Written by Sam Ross – Edited by Emilia MacDonald
Before delving into the informative aspect of this article, I’d like begin by acknowledging that sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere at any time. For the sake of this article though, I will be focusing on the epidemic of sexual assault that is occuring in university or college settings. There are many opinions regarding what classifies as sexual assault. As a result, it is a rather broad umbrella term under which many behaviours can fall under. Most simply, sexual assault can be defined as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
1 in 4 women in North America will experience sexual assault while in university or college. This high probability of sexual assaults on campus can be accredited to a multitude of factors. One of these factors is the high consumption of drugs and alcohol on campus, which puts people in a vulnerable state – one in which they are less aware of their surroundings. Additionally, first-year students may be more naive regarding dangerous situations, without comprehending in these moments that they are being targeted by people with bad intentions. This is not to cast blame on the victims, but rather, to acknowledge the dangers that come with unawareness. Finally, a lack of reporting continues to be a major problem, and it stems from the fear of not being believed or being shamed. Consequently, serial assaulters may get away unscathed by punishment, thereby giving them the chance to commit multiple offenses.
Upon researching for this article, one term I found to be prevalent in sexual assault is the “Bystander Effect”. A bystander is someone present when an event takes place, but is not directly involved. In terms of sexual assault, this could be someone who witnessed the circumstances leading up to the crime (i.e., watching Party A slip a drug into Party B’s drink). People may be bystanders for several reasons, one of which being, it’s not always easy to speak up. Some may believe that it’s not their business to intervene, or they may believe that a friend will get in trouble if they speak up. Although the bystander is not directly committing the assault, witnessing it and doing nothing makes a person guilty by association. If they had stuck up for the vulnerable individual in that moment, a victim could have been spared from a traumatic experience that can permanently alter their life.
How can we resolve the bystander effect issue? C.A.R.E is a good place to start. The acronym lays out several suggestions to help prevent sexual assault: create a distraction, ask directly, rally others, and extend support. The first step involves creating a distraction that redirects the potential victim’s attention to something else. Having a conversation with someone you suspect is in danger, allows the individual to be removed from a potentially dangerous situation in a smooth and safe manner. For example, you could say you need to use the restroom and invite the vulnerable person to accompany you, as a way to distract them and remove them from the dangerous situation. The next step is to ask directly by approaching the individual and asking, “Are you okay?” or “Do you need help?”. While it may seem obvious to a bystander, the potential victim may not even realize they are in danger until someone directly approaches to ask them.
Another way to address a potentially dangerous situation, could be to approach the situation in a group as a way of minimizing personal risk: there is strength in numbers. If you are in the proximity of a person in a position of power, such as a resident assistant (a DON) or a security guard, this can also be helpful in a dangerous situation. The final step is one of the most helpful ways to prevent sexual assault as a bystander. It involves extending support by offering to call them a ride home, or by identifying professional resources for help.
It is critical to understand how to handle situations where you believe someone in your vicinity, whether a close friend or a complete stranger, is in danger of falling victim to sexual assault. While this is ultimately the fault of the perpetrator, being a bystander to the situation without attempting to stop or help the victim, is a guilt that one may never be able to shake.
Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario | Fédération canadienne des … (2015, December). Sexual Violence on Campus. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://cfsontario.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Factsheet-SexualAssault.pdf
Marshall, J. (2023, March 28). The “1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in college” statistic is actually a lie. Evie Magazine. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.eviemagazine.com/post/the-1-in-4-women-will-be-sexually-assaulted-college-statistic-actually-lie
Miller, K. (2017, November 3). What is sexual assault (and what isn’t), according to the law. SELF. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.self.com/story/sexual-assault-definition
Practicing active bystander intervention. RAINN. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://rainn.org/articles/practicing-active-bystander-intervention?_ga=2.140500147.1291983033.1679317472-1772334903.1679317472
Your role in preventing sexual assault. RAINN. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.rainn.org/articles/your-role-preventing-sexual-assault