I’m Not So Sure How to Say This: Is Preventing Rape Different from Promoting Equality?

by Kerry Holden, Violence Prevention Specialist, Umbrella

 The Green Dot Bystander Intervention Strategy was touted to be bold, fun, effective, and interesting. What people forgot to tell me was it is blatantly not feminist and, in fact, purposefully left the educational path of gender socialization, historical and persistent sexism, and healthy relationships. In just the first hours of the training, I heard something along the lines of:

“If we continue to follow the expectations that the majority have of feminists, of people who come into classrooms, community centers, and onto campuses to discuss gender inequality and socialization, we will continue to be ineffective and the sexual assault numbers will continue to rise. We need not to turn every single citizen into a social justice-blaring, femi-nazi, though that would be pretty awesome, but what we do need to do is stop rape. And we need to stop it now.”

The training continued to put words and research to a phenomenon I had not yet described but know all too well: individuals tend to tune out and opt out of participation in my presentations. Violence prevention, rape statistics, media literacy, gender socialization- I could not imagine how the topics could be more interesting. Fortunately for me, there are always a solid handful of individuals who endeared themselves to my social-justice framework and had done some research and thinking of their own. But males, popular students, jocks, drama nerds, red necks, loners all remained elusive to really diving into the material. You name the clique and I promise you, I have tried to get them on board.

Admittedly, I was relieved to hear my experience was not unique. Though, as stated and restated throughout the training, it was my responsibility to change my experience and that of the individuals with whom I work.

If someone has tuned out of your presentation, it’s not because they’re a real jerk or basking in their male privilege or because they hate women. It’s because your presentation is boring and, likely, they’ve heard it all before.

The Green Dot Bystander Intervention Strategy operates on one basic premise: most people fundamentally disagree with violence of any kind. If you can agree with the one premise, you too can prevent sexual assault and interpersonal violence. Do you think violence is terrible? Don’t think rape is okay? Happen to greatly enjoy your male privilege and refuse to own up to it? Great. Let’s end rape.

Here’s a scenario that nudged a shift in my thinking:     

David and Carlos are frat brothers and they entirely live up to and within the “frat boy” stereotype.They play football and basketball together and benefit from a general sense of popularity and privilege on campus. They tell sexist and homophobic jokes and keep track of the numbers of women they each sleep with. The gender studies girls, as well as all of their ex’s, call them “real pigs” and the freshmen girls follow them to frat parties for the free drinks and excitement.

Carlos and David have been out drinking all night at a frat party. Carlos had been chatting up Lucy, a freshman, throughout the week and invited her to the party. David watched as Carlos brought Lucy a string of drinks and continually asked if she “wanted to go somewhere more private” despite Lucy’s persistent messages of “no, not tonight.”  David felt like something was off but wasn’t sure what to say or do. He remembered some training he sat through as part of the basketball orientation about sexual assault and bystander intervention. He and Carlos eventually left the party with Lucy and landed back in their kitchen where David and Carlos drank water and downed Advil and Lucy struggled to stand. “Dude, she’s toast. Let’s get her on the futon, water-up and rally back to the party.” David was exhausted, drunk, and ready to call it a night but he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel to sexual assault.

Reading and hearing about this story highlighted an important factor which I entirely overlooked: the people I often shrugged off as sexist, ignorant, and disengaged were the exact people I needed to engage in violence prevention. In the above story, David is the only individual on the Earth who had the final opportunity to intervene in a sexual assault. In that moment, do I care that David enjoys telling sexist jokes on the football bus or that he would likely agree that women are less capable of leadership roles than men? No. I don’t care. I care that rape does not happen.

I think about how I would interact with David and about the stereotypes and assumptions we would throw back at one another. I think about how I pull from him any power in preventing rape because I automatically assume he is the poster boy of rape culture (and maybe he is). I think about how I would likely let him space-out during a presentation because “he’s an idiot anyways” or because “he’ll never get it.” When I am truly honest with myself and own up to the thoughts which run through my head when interacting with some people, I think about how I would likely not be the individual who got through to David about sexual assault and bystander intervention.

I need the David’s of the world. In fact, I need the world. The Green Dot training introduced a new, top-down approach to bystander intervention in which the only thing I have to have in common with someone is that they don’t agree with violence. And the logic is clear: we can’t expect every person to take on gender stereotypes or the many contributors to sexual assault but we can expect everyone to do their part in preventing violence.