What kind of bystander are you?

New Delhi, Steubenville, Nortre Dame.  These are not usually locations which would typically be grouped together.  Yet, as of late, these three locales have been in the news for one reason, and one reason only.  All three of these locations are places at which sexual assaults and rapes have taken place to a degree so disturbing and heinous they have caught the public’s attention.

In India, a 23-year-old student was raped on a bus in New Delhi on December 16.  She later died as a result of the injuries she sustained during the attack.  Five men are charged with rape, murder, and kidnapping in connection with the assault.  A male companion who had gone to the movies with the woman survived the attack with a broken leg. He later recounted that the bus driver made lewd remarks about the woman when they boarded, and five other men taunted the couple and locked the doors.  Then the attack began, with the driver, wielding an iron bar, taking part.  (http://edition.cnn.com/2013/01/09/world/asia/india-rape-case/).

In Steubenville, Ohio, two high school football players have been indicted for rape and will face trial in February.  Their alleged victim is a 16 year-old girl who was unconscious during the time of the assault.  This story has become national news because of a YouTube video in which fellow male students are shown laughing and joking about the details about the alleged rape.  As Will Goodman writes, “The nearly 13-minute video posted on YouTube consists mostly of one teenage male hysterically laughing as he entertains an unseen cameraman and others in the room with remarks such as “They raped her harder than that cop raped Marcellus Wallace in ‘Pulp Fiction’,” and, “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson raped that one girl” (www.cbsnews.com).  Goodman continues “The teen also makes remarks implying that he may have witnessed at least some of the incident: “You didn’t see how they carried her out,” he says. And: “They peed on her, that’s how you know she’s dead.” And also: “She is so raped right now.”

Finally, at Notre Dame, a university with rich history and a storied past, comes this; two football players suspected of sexual assault and rape.  Dave Zirin writes of this story in his blog found at theNation.  Zirin states,

“Nineteen-year-old Lizzy Seeberg, a student at neighboring St. Mary’s College, took her own life after her claims of being assaulted in a dorm room were met with threats and indifference. The other accuser, despite description of a brutal rape, won’t file charges—“absolutely 100%”—because of what Seeberg experienced.

Lizzy Seeberg was a first semester freshman and from a family of Notre Dame graduates. After an evening when she socialized with members of the football team, Lizzy came forward with accusations of a sexual assault. After writing out a statement and submitting to medical attention, she received texts from another member of the team that read, “Don’t do anything you would regret” and “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”

To show that she wouldn’t rock the boat, Lizzy was compelled by her peers to go to the next game, stencil the Notre Dame logos into her face and cheer her assaulter. As Melinda Henneberger, a Washington Post reporter and Notre Dame alum who has investigated the sexual assaults on campus extensively, wrote, “On Sept. 7, she wrote her therapist, ‘I can’t get out of this f*!#ing hole I’ve started to dig. I’m trying to go to sleep because I’m sick with a cold and need to get rest but I can’t stop thinking about taking all the pills I can find. I’m ready to check out because this sucks.’ She promised [her therapist] she would never follow through. But then, on Sept. 9, she had a panic attack during a mandatory freshman orientation on sexual assault.”  That panic attack preceded her suicide.

These are just the most recent stories of sexual assault and rape which have seized the attention of the world.  And while each and every story of sexual violence is worthy of attention and outrage, one may wonder what it is about these three particular stories that has caused the world to take notice.  Undoubtedly, these stories do share common threads.  Interwoven throughout each of these instances of sexual violence, we can see evidence of social norms which we know lead to the acceptance of sexual violence.  In New Delhi, Steubenville, and Notre Dame, the alleged perpetrators are all members of a group or class with privilege or power.  ‘Power over’ is certainly a social norm that lends itself to the promulgation of sexual violence.  In New Delhi, men are given much more power and privilege than women.  In Steubenville and at Notre Dame, the accused assailants were all members of the highly reputed football teams; afforded much power and many perceived privileges.

However, there are additional similarities in these cases which much be looked at; similarities which are perhaps, more alarming.  In each of the cases detailed above, one must note the role of the bystander.  A bystander is a person who is present at an event, though not necessarily participating (www.thefreedictionary.com).  The problem with each of the assaults written about here is that there were plenty of opportunities for bystanders to get involved and become what are known as ‘active bystanders.’  Yet few if any, did.   Imagine what could have happened in New Delhi if someone on that bus had come to the aid of the young female student and her companion as the assault began.  Imagine what could have happened at Notre Dame if a friend of Lizzy Seeberg had stood up and supported her; telling her it was okay to not attend the next football game, or had encouraged Lizzy to report the threatening text messages she had received.  And then there’s Steubenville.  This is the case we must examine more closely when we look at the impact of bystander behavior.

Steubenville is an unprecedented case in many ways.  Not the least of which is the role social media and YouTube have played as this case continues to unfold.  There exists a 12-minute video in which male peers of the alleged victim are seen laughing and joking about her assault.  One of the young men even alludes to the fact he may have witnessed part of the assault and give details as to what had occurred, stating “They peed on her, that’s how you know she’s dead.”  When he’s told by an off-camera male voice that his comments aren’t funny and he’s being childish, and the voice continues to explain that the girl being discussed was raped, the young man on camera only laughs harder.  Another off-camera voice asks “What if that was your daughter?”  To which the on-camera male responds “But it isn’t.  If that was my daughter I wouldn’t care, I’d just let her be dead.” The males who raise concern are chided and mocked.  The rest of the group doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand the point they’re attempting to make.   Let’s think about the implications here.  If this on-camera male, or any of his counterparts did in fact, witness part of the girl’s assault, they could have intervened.  They could have chosen to be an active bystander and do something about the situation.  They could have aided the girl, they could have removed the alleged assailants from the situation, they could have called a parent, law enforcement, etc.  But they did not.  Instead, they chose to laugh, joke, and display absolute indifference toward her well-being.

All of us are bystanders to many situations each day.  We have the choice regarding what type of bystander we’ll be.  Will we be that passive bystander who chooses to ignore something we know is wrong, concerning, or alarming?  Will we be that bystander who chooses to laugh and joke about a situation in which another human being has been harmed?  Or, will we choose to be a bystander who intervenes?  Will we choose to say something, get help, call law enforcement, etc?  Being an active bystander is not always easy, nor is it always comfortable.  However, don’t we, as human beings, have an obligation to one another to make it our business when we see or hear something we know is wrong?