Stepping up to stop sexual assault

Update The Guardian initially removed the article that described Johnny Vegas’s performance as sexual assault in light of a suit alleging libel. The article has been returned to their webpage, and I cannot find any further information about the suit. Please take the brief references to Vegas below as references to the description in the Guardian article; if at any point the Guardian retracts the article they will be removed. The details of that situation are irrelevant to the bulk of the article, which was sickeningly illustrated immediately afterwards by the incident at UConn.

The Curvature has a post about the sickest public performance I’ve heard about in a long time, which involved comedian Johnny Vegas sexually assaulting a woman on stage. I don’t have anything to add to her outrage and she has the links to the story if you care to know more, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about the audience problem and why bystander training is one of the most important things a university should provide to all their students.

Clearly people in the audience were uncomfortable and at least some of them were horrified (some also apparently enjoyed it, we’ll get to them in a bit), but nobody apparently said anything loud enough to be heard, nobody leaped to the woman’s defense, nobody stood up to put a stop to it. Why?

I don’t pretend to be a psychologist, but from other stories I’ve heard and experiences in my own life, I can make three guesses: (1) Nobody was sure if the woman really wanted it, even though she apparently seemed scared and kept trying to protect herself (2) Nobody wanted to “look like an idiot” who “didn’t get the joke” and (3) (as a corollary to (2)) Nobody wanted Vegas or the other audience members to turn on them.

These fears apply to witnesses to sexual assaults not on stage as well, and have a lot to do with why so many rapists and sexual assailants get away with their crimes. Victims get told to “laugh it off” or “get over it” (one commenter at the Curvature wrote about the similarities to hallway gropings at her high school, which often get treated with a “boys will be boys” erasure of a serious offense and one that, if tolerated, can easily escalate). Victims are questioned as to why they didn’t put a stop to it if they didn’t really want it, or are told by their friends what mistakes they made (blaming the woman for sitting in the front row at the Vegas show) that caused their sexual assault to happen. Most people are afraid of intervening in a situation that seems sketchy, as they are worried they’ll seem uncool or uptight, or, more generously, that there are things about the situation they don’t know and that their interference will be unwelcome. Those who question an assailant, if, for instance, they see him (or her) carrying a person clearly too intoxicated to consent, are told to stay out of something that is none of their business or chided for not being one of the boys or reassured that the victim had consented earlier and it was all okay. And finally, those who are brave enough to intervene may be ignored or themselves harassed (two of the three women who intervened in an alleged gang rape at De Anza have left the school because of the harassment from their classmates).

One way of tackling this problem is with bystander training, which helps people have the information, the courage, and the sense of community support to intervene in a sexual assault situation. If you are a student trying to figure out what you should be demanding of your university, personally I think mandatory bystander training should be near the top of the list. Bystander training comes in lots of varieties, but in general its goals are to help people think of sexual assault as an assault on their community and on people they care about. It tries to dispel common rape myths by helping people think about sexual assault’s impact on them personally and on their loved ones, and then it teaches them tactics for intervening in suspicious situations and offensive conversations. Many include role playing, which I definitely believe in, so that people can practice their interventions and get over some of the awkwardness that most people (myself very much included) are likely to feel.


If every student on a campus had experience with this kind of thinking and acting, its obviously going to change how they respond to things they see and hear. It helps people discover that they are not alone in finding rape “jokes” offensive and sexual assault a crime not something that happens, and knowing that others will support you is often a huge part of having the courage to speak up. Not all of us are by nature heroes or martyrs, and we need that kind of peer support to do the things we know are right. Bystander training tries to help people feel like they have their community on their side, instead of on the side of the perpetrator.

Bystander training also allows sexual assault prevention to be talked about in a way that is not perceived as blaming anyone. It does not tell women never to walk alone or wear short skirts, and instead puts the obligation to prevent sexual assault on the community, where it belongs. Bystander training also avoids the perception of accusing all men of being potential rapists (which we know they are not). An approach that focuses on how you could intervene in others’ situations and behavior avoids immediate defensiveness and helps open people up to a conversation that might ultimately include a consideration of their own behavior.

For more information about bystander training, see this not too long article (the first several pages are a great summary of what bystander training strives to achieve) or for a very academic, but really fascinating, study of what kinds of training seem most effective, see here. Jackson Katz, who I know all of you now know through Ashley, has been a pioneer of this kind of training for men, as has One in Four.

Of course, the point of all this is something that anyone can do without having gone through any kind of program at all. Know that you can, and should, speak up and stand up when someone says or does something that you think is wrong. Find a community of friends that you know shares your beliefs now, so that you will have back up if you come to moments when you need to intervene. Obviously, use your anger and your moral indignation wisely; much like Peter and the wolf, if you use it too often people start to tune you out. But use it as needed and use it with pride. Support your friends in doing the same. Create the community you want to live in conversation by conversation every day.

Finally, (and this is really a longer rant for another time, but for the good essay writing strategy of returning at the end to the point at which you began, let’s go there briefly), don’t feel bad for telling people that their “jokes” are offensive, not funny. I get so sick of being told that I “don’t get it.” I get it. It’s just that what you said, or what the famous comedian (men and women included here – Sarah Silverman often infuriates me, for instance) said, is racist, sexist, rape apologist, mean, and/or just plain stupid, and I don’t find it funny.

Nor do I find it transgressive. Making light of sexual assault is not new and your joke about it isn’t cutting edge, it’s old guard. A third of the women in the U.S. will experience a sexual assault during their lifetime – that makes sexual assault just about as traditional as apple pie. And don’t give me that whole “you know I couldn’t possibly mean it, we’re all so enlightened here that we’re just making fun of the unenlightened” crap – I hear that line a lot in relation to Silverman and Sasha Cohen, among others – I am so sick of people using the “just joking” excuse to try to get away with saying awful things. There’s a pretty clear line from a lot of this kind of humor (like Vegas’s standard “jokes”) to what happened on stage with Vegas last week, and it’s not fucking ironic or postmodern or cool or rebellious. It’s just disgusting.

    11 thoughts on “Stepping up to stop sexual assault

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    7. What a great post. I had never heard of bystander training before but is sounds like an excellent idea. I am going to see if something similar is available in Australia and campaign to get some happening at my uni.

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