relationship with someone who is abusive or experiencing abuse. Bystanders are not the primary targets or victims of violence, but they are affected by the violence because they are close to it.
Working with men as bystanders is a way to empower them to speak up before, during, or after incidents of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse by their peers. The goal is to create a peer culture in which gender-based violence is socially unacceptable. This climate would provide strong disincentives for violence. Individuals who act in abusive ways would suffer loss of respect, friends, and status, along with the greater likelihood of legal and nonlegal sanctions. Empowering male bystanders to voice their displeasure with violent behavior will lead to new norms of appropriate and respected behavior.
Challenges and Concerns
Before working with men and boys on taking action as a bystander, it’s important to think through the potential challenges and concerns.
Confronting an abusive peer can be very difficult—for adolescents and adults. Therefore, approaches to men as bystanders need to include support and encouragement as well as concrete strategies for intervention.
Some men get defensive when asked to join prevention efforts or attend domestic violence or sexual assault trainings. “I’m a good guy,” they’ll say. “I don’t abuse women. These aren’t my problems.” The feeling is that if they themselves are not abusive, they don’t need to be involved. It is also true that many men don’t interrupt their friends’ or family members’ abusive behavior because powerful, if informal, policing mechanisms in male peer culture keep them silent. These include subtle and not-so-subtle comments about the “manhood” or heterosexuality of men who violate the “it’s none of my business” dictate.
Thus, for the bystander approach to succeed, we must find ways to emphasize the positive leadership qualities exhibited by an empowered bystander. In other words, a man who speaks out or intervenes is a leader, not a goody-goody, a narc, or a wimp. This will give men permission to act, because acting will be rewarded rather than punished in the social milieu.
Another area of concern is the potential danger of interrupting or intervening in incidents of violence, harassment, or abuse. Most people believe they have only two choices: intervene physically or do nothing. And because physical intervention often means risking personal injury–in some cases, even death–people usually choose to do nothing. Victims see this silence or inaction as lack of concern, and perpetrators see it as a tacit endorsement of their behavior. However, physical force and doing nothing are not the only options. There are many things that men can do, such as talking to the abuser later, when he is calm, or talking with a group of his friends.
To learn how men can take action as a bystander, read below What Can Men Do as a Bystander?
What Can Men Do as a Bystander?
There are countless ways that bystanders can prevent, interrupt, or intervene in abusive behaviors, and the majority carry little or no risk of physical confrontation. Since these interventions are not always apparent to people, work with men as bystanders should introduce as many nonviolent, nonthreatening options as possible. A key element of the bystander approach is facilitating a discussion of options that bystanders have in a variety of realistic scenarios.
Here are a handful of examples of nonviolent options for bystander interventions:
- Talk to a friend who is verbally or physically abusive to his partner in a private, calm moment, rather than in public or directly after an abusive incident.
- Talk to a group of the perpetrator's friends and strategize a group intervention of some sort. (There is strength in numbers.)
- If you have witnessed a friend or colleague abusing a partner, talk to a group of the victim's friends and strategize a group response.
- If you're a high school or college student, approach a trusted teacher, professor, social worker, or health professional. Tell them what you've observed and ask them to do something, or ask them to advise you on how you might proceed.
Some people are concerned that encouraging men and boys to confront each other about their attitudes and behaviors toward women and girls will be seen as support for patronizing and sexist attitudes (i.e., we need strong, good men to protect weak women from bad men). To avoid legitimizing sexism, it is important to discuss this issue, emphasizing that the bystander is not a knight in shining armor but a concerned friend, roommate, classmate, or colleague who refuses to remain silent in the face of abusive behavior.
Exercises: Mentors in Violence Prevention Playbook Scenarios
This excerpt from the MVP Playbook trainers guide provides examples of how you can use scenarios for discussions with young men about strengthening their role as bystanders.
- Why do some bystanders speak out or take action and others avert their eyes and refuse to get involved?
- How would you respond if you asked a male friend to get involved in a gender violence prevention initiative and he said, "This isn't my problem?"
- How can more men be empowered to take action as bystanders?
- When is violence justified? As self-defense? In defense of others? Who decides when it's justified?
- What difference, if any, does it make if the person the bystander observes being abused is a friend or family member, or a stranger?
Join the discussion about bystander roles and share your own experiences of working with men and boys in this area.
"Fostering Men's Responsibility for Preventing Sexual Assault" by Alan D. Berkowitz provides an overview of the issues involved in men taking responsibility for sexual assault prevention.
Generation Five-Ending Child Sexual Abuse
Generation Five is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that uses the bystander approach as a core strategy and empowers bystanders to get involved in preventing child sexual abuse.
Say Something: Challenge Sexist Jokes and Sexist Language, White Ribbon Campaign educational materials.
Go to the next section to read about how men can serve as a mentor or role model.
Last modified 2004-10-28 11:55 PM