STERN: Fighting the bystander story

A Stern Perspective

You probably saw it on Facebook. The article instantly went viral — something read and reread and commented upon from dining halls to common rooms. “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College,” written by Angie Epifano, a former Amherst student, was disturbing. It vividly recounted an instance of rape on a college campus and the subsequent intransigence of college authorities.

“Some nights I can still hear the sounds of his roommates on the other side of the door,” Epifano wrote in the article, “unknowingly talking and joking as I was held down.” Later, she wrote about being pressured by a campus official against pressing charges — “Are you SURE it was rape?” Epifano left Amherst.

Colleges around the country — most vocally Amherst — vowed to respond. “Student’s Account Has Rape in Spotlight,” blared the headline in The New York Times. The publicity meant something had to be done.

Months after the account was published, Yale sent an email to every sophomore, announcing new “bystander intervention workshops” to give students the skills to intervene and prevent sexual assault. The workshops ended their four-day run last weekend.

By this point, the discussion of Epifano’s article — and of assault on college campuses in general — has died down. Probably not unrelatedly, I heard a huge number of people whining about the bystander intervention workshops they would have to attend. People I respected felt they were a waste of time. But some people thought they were the most useful thing Yale could be doing. I was initially skeptical (and kicking myself for having signed up for the 11:00 a.m. Saturday slot) — could yet another hourlong workshop really do the trick? Could one meeting solve problems that are so much larger than Yale?

Jane O’Bryan ’15, one of the communication and consent educators who ran the meetings, recalled, “I had so many people come up to me beforehand and say, ‘What is this rape workshop we have to do?’”

Forty Yalies reported sexual assaults in the last half of 2012; there were 49 such complaints in the first half of the year, 52 in the six months before. Nationally, one in four college-aged women are sexually assaulted. According to statistics compiled by the NYU Student Health Center, one in 12 college men have admitted in surveys to committing rape. This is an epidemic.

But this is not what disturbs me the most. Studies suggest that more than 80 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses are never reported to the police; 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.

Which brings us back to the bystander intervention wor kshops. And Angie Epifano. Epifano was assaulted in her boyfriend’s bedroom, within earshot of his roommates. One imagines there were signs they could have seen that should have brought them to stop the assault.

In our bystander intervention meetings, other sophomores and I watched a video in which we saw a sexual assault take place — from too many drinks, to sloppy dancing, to the perhaps overly sociopathic-looking man shutting the bedroom door and removing his shirt. Then the video rewound and highlighted all the points at which people could have intervened — tactfully — and prevented the assault.

We discussed hypotheticals. How would we respond to a rape joke from a peer? From a professor? The discussion was lively and, at least in appearance, productive. O’Bryan noted how afterward, “Students said to me they were glad the workshops were mandatory,” acknowledging that they probably wouldn’t have bothered to show up otherwise. Students repeatedly told her they felt a greater sense of community as a result of the workshops. They also said they felt safer.

The bystander intervention workshops were no magic bullet. Yet they were a start. And I suspect they will help prevent assault. Every effort at awareness helps.

CCEs (and other students) whom I spoke to for this column expressed a sense of frustration. How do we get victims to report their assaults? How do we get people to stop assaulting? Yelling at freshmen isn’t going to work, and it hasn’t worked.

So we should make the SHARE Center more accessible and ubiquitous. We must further our study of crime on campus. We can continue and increase dialogues about violence on campus. And it shouldn’t take a viral article about a gruesome crime to make us do so.

Scott Stern is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu .

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