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Universities must take account of gender when designing Bystander Interventions to prevent sexual violence

  • 7 October 2021
  • By Lavinia Sandu

This blog was kindly contributed by Lavinia Sandu, a current MSc student at Kings College London. Lavinia would like to thank Graham Towl who supervised this study for his guidance.

Whenever the subject comes up, most people are surprised to learn that one-in-three women experience sexual violence in the UK and that an alarming number of such incidents occur while at university. Sadly, the majority of survivors decide not to report or seek help and more often such incidents lead to significant mental health issues in the survivors as well as low self-esteem and poor academic outcomes

In response to the high prevalence of sexual violence amongst students, different views on prevention and subsequently intervention programmes have emerged to address the issue. Some programmes have focused on empowering women as potential survivors or teaching them how to protect themselves. Counterproductively, this led to the belief that women are solely responsible for keeping themselves safe. 

Other programmes have focused on men as potential perpetrators and appealed to their empathy, teaching them to respect women. However, neither approach has proven to be as satisfactory as educating bystanders to actively intervene. The success of focusing on bystanders lies in approaching individuals as potential allies rather than potential survivors or perpetrators, creating less resistance and defensiveness. 

Bystanders are third-party witnesses with the potential to intervene before, during or after an act of sexual violence. The presence of bystanders has been reported in approximately one-third of sexual assault cases, giving the bystander an important role in the prevention of sexual violence. Ways in which bystanders can be trained to actively intervene are brilliantly covered by Graham Towl and Clarissa Humphrey in their book Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education. Some examples include providing students with education on sexual violence and consent which would enable them to identify potential risk factors and behaviours along the continuum of sexual violence, as well as instructing them to speak up against social norms that encourage sexual incidents or teaching them to offer support to survivors.

But what if the impact of bystander interventions can be maximised simply by delivering a gender-specific message? If research has shown us anything, it is that women and men differ in their experiences and perceptions. For example, women are more at risk of experiencing sexual violence, making them more aware of specific sexual violence markers and better at identifying sexual violence incidents. Women also express more willingness to intervene in sexual violence situations than men and are more empathetic towards survivors. On the other hand, men are more likely to intervene in dangerous situations than women and tend to be more empathetic towards perpetrators. Given these differences, it is crucial to gain a deeper understanding of the gender-specific mechanisms that fuel intervention behaviour.

A qualitative study explored students’ perceptions in relation to sexual violence and found differences between women and men in their knowledge of sexual violence, the methods they employ when deciding to intervene in such a situation and the potential barriers to their action to intervene. 

  1. Perception and knowledge of sexual violence: One of the focuses of the study was to explore students’ knowledge and perception of sexual violence. When asked to define sexual violence, women appeared to be more knowledgeable than men regarding the continuum of sexual violence and gave examples ranging from sexual harassment to rape. In turn, men seemed to perceive sexual violence as a physical act only. Women also appeared to better understand the terms of consent and capacity, while men seemed somewhat unsure.
  2. Intervention methods: When it comes to the ways bystanders choose to intervene, the study found that men report more direct methods, such as confronting the aggressor or removing the survivor from the situation. On the other hand, women are more comfortable employing indirect methods such as calling the police or seeking help. This can be particularly helpful in understanding what methods each gender may benefit more from learning about when participating in bystander intervention programmes. Surprisingly, neither gender mentioned ways to help the survivor in the aftermath of the abuse. Bystander Intervention programmes may wish to focus more on teaching ways in which bystanders can intervene after an incident of sexual violence as they can still bring valuable support to survivors by helping them get medical assistance or report the incident. 
  3. Intervention barriers: In this study I found differences between women and men in the barriers to intervention they reported. For example, women felt they may not be able to identify the situation if the survivor is not signalling the need for help, while men believe they may be unable to identify the situation due to lack of education on the subject. Men also believe they are less likely to intervene if they are familiar with the perpetrator. On the other hand, women felt they may be unlikely to help if they feel the perpetrator can easily overpower them, or if the perpetrator was someone of a higher social status such as a professor. Both women and men agreed that they would be less likely to intervene if intoxicated. Bystander Interventions may wish to take into account the gender-specific barriers and teach bystanders how to overcome them safely.

The findings presented in this study that I undertook broaden the understanding of the gender-specific perceptions of sexual violence and suggest that gendered educational awareness focused on intervention methods and barriers should be designed and tested. More so, they may encourage the consideration of gender differences in the development of Bystander Interventions. I hope that universities and colleges can take this on board when designing and rolling out their strategies to tackle sexual violence on campuses.

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