It’s fascinating to me to think about all the ways that my life in DC has helped me challenge, analyze, and overcome views that had been so deeply ingrained in me — views that were so important to me, views that were so impenetrable by empathy and humanity and, ironically, impenetrable by reason.
I was not a feminist. I was in denial of racism. I was not empathetic. I blamed poverty on people who were poor. And it took me years of unraveling insecurities about my own identity, about my own victimhood, to be able to see the systems in place that keep some people poor and keep others in power. It took total immersion in an ultra-progressive environment, where I befriended and interviewed and chronicled the stories of people who experienced hunger, homelessness, addiction, mental illness, disability, illiteracy, domestic violence. I had to reconcile my beliefs about personal responsibility with the lived experiences of the people that I’d come to know — and with my own lived experience. I am so different now than I was three years ago. I’m so much stronger now.
Today, I read a few articles challenging the concept of bystander intervention. It’s an idea that I’ve really come to believe in as part of my work to end street harassment. A few months ago, a friend asked me what he was supposed to do if he witnessed someone being harassed on the street, and I shared what I’d learned about bystander intervention. To me, it doesn’t mean confronting the perp; it means saying something to the person experiencing harassment to show them that you support them, that they’re not alone. Something as simple as “You ok, sis?” He raised the point that bystander intervention could be viewed as harassment in itself, or it could even be taken as an insult, e.g. he feared that he’d come off as a chauvinist treating the victim as a damsel in distress. It was an interesting point that I hadn’t previously considered, but I reiterated that it’s important to just show support for the victim without necessarily coming to the rescue by confronting the harasser. Just asking “Are you okay?” can signal to the victim that s/he will be OK while indirectly telling the harasser that the behavior is unacceptable, inappropriate, and even threatening — which I think most harassers don’t even realize.
While reading a few articles tonight doesn’t completely change my views, it does shed light on some of the holes in the concept of bystander intervention. For example, the idea of intervention holds victims and witnesses responsible for preventing sexual harassment and assault rather than holding the perpetrator accountable.
“bystander intervention appears less as a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more like an evolved form of victim blaming.” – The Failure of Bystander Intervention
On one hand, I completely understand this point – we don’t need to stop rape victims from being raped; we need to stop rapists from raping. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t we do what’s within our power to stop sexual harassment and assault from happening right now as we work toward a long-term solution to end violence?
“One-size-fits-all intervention models can often escalate the levels of violence far beyond what the initial assault may have entailed.” – TFBI
We know this is true. We saw it in San Francisco, Albayrak’s death in Gemany. But we’ve also seen examples of bystander intervention that directly stopped sexual harassment and assault. Should witnesses feel the need to put their lives at risk by intervening? No, I don’t think so. Ideally, asking a victim if s/he’s OK would not exacerbate the situation, but truly ideally, the situation wouldn’t exist in the first place. So anti-sexual violence activists argue that we need to focus efforts on eliminating rape culture and our culture of violence. The problem with that solution, of course, is that it’s going to take a lot of time, and a lot of sexual violence is going to happen in the meantime. Bystander intervention gives you an immediate solution that arguably contributes toward the long-term goal of ending sexual violence.
“A community immersed in bystander intervention not only makes it much more difficult for perpetrators to attack; it also sends a clear message to rapists that what they are doing is not OK, which moves us towards broader cultural change.” – The Guardian
I don’t think I’m going to have an answer tonight, but it’s an interesting question that I want to keep considering.
In other news, I’m getting ready for Max’s first birthday party at the end of this month. His first word was “Up,” so naturally, I’m planning to throw an “Up”-themed birthday party — meaning SO MANY BALLOONS. I already bought a helium balloon tank and some props for our costumes. Max is going to be the Boy Scout from the movie, and I’m working on learning to sew merit badges for each of his milestones, e.g. crawling, first word, clapping, and eating solid foods. The hardest part, though, has been finalizing the guest list. A lot of our good friends are coming to the party — at least 15 people, all of whom have really been involved in Max’s life in so many ways.
And then there’s the question of who shouldn’t be invited.
You’ve done a good job this year, but maybe you’ve already pushed me so far too many times that it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s just too little too late.