Barriers to Bystander Intervention in Sexual Assault: What Stops College Students from Stepping In?
Mentor:Lisa Wade, Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology, Occidental College
Bystander intervention programs are increasingly used in efforts to reduce sexual assault rates on college campuses. This approach has the potential to succeed because it emphasizes students’ role as potential allies against sexual assault, rather than as potential perpetrators or victims. Students, however, often do not intervene. This may be because they lack the ability to recognize situations in which others are at risk for sexual assault, do not take responsibility for intervening, or do not know how to intervene. I researched what situations college students are reluctant to intervene in, and why. I administered an anonymous survey, presented hypothetical situations related to sexual assault that the average college student may witness, and asked students how they would respond to these situations. If respondents said that they would not intervene or were not sure if they would, they were asked to indicate their reasons. I found that knowing the potential perpetrator and victim increases their willingness to intervene. Additionally, a lack of knowledge about rape myths and the definition of consent contributed to students’ unwillingness to intervene, indicating that students could benefit if programs educated them on more basic issues before teaching intervention strategies. Lastly, many students were reluctant to intervene due to a belief that they lacked knowledge about the situation, expressing that they must be extremely sure that the situation is non-consensual before intervening. I suggest that in order for bystander intervention to be effective in lowering sexual assault rates, students must develop a culture of care that enables them to appreciate each other’s concern. Intervening and finding out that a situation is consensual must become acceptable, and even appreciated, so that students are willing to check in with each other during the early stages of a situation and not wait to intervene until a state of emergency.