Newswise — When a 15-year-old northern California high school student was gang raped at her homecoming dance recently, as many as two dozen people stood by while the girl was assaulted by as many as 10 people.
Sharyn Potter, associate professor of sociology, and Vicki Banyard, associate professor of psychology, both at the University of New Hampshire, have extensively studied sexual violence prevention and the bystander phenomena –– what influences people’s decision to intervene or not when they see a crime occurring -– and are available to discuss it.
According to Potter and Banyard, there are a number of factors that influence the decision on whether to intervene in a crime:
Awareness: Do they recognize there is a problem or that someone needs help? The problem with sexual assault is that, as a society, we continue to believe in rape myths and to accept victim-blaming attitudes. These attitudes make it less likely that people will see sexual assault as a crime and a victim as someone who needs help.
Responsibility: Do they take responsibility and see themselves as part of the solution? In part, this relates to how much empathy someone has for the victim. People are less likely to help if they don't know the victim. Do they see the victim as someone like them or a member of their in-group? Media images and community messages that objectify women, equate sexuality and violence, and condone the use of force and coercion in relationships make it difficult for people to label and recognize this horrible crime.
Group size: The larger the group, the less likely people are to take responsibility for helping each other, unless the group of people know each other well. This is classic diffusion of responsibility -- everyone figures someone else will help so they don't have to.
Bystander Costs and Benefits: Bystanders weigh the costs and benefits of intervening. Bystanders are worried about whether there will be retaliation against them by others, whether they will lose social status, or whether they will be physically hurt. We need community norms that work against those cons to support bystanders for making the choice to help.
Lack of Skills: Do people have the skills to actually know what to do? This is where in-person prevention programs and social marketing campaigns such as UNH’s Bringing in the Bystander program help teach people what to do and say so they can help the victim and also keep themselves safe.
Potter and Banyard are co-directors of Prevention Innovations, which conducts research and develops programs to address violence against women on college campuses. One of the key programs Prevention Innovations offers is the Bringing in the Bystander project. This social marketing campaign and prevention program emphasizes a bystander intervention approach and assumes that everyone has a role to play in ending violence against women.
According to Potter and Banyard, UNH students who were educated about bystander intervention by participating in the Bringing in the Bystander program were more confident and willing to take action in situations where sexual violence was about to occur, was occurring, or had occurred than those who had not received the information.
For more information about UNH’s Bringing in the Bystander program, visit http://www.unh.edu/preventioninnovations/index.cfm?ID=BCC7DE31-CE05-901F-0EC95DF7AB5B31F1.
The University of New Hampshire, founded in 1866, is a world-class public research university with the feel of a New England liberal arts college. A land, sea, and space-grant university, UNH is the state's flagship public institution, enrolling more than 12,200 undergraduate and 2,200 graduate students.
Sharyn Potter, associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire
Vicki Banyard, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire