By Cristy Cardinal, Program Director, Prevention Education
It’s a familiar statistic: one in three girls will be battered by their dating partner. This is especially visible in February, which is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. But a far more pressing statistic is that one in one of us is a witness to intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
We all know someone whose life has been affected by violence at the hands of a partner or date. Bigger still, we all witness it every day, in a variety of ways. Sometimes, we see it plainly when we see a young man strike his girlfriend. But it may not always be so clear.
I bet we can all think of a time when we heard a young man talk disparagingly about his girlfriend or women in general. We may not see a teenage boy hold down a young girl against her will, but I bet we can remember a time when we heard someone call a boy or group of boys “ladies” as an insult.
Being a bystander no longer means just standing by. Many times, when witnessing an assault or an insult, bystanders choose to do nothing. Doing something feels overwhelming, or scary or uncertain. When people are faced with witnessing a violent action, two options usually come to mind: physically intervene superhero-style, or do nothing. When we come to the real world and find ourselves a bystander to violence, most are quickly reminded that we aren’t superheroes and default to option number two. Physical intervention has some potentially dangerous consequences for oneself and for the victim, consequences option number 2 does not have. It isn’t hard to understand why someone would choose to not act when the only other option puts them and others in harm’s way.
In our prevention work at HAVEN, however, we teach that choosing to do nothing does have consequences, potentially worse. When you don’t act you’re sending messages to the perpetrator that this behavior is accepted and OK, to the victim that what is happening is not a big deal, and to other bystanders that it is acceptable to not act. All of these are very negative consequences which contribute to further violence. Silence is complicit.
This doesn’t leave us in a great spot; both options have negative and hurtful consequences. But what is key to recognize, is that there are other option. Obviously, if someone’s life or safety is in imminent danger, contacting the authorities is the best choice. If you have to intervene physically, ask someone to help you. Of course, the victim’s safety must always be considered, but here are some other ideas:
Find a time when the victim is alone to talk to her. Offer your support, but don’t tell her what to do. Let her know that you are her ally.
You can talk to the perpetrator at a separate time about his behavior. It can be as simple as, “I don’t agree with that choice.”
Attract other people’s attention to the incident. Encourage other people to speak out about it.
These are just a few, and at HAVEN, we’d love to talk more about this with you or your organization. You can contact our Prevention Education department at (248) 334-1284 ext. 360 or at firstname.lastname@example.org and learn more about bystander strategies to end violence against women. It is our goal to give people the tools and resources to be effective bystanders. One in one of us is a witness to intimate partner violence or sexual assault, and one in one of us can make the choice to do something about it.