Bystanders: Activate! And the Stanford Rape

By Patricia Yancey Martin

What is Green Dot? What is Girl Code? What are PAV at Pennsylvania; CASH/A at West Point; Campus Choice at Southern Oregon; UMatter at UMass? These (and other) programs on U.S. college campuses are aimed at ending sexual abuse—from harassment to assault to rape. Their shared goal is encouragement of and training for “Bystander Activism.” Green Dot has been adopted in Kentucky for middle and high schools as well as colleges and universities and early research suggests it is achieving its goal which “. . is to mobilize a force of engaged and proactive bystanders” and reduce the incidence of sexual assaults.  Most campus bystanders are students—women and men–who spot someone in trouble or about to be preyed upon by unscrupulous actors. Ironically, and thankfully, two Stanford graduate student “bystanders” were “active” when they hopped off their bikes and detained Brock Turner who ran from them and reported an “unconscious inebriated woman” whom Brock was assaulting.

The importance of bystanders should not be underestimated. After the infamous gang rape at Florida State University in 1988, the prosecutor discovered that many students, women and men, had been present on the third floor of the Pi Kappa Alpha house where the rape occurred. They knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it. In the Pike case, bystanders were enablers—as they were in the Bedford MA gang rape of a Portuguese woman in 1983 when some cheered the rapists on. But they can also be disrupters, as the Stanford cyclists were. On the Green Dot webpage at Florida State, bystanders can report—anonymously—their efforts to prevent sexual harassment, assault and rape. Stopping one’s peers is not difficult if students understand the stakes and support each other to take action.

The victim in the 2015 Stanford rape case read a compelling statement at the sentencing hearing for her rapist. She spoke for sexual assault victims everywhere. Her inability to sleep or have “normal” social relationships—even with family and close friends—is not unusual. Yet how great that she could read her statement in court; most sexual assault victims never get the chance. The prosecutor’s efforts to let victims tell their unfettered story is apt to be challenged by a defense attorney whose obligation, in an adversarial legal system, is to prevent the jury from concluding “beyond reasonable doubt” that an alleged rapist is guilty. In the Stanford case, the defense attorney failed to achieve that goal but, in the event, the judge came to Turner’s aid. Despite the jury finding him guilty on three felony charges, Judge Aaron Persky gave Turner only six months in jail (not prison), with a chance for parole after three.  The victim said she would have been satisfied with an apology and reasonable efforts to make amends but Turner “lawyered up” and allowed his defense attorney to belittle and humiliate her in court. The victim’s hopes for Restorative Justice which psychologist Mary Koss and others have shown to be “healing for victims” and protective of the legal status of the offender were denied. Judge Persky equated the drunken actions of Turner with those of the victim. Yes she was drunk but she was also unconscious and she did not violate his genitalia as he did hers. The defense attorney used the tried and true strategy of “trash the victim” but it failed and the judge showed, as research on other judges does, a typical failure to understand sexual assault.

A reporter for a syndicated news service asked me recently about what we should “teach” boys and men about rape/sexual assault so they will act like decent human beings. She also asked about research on elementary, middle and high school students on the issue. As far as I know, we have little definitive evidence and what we do have shows a need for intervention as well as research. Hlavka’s 2014 article in Gender & Society on teenage girls’ experiences with sexual assault finds that they view boys’ “everyday harassment, violence, coercion” as “normal” behavior that they must resist or manage. Almost none said they had reported such experiences to an authority. Of course, the same pattern typifies college students as well, with less than a third reporting sexual assaults/rapes after they experience them.

So, is “bystander activism” the antidote to campus rapes? No; far from it. Much more is required—from students and from university officials, policies, and practices. Yet, in light of the many Title IX complaints against U. S. campuses that relate to rape/sexual assault, Bystander Activism can be “one small step” in the right direction. The behavior of the two Swedish graduate students on that night in 2015 can serve as an exemplar for all of us.

Patricia Yancey Martin, Daisy Parker Flory Professor of Sociology Emerita (Florida State University), has lectured and published extensively on rape/sexual assault with a focus on organizations and workers–police, rape crisis staff, hospital personnel, judicial officials–who process victims. Her book,  Rape Work: Victims, Gender, and Emotions in Organization and Community Context (Routledge, 2005), shows that organizational mandates prompt “rape workers” to be unresponsive to rape victims’ needs even when they are inclined to behave otherwise.  Her 1989 article in Gender & Society on fraternities and rape on U. S. campuses is widely cited and led to her recent participation in a CNN special report on the gang rape victim that was the inspiration for the article. A former Fulbright fellowship recipient, Martin had lectured across the US and Europe on rape and other issues. She received the Jessie Bernard Award from the American Sociological Association in 2007 and was named to the Roll of Honor Award by the Southern Sociological Society in 2008. 



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