The Perils of Bystander-Only Sexual Assault Awareness

I was glad to see Chancellor Gillman’s email to the UCI community detailing UCI’s many sexual assault resources and reiterating UCI’s stance against “sex offenses.” As UCI Law students, we are subject to the main campus’ sexual assault investigatory and adjudication procedures — important information for any law students that may find themselves needing to report assault or harassment.

However, I am troubled by the Chancellor’s almost exclusive focus on bystander intervention. Bystander intervention has become a popular sexual assault prevention strategy on college campuses around the country — but it is problematic in a few important ways.

First, bystander intervention policies displace the responsibility for sexual assault from the abuser to bystanders. The heart of the bystander intervention model seems to be personal responsibility, but this list of tips from the White House’s new #ItsOnUs campaign, highlighted in Chancellor Gillman’s email, sends a different message. Thirteen tips, and not one says “don’t rape.”

The bystander intervention model (seen in Tip #2: “If you see something, intervene in any way you can”) also suggests that students should involve themselves in violent or dangerous situations. We live in a world where people are attacked for defending women against catcalls, where a woman can be killed for refusing to give a man her phone number, and where her fiancé can be shot for intervening.

Worst of all, bystander intervention programs don’t actually address the problem of campus sexual assault. One good Samaritan may be able to prevent or end a single instance of assault, but the larger problem remains. Bystander intervention does little to demand accountability or prevent the abuser from repeating their actions.

Campus rape prevention programs have traditionally focused on how women can avoid becoming a victim. For example, in an article covering a rape that occurred at UCI, the police talk about how women can “avoid dangerous situations,” rather than pointing out those responsible for the rape. With the bystander intervention model, it’s not just the victim’s job to avoid getting raped but everyone else’s job to prevent it — except the rapist.

Second, the bystander intervention model makes some troubling assumptions about the nature of sexual assault.

It assumes that sexual assault stands out from normal social behavior to such an extent that a random onlooker or passerby would recognize the behavior as assault, and be so confident that they are witnessing assault that they willingly intervene. In fact, a recent study shows that sexual violence is normalized from a young age and to a shocking degree. The young people interviewed in the study saw sexual assault as normal social behavior. Statistics show that, as opposed to obvious attacks involving a stranger approaching a random victim, most rapes are acquaintance rapes and occur in private places such as dorm rooms or homes. In this context, it is simply not safe to assume that most college or graduate students can accurately “identify situations in which sexual assault may occur” and “intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given” (as the #ItsOnUs pledge puts it). Reliance on bystander intervention is unrealistic at best and dangerous at worst.

Furthermore, by displacing the responsibility for preventing assault onto the community at large, bystander intervention programs assume a consensus against sexual assault. This would require a consensus on what constitutes consent and what actions amount to sexual assault. I do not believe there is such a consensus.

Days before Chancellor Gillman’s email, the state of California passed a new law affecting sexual assault policies at every publicly funded college and university. The new law says, in part: “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.”

This progressive new law is an important step in the fight for safer campuses, and a push back against the norms of rape culture that impugn a victim because of their silence or previous consent. The law was necessary precisely because there is a lack of consensus on college campuses, as to which students at the 60 or more schools currently under investigation for mishandling sexual assault can attest.

One recent study found that bystander willingness to intervene was affected by perceptions of victim “worthiness” (in other words, bystanders were less willing to intervene if the victim’s provocative dress or intoxication was perceived as contributing to the assault). Another study found that white female bystanders took longer to assist black victims than white when confronted with passive fellow bystanders — a not insignificant consideration for a campus already struggling with campus climate issues, to use the official euphemism. In fact, the bystander intervention model in general fails to account for racialized and gendered perceptions of danger, sexuality and victimhood.

If you do recognize an assault, or witness rape culture behaviors that may encourage or enable assault and you are able to safely intervene, I hope you will. We all have some responsibility to stand up against rape culture and sexual violence. But bystander intervention cannot be the focus of an effective sexual assault policy.

Rape culture is alive and well on college campuses, even idyllic and “safe” campuses like UCI. And it is alive and well at law schools, even progressive and community-oriented law schools like UCI Law. If anything, sexual violence is more fraught in the law school setting because of high reputational stakes and intense pressures placed on young professionals.

A catchy hashtag and an online pledge are not enough. Chancellor Gillman should clearly and firmly define consent, affirm that UCI supports the new California law, and make it exceedingly clear that every student is responsible for not committing sexual assault.

UCI must continue to develop adjudication processes that are fair, rehabilitative and provide support and resources to both parties. And UCI must address on-campus rape culture on campus through proactive and progressive public education.
Public education about sexual assault should encourage students to stand up for each other when possible. But #ItsOnTheAdministration to set the tone that rape culture and sexual assault are unacceptable at UCI, and that begins with taking a critical approach to sexual assault policies and firmly upholding expectations about student conduct.

 Jamila Benkato is a second-year law student. She can be reached at