By Karen Herzog
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A growing movement on college campuses called “bystander intervention” encourages students to “own” a critical role in preventing sexual assault. More men are committing themselves to be part of the solution by interrupting situations that appears unsafe.
It’s Friday night on State Street, and a college guy is guiding a drunk woman down the sidewalk past a group of other students. “Hey, do you know him?” someone from the group asks, stepping toward the young woman who stumbles and slurs her words.
A few blocks off the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, a guy at a house party sidles up to a woman who has had too much to drink and starts kissing her, moving her toward the door. Someone else at the party, who doesn’t know them, notices. He distracts the guy while a buddy helps the intoxicated woman find her friends.
It’s called bystander intervention, interrupting a situation that appears unsafe. It can happen on the street, at a party, in a bar. It may prevent a sexual assault or stop someone from making crude remarks about women, perpetuating a rape culture.
Bystander intervention is the talk of the campus after a recent sexual-assault arrest that made more students, especially men, realize they no longer can stand by in situations that raise red flags, even if they don’t know those involved.
A growing movement on college campuses, bystander intervention encourages students to “own” a critical role in preventing sexual assault. More men committing themselves to be part of the solution, though there’s plenty of work to be done.
The suspended UW-Madison student at the center of the sexual assault case that drew national attention last month, Alec Cook, was familiar to many students from parties and classes. He is accused of sexually assaulting five female students since March 2015. The 15 felony charges against Cook , a senior, do not involve intoxicated women. But use of a date rape drug was alleged in one case. Cook also had been warned by police to stop making women feel uncomfortable at a campus library months earlier, behavior that several students have since said they noticed and wrote off as “creepy” but harmless.
Cook is in jail. The business major from Edina, Minn., faces 11 sexual-assault charges (two involving use of force), two charges of strangulation-suffocation and two charges of false imprisonment. After his arrest, he was suspended from UW-Madison.
Cook’s attorneys say all of his actions were part of consensual sexual encounters.
Marc Lovicott, spokesman for the UW-Madison Police Department., said the case “shook up a lot of people on campus.”
“Everyone was aware sexual assault is an issue. But when you’ve got an individual you see in class and you can put a face to someone in the headlines, it puts things in perspective that this really is happening and really is an issue,” Lovicott said.
A survey last year of UW-Madison students suggested more than 25 percent of women will experience some form of sexual assault, ranging from groping to rape, in their four years on campus.
Long before Cook was in the news, the university began teaching students about healthy sexuality and relationships, sexual violence, dating violence and how to support survivors.
UW-Madison developed an online training program called Tonight, which includes re-enactment videos that examine interactions at a party. The videos teach students to recognize situations that could lead to sexual assault and how to stop them. New students are required to do the online training and attend workshops.
The Tonight program notes that 89 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol, but says alcohol is not an excuse nor a cause. It defines sexual assault as any sexual contact without consent, and defines consent as the presence of a yes, not the absence of a no. Anyone incapacitated from drugs or alcohol is incapable of giving consent.
A year ago, a group of male friends who were athletes or fraternity members formed a student organization called We’re Better than That, Men Against Sexual Assault. They made videos to encourage other male students to take an active role in prevention.
The group’s president is Hasan Nadeem, a fifth-year student from Brookfield. He leads discussions in residence halls and fraternity houses about bystander intervention and how to talk in depth about issues such as respect for women. The organization also encourages men to call out anyone who makes misogynist jokes, even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation.
Research suggests that people sometimes hesitate to get involved if others don’t step up first. Other factors hindering interventions go deeper, including fear of confronting dominant attitudes toward women.
Before the We’re Better Than That group formed, one of Nadeem’s roommates was moved to take action after reading “The Macho Paradox,” which explores male culture and why men physically and sexually abuse women and children, including those closest to them. The book, by Jackson Katz, concludes that violence against women is a men’s issue and challenges men to help stop it.
“We wanted to do something meaningful, and we wanted a project all of us could do together,” Nadeem said. “Every one of our roommates almost felt stigmatized as an individual capable of denigrating women or not holding them to high standards. We never wanted to be seen that way, and we had friends, close girl friends, who had been victims.”
Their message to other men is straightforward: “We know there are a lot of guys who aren’t committing these crimes and who care about and respect women. What are we going to do together to stop this from happening?”
Joey Janz, of Waukesha, helped start We’re Better Than That. He graduated from UW-Madison last spring.
“If more people are attuned and speak out, these are the things that change the culture,” said Janz, who is still involved with the group as a mentor.
“It’s like preventive medicine versus emergency medicine,” he said.
Women also have joined “We’re Better Than That,” Janz said. “There’s power in men talking to men, and also men and women together in the conversation.”
Colin McReavy, a senior from Oregon, Wis., felt compelled to write a lengthy post on Facebook after Cook’s arrest. He said in the post, and reiterated in an interview, that he wanted to talk specifically to men.
“Although this particular case may be the most severe, it is by no means the first time I’ve been exposed to sexual assault and gender violence,” McReavy wrote. “I’m not particularly proud of the fact that it has taken me this long to say something on the matter, or the fact that it has required an incident of such magnitude.”
McReavy applauded “the strong, inspiring women who have spoken out on this important issue.” At the same time, he said he was perplexed by the fact females seemed to disproportionately dominate the discourse.
“The unfortunate reality is that us men (including myself) have been far too silent on these critical issues,” McReavy wrote.
“Many of us feel that if we aren’t sexually assaulting anyone ourselves, then we are not part of the problem.”
McReary’s Facebook post ended with a challenge:
“Be bold, be vocal, open up uncomfortable dialogue, be brave enough to challenge sexism. As a man, you are a critical part of the solution. Take a stand and act like it.”