Being the Bystander

People...I’m not a hero. There’s been a few situations in my life where I’ve watched something shitty happen and debated about whether to step in and risk life and limb in the pursuit of doing the right thing. For the most part however self-preservation has won out. So when I came across “Not On My Watch” I thought this was the perfect opportunity to learn how to pull on my Supergirl outfit and do the right thing in the face of danger.


Not On My Watch (NOMW) is a small book designed as a “Bystander’s handbook for the prevention of sexual violence”. It’s written and published by Isabella Rotman and a copy was provided to me by the awesome team at Nikki Darling. It’s presented as a comic book and starts by introducing the concept of the “Consent Cavalry” a group of people who are educated in ways to prevent sexual violence. By reading the book you become a member of the Consent Cavalry and should feel confident intervening in situations where you feel someone is being endangered. It’s a simple premise and to be honest, levelling any kind of criticism at it feels like kicking a puppy. But...well, there’s a few problems with it.

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NOMW is a very small book, so obviously it’s not possible for it to address the myriad of complex issues surrounding sexual assault. But as an Australian reading it, it does focus very specifically on the American college campus dynamic. Obviously college sexual assault is a huge issue in America, which is why I was a little disappointed with the tone it took.


It starts by introducing your host, a gender ambiguous person called “Sergeant Yes means Yes” who rides a fixie bicycle and a kind of marching band meets military costume. The lessons are delivered by the Sergeant talking to a depressed looking guy in a hoodie wearing a backwards baseball cap that says “Sports”. All of this illustrates my first issue with the book - it reads as though it’s designed for middle school kids. It has that kind of mid 90s “cool handbook” approach to kids and drugs. Which is to say, it’s a little bit patronising and a whole lot of preaching to the choir.


Everything about NOMW is woke as fuck. There are references to sexual assault victims and perpetrators being every combination of gender, race and sexuality. They go out of their way to reiterate that anyone can be a victim, and anyone can be a culprit. While this is absolutely 100% true, and a healthy reminder, I feel like this isn’t actually the right forum for it. You don’t need to get socially conscious people on your side, they’re already there. They’re the ones protesting rape culture on weekends. So rather than making a super inclusive, politically correct book for the woke kids, you’d be better off getting your hands dirty and just addressing the people who are part of the actual problem. Talk to the frat kids. Talk to the sports players. Talk to the people who don’t currently give a fuck about the problem of sexual assault. Make your narrator a straight white dude who has a football scholarship. Make your audience avatar a kid who’s figuring out which frat to pledge to. Because while yes, gays, lesbians, trans and queer people can all be perpetrators of sexual assault - they’re not the biggest problem. While yes, straight men can be victims of sexual assault, they’re not the ones most likely to have it happen to them. By being inclusive you’re alienating the group who most need to hear this message. Because we live in a time when there are literal Nazi rallies and people demanding the destruction of safe spaces because “fuck snowflakes”. Clearly the people who are watching sexual assault happening and saying nothing are the ones in the middle and you can’t win them over with language of social justice. Win them over by pointing out what’s in it for them. Win them over by making it about them. Win them over by speaking their language and putting their faces on the cover.


Aside from all of this though, NOMW got me thinking about bystanders in general. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many sexual assault survivors starting posting “Me Too” to their social media in an effort to raise awareness of just how common sexual assault and harassment are. Within hours of this happening many women were writing articles pointing out that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of women to bring attention to this issue. That women have poured hours and hours of their lives into the emotional labour of educating men and now it’s their turn to step up. It’s time for the bystanders to take an actual stand and help to fight this epidemic.

Here’s an interesting thing about the Harvey Weinstein scandal, something that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while; Brad Pitt dated Gwenyth Paltrow and was married to Angelina Jolie, both of whom were victims of Weinstein. He then went on to film two movies with Miramax (2009’s Inglourious Basterds and 2012’s Killing Them Softly). Apparently he confronted Weinstein after Paltrow told him about her abuse (which Weinstein responded to by threatening Paltrow if she ever told anyone again). So here we have a triumvirate of sorts, three of the best known names in Hollywood. Victims and a bystander. Report after report has confirmed that Weinstein’s behaviour was an open secret in the industry. There were plenty of bystanders.


I’ve always believed that men have a duty to speak up in the face of any sexism they witness, since I know their words carry more weight than mine. I was discussing this with a male friend recently when he related his experience of this to me.

“I had a boss who used to make a lot of sexist comments. When I started to hang out with him a bit more, I called him on it. I said ‘You can’t say those things man, it’s not cool.” And he replied by asking me when I’d grown my vagina. He didn’t give a shit whether or not I thought it was cool. My opinion on his shitty jokes weren’t relevant. We were a small company, there was no HR department I could go to, no Board of Directors I could appeal to. I still don’t know what I was meant to do. What was the right thing?”

And that’s exactly it. With Weinstein, with NOMW, with all of the best intentions surrounding bystanders we don’t actually know what to tell people to do when there’s no higher power. Sure, Brad Pitt could have refused to work with Miramax, my friend could have quit his job in protest, but neither of those things would have actually changed anything. We tend to view bystanders as culpable individuals who witnessed awful things and did nothing. It’s that whole "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."


There’s a bit of a catch with the whole good men (and women) doing nothing thing though. In 2002 a paper was presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, that reported more than 70% of women had witnessed sexual harassment of other women in their work environment. A 1997 report titled  ‘Ambient sexual harassment: an integrated model of antecedents and consequences’ found that employees are frequently aware of who among their male co-workers harasses female employees. So, in layman’s terms a whole lot of people are witnessing sexual harassment and know who is responsible for it. Does this mean that there’s just a whole heap of people who give zero fucks about sexual harassment? Well the Australian Human Rights Commission did some research into it and their findings were pretty fucking interesting.

“There is a growing recognition that even observing or hearing about the sexual harassment of co-workers can foster bystander stress and other negative outcomes that parallel those experienced by the direct targets of harassment. Such outcomes include reduced health satisfaction, team conflict, declines in financial performance, occupational stress and job withdrawal.”

This means that bystanders are basically having the same or similar experiences as victims of sexual harassment. If this is the case (and I’m assuming it is since I don’t generally argue with Human Rights Commissions), then from a bystander’s perspective it would be in their best interests to put a stop to any kind of harassment or assault. The fact that they’re not indicates that there’s something more at play here than simply indifference.


If you google “bystander sexual assault” most of the guides that come up will list the numbers of reasons people don’t intervene when witnessing assault or harassment. Usually they’re along the lines of:

“I don’t know what to do or what to say.”
“I don’t want to cause a scene.”
“It’s not my business.”
“I don’t want my friend to be mad at me.”
“I’m sure someone else will step in.”

But perhaps it’s none of these. Perhaps bystanders, like victims, are genuinely terrified. We’re terrified of what happens to us if we step up and say something. Will we be targeted? Will we become the next victim? Will be punished financially, socially, or in some other way? And given everything that we’ve seen with Weinstein, it’s not unbelievable to think that many bystanders are asking themselves who the fuck will listen. Amber Heard came out and accused Johnny Depp of assault, and everyone labelled her a lying gold digger (even after she donated all of her damages payments to charity). Bill Cosby had 50 accusers and still got acquitted. Weinstein operated in the industry for over 20 years, with most people in Hollywood knowing what he was doing. Nothing happened.


So, my issue with NOMW and with everyone saying that we need more people to stand up against sexual assault and harassment is that we’re still looking at the wrong people. Right now we’re sending the message that women need to learn not get raped, that bystanders need to step in and stop people from harassing, assaulting and raping. But what we’re telling perpetrators is that you can absolutely get away with it. You can ignore all the people who tell you to stop. You can threaten your victims into silence. You can bully others into covering up what you’re doing. You might get caught, but even if you do there’s a good chance you’ll be acquitted.


Sure, if you’re a potential victim and you know you can make decisions to make yourself safer, that’s awesome. If you’re a bystander and you’re able to make someone stop their behaviour, that’s cool, definitely do that. But what we really need is some fucking serious education for potential perpetrators of sexual violence. We need to teach people about consent, about bodily autonomy, about what constitutes assault, harassment and rape. Since the law won’t convict, society won’t shun, and perpetrators consistently go unpunished, education is the only real weapon we have left in our arsenal.


Educate at every opportunity. When books like NOMW come out, they need to be talking to the right audience. We need to be putting this shit into words that people will respond to. Fuck altruism and inclusiveness, the education around this needs to be inescapable. We need to make it clear that not being a sexual criminal is in their best interests. Because at this point that’s the only language these people are speaking.

Most importantly though, this conversation needs to start young. We need to be teaching children this basic fucking lesson. We need to ingrain it in them the same way they know not to murder and maim other people. This is why sex education reform is so crucial. Until we start educating people properly we’re going to see more and more Harvey Weinsteins, Bill Cosbys and Bill O’Reillys and no amount of bystanders will be able to make a difference.



That is all.


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