Role of ‘bystanders’ to abuse examined

By Catherine Robertson Souter
December 1st, 2017

With multiple stories in the press and on social media around accusations of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault, a renewed focus has been placed on strengthening support for victims and changing attitudes towards abuse.

As expected, the emphasis in the ongoing discussion has been on the perpetrator and on the victims. There is another angle that has not received as much attention as it should, according to Vicki Banyard, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology at University of New Hampshire: the role of the bystander.

Banyard, who is also a research and evaluation consultant with the school’s Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC) spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the work that PIRC is doing to study and educate students and adults around the ways in which everyone can help to change the culture and engage in preventing interpersonal violence.

Q:  Tell us a little bit about the Prevention Innovations Research Center.

A:  We do practice-based research that aims to end sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking. We work with practitioners to find answers to questions that they find pressing in the field. We have prevention tools that our staff has developed and we conduct research to see what is working to try inform evidence-based prevention efforts.

One question the practitioners were interested in was this question of bystander intervention and how what we call “actionists” can get involved and play a role in prevention.

My research has included both evaluating prevention programs that take that focus and also researching actionists in the context of sexual, dating or domestic violence and stalking.

I am also looking at under what conditions people might take action and with what consequences. The preponderance of our work has been on college campuses but we also have had grant projects that involved middle and high school and there are more community evaluations going on as well.

Q:  What are the big takeaways in your work?
A: I think that an important take home message has been that everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking.

The research really highlights the fact that it is not just about focusing on who may have risk for perpetration. Of course, that is certainly important and we don’t want to put that aside, but everyone has a role to play – especially bystanders.

Q:  When I hear the term ‘bystander,’ I would think that, unlike with bullying, sexual assault is not often done in front of other people…Where does the bystander come in? Before that happens?

A:  You’re right, a lot of things do happen behind closed doors but it actually happens with witnesses more often than you think. In as many as a third or more of instances, there is a third person who is present or has information about it.

When we talk about actionists and we are trying to coin a new term for this, we are talking about pro social bystanders, people who take action. There are a number of ways people can get involved before, during and after.

When we think about after, we think about providing support to survivors. Survivors are more likely to go to friends and family rather than professional helpers and we know that the reaction that they get from those people has a big impact on their recovery and their wellbeing.

When we talk about during, that is when we talk about situations of escalating risk for an assault or if it is going on and people may know it is happening. A college party or something like that when people can do something to step in.

We also increasingly talk about how people can work to prevent violence, what we think about as pro-social or pro-active behaviors. How do we model social norms that say that we don’t tolerate abuse or coercion in relationships, that this is not something we want to happen in our communities?

I study all of the roles that bystanders can play to understand what makes them more or less likely to step in. I study whether our prevention efforts are successful in helping them step in and recently I have been working with colleagues on studies about what kinds of consequences they experience after stepping in.

Q:  As far as prevention tools, what have you found that works?

A:  We have found that our campus curriculum bringing in the bystander is associated with higher levels of bystander action and it helps shift attitudes over time related to sexual violence and sexual violence prevention. It is shifting the way people think about things and changing some of their helping or actionist behavior.

Q:  Do you feel the raised awareness of these issues on campuses and now in Hollywood and other arenas is making things better?

A:  It depends on what you mean by better and worse.

This has been a hidden problem for a long time and we are just now understanding and appreciating the full scope of it. I think that things do get better when people understand more. I think that communities and campus are looking at different ways of putting prevention programs in place and there is more evaluation to what extent those programs are working. So, yes, I think those are all indicators of progress.

But, we also know that when we start to draw attention to a problem like this it starts to look worse before it starts to look better. As the systems get better for reporting these kinds of things, we start to see an increase in official reports.

That is where it becomes difficult to see where we stand because there are so many stories in the media about the problems but there is also a lot more being done about it. That is the good news and that is the piece that often gets missed.

The problem is rather large and we are going to have to have very comprehensive, multi-pronged strategies to try to deal with it. We have to have better systems in place for reporting but we also need to go upstream and get much better prevention, not just a one-hour program once in someone’s educational career. It needs to be very sequenced and developmentally attuned.

This is where psychologists have a role to play because they understand about behavior changes and how the way people think relates to the way they act in social situations and how people change over time.

What might we be able to leverage and teach an elementary school student that might set them up for less risk of this versus a middle school, high school, or college student.

Q:  Do you have hope about the future? Do you see this research and the changes needed are being taken seriously?
A: I think there are a lot of places where this is working. That is the story not making it into the news. There are examples of programs that work and schools and campuses and communities who are taking these next steps. We need to keep highlighting that and continuing to try to resource these types of things.

This is an incredibly important problem. It is complicated and therefore we have to resource comprehensive prevention. We need to think about the things we can do to give everyone a role to play in addressing the problem. 

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