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Bystander Intervention in UCC: How we can all stand against sexual assault, harassment, and violence

By Maeve O’Keeffe

An unfortunate reality of university life at present is the prevalence of sexual assault. According to a 2020 study of sexual experiences, 29% of females, 10% of males and 28% of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration during their time in college. A 2018 survey completed in NUIG reveals staggering percentages of students reporting sexual harassment and hostility during their time in university, particularly women. Given how startling the statistics surrounding the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in university are, one may be left  wondering how to combat these issues on campus. 

Sadly, much of the messaging we are exposed to places responsibility predominantly on the woman. Women are told not to walk home after dark, not to get too drunk, not to dress  “provocatively,” or even wear certain shades or styles of underwear, as a 2018 rape trial on our  doorstep in Cork revealed. It is distressing to still encounter rape myths masquerading as warped justifications for sexual assault. Despite a growing recognition of the unfairness of the behavioural double standards for men and women, many of these expectations are still adhered  to by women. And still sexual assault occurs.  

Thankfully, Dr Louise Crowley of UCC Law developed the Bystander Intervention Programme here in UCC. Initially piloted to students of Law, Nursing, Midwifery and Applied Psychology  in UCC, this programme aims to address the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence  both on and off campus by empowering students to recognise unacceptable behaviour and to  intervene accordingly. Registration for the Bystander Intervention programme is now open to all staff and students in UCC. In fact, on the third of September, the UCC Bystander Intervention Team launched a national campaign to implement Bystander Intervention training in all higher education institutes (HEIs) across Ireland. Adapted versions of Bystander training  are also in the pipeline for secondary schools, with Dr Crowley continuing to work hard to  spread the positive influence of the Bystander Intervention initiative. 

The urgent need to combat the prevalence of sexual assault and violence in higher level institutes nationwide was addressed in the 2020 National Framework for Consent in HEIs. The  core vision of this framework is the promotion of “an institutional campus culture which is  safe, respectful, and supportive.” Dr Emer Clifford is the Sexual Violence Framework Project  Manager with Bystander Intervention here in UCC, and she emphasised how the vision of the  National Consent Framework places the onus firmly on the educational institution to “mandate a zero tolerance of all unwanted sexual violence, harassment, and misconduct.” UCC’s  Bystander Intervention Programme is identified within the national framework as a targeted initiative that can be employed to “foster a campus culture that is clear in the condemnation of  unwanted and unacceptable behaviours.” This sentiment is echoed by Dr Clifford, who  identified how the Bystander Intervention Programme “strives to educate and empower  participants to contribute to a positive third level experience through safe intervention.” 

A vital component of Bystander Intervention is the recognition of the individual and collective  responsibility we all have in tackling sexual harassment, violence, and misconduct, as well as  other forms of discrimination and exclusion. As humans, we can be inclined to adopt a passive  mindset, assuming that because we are not directly violating another individual, then we are  not responsible for the actions of others, however inappropriate, hurtful or potentially  dangerous they may be. As we form new friendships in university, the desire to “go with the  flow” in social situations is natural. We may be reluctant to stand out from the pack by  challenging the attitudes and behaviours of peers, and we may feel as though it is not our place to do so.  

However, Dr Clifford highlighted the scope of the Bystander Intervention initiative in  transforming this all-too-common passive mindset when it comes to taking action; “I believe  that this programme is a powerful tool for generating social change – whilst undertaking it  participants soon realise that when faced with an uncomfortable situation, their opinions and  feelings are most often shared by the collective.” The Bystander Intervention Programme is eye-opening in exposing how discrimination can manifest itself in a multitude of ways, each of which feeds into a potential perpetrator’s false consensus that their behaviour is acceptable.  By laughing off a sexist remark, or turning a blind eye to inappropriate content in a group chat  or social situation, for instance, we fail to rectify the perpetrator’s misguided beliefs about what  is and is not acceptable. This merely validates the sense of entitlement held by the minority of  individuals who hold these discriminatory attitudes and beliefs, leading them to (incorrectly)  assume that the majority share their intolerance and disrespect. 

Initially, one might imagine that to intervene in unacceptable and potentially dangerous  situations, bystander intervention must involve a dramatic confrontation. One might envision  a showdown on a dark, sinister alleyway, where a malevolent perpetrator must be tackled, or  even social exclusion for conveying their aversion to sexist jokes in a group setting. 

However, one of the vital aspects of the Bystander Intervention Programme is how it highlights how subtle an intervention can be. Intervention can be as simple as changing the subject in an  inappropriate or offensive conversation, distracting the potential perpetrator, not laughing at  certain jokes, or pretending to know the individual in a potentially unsafe situation, among a  host of other options. Through the role-plays, videos and resources of the Bystander Intervention modules, participants learn how easily the trajectory of a harmful situation can be  changed. The golden rule of Bystander Intervention is that the active bystander should never put themselves at risk. Many of us are unaware of the potential impact even the most subtle, discreet interventions can have, but the Bystander Intervention Programme equips participants  with the knowledge of how and when to safely intervene. 

Much more than simply providing a “how-to” guide to intervening, the Bystander Intervention Programme seeks to challenge the culture that enables sexual harassment and violence to occur.  Sexual assault and misconduct do not begin the minute one rogue “bad apple” violates the body  and consent of another individual. It can be deep-rooted, arising in commonplace rape myths,  sexist jokes, “locker-room talk,” and shaming comments about others. It is enabled by cultures of victim-blaming, lad culture, ignorance about what constitutes consent and sexual assault,  and systems that do not treat the testimonies of victims with sufficient urgency or credibility.  There is a long way to go before these issues are eradicated on our campuses, but huge progress  is being made in heightening awareness around sexual misconduct. 

During the summer, for instance, Bystander team members and UCC graduates Maeve McTaggart and Alana Daly-Mulligan examined bystander intervention themes and issues in  the context of the popular reality TV show Love Island. By exploring issues of slut-shaming,  negging, alcohol and intervention, and online harassment, McTaggart and Daly-Mulligan sparked conversations about common relationship red flags and toxic behaviours. In applying  some of the core teachings of the Bystander Intervention Programme to a show as pervasive as  Love Island, they drew attention to unacceptable behaviours in relationships, and empowered  the UCC Bystander Intervention Programme’s social media following to think critically about  how normalised this behaviour can be. These posts can be viewed on the Bystander  Intervention’s Instagram or Twitter page (@bystanderucc).  

The bystander intervention initiative is crucial in heightening our collective awareness of the  issues of sexual violence and misconduct, as well as our collective responsibility to intervene  when safe to do so. Vital to the transition from passive to pro-social bystander is what Dr Clifford refers to as “the lightbulb moment” of realisation that the majority of people are not comfortable with the sexist behaviour or so-called “locker-room talk” that can permeate  campus culture. The programme empowers participants to challenge these commonplace  behaviours and beliefs before they escalate into even less socially acceptable manifestations of  misconduct. According to Dr Clifford, “This lightbulb moment needs to be experienced by  everyone because only then will we as a community, be empowered to stand up against all  forms of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment.” 

The more students who register for and complete the Bystander Intervention module on Canvas, the closer we get to eliminating sexual harassment and violence on and off campus. Dr Clifford stressed the potential impact of widespread participation in the Bystander  Intervention Programme, imagining “the ripple-effect it would have if every member of our  UCC-community undertook this programme.” 

All UCC students and staff can complete the module on Canvas. The module consists of four online workshops, which are designed to be self-directed and completed at an individual pace,  as well as an interactive workshop which can be completed on Microsoft Teams or in-person this semester, in line with the current Covid-19 guidelines. These workshops explore the stages  of intervention, the necessity to intervene, and the means to intervene in a safe way. As well as  this, the complex dynamics of relationships are broached in a way relevant to student life, with  insights into sexual coercion, consent, toxic masculinity, and rape myths. Following on from  these workshops, participants are expected to complete a personal reflective response to the  experience of the module. This submission can be completed in a format of the participant’s choosing, be it poetry, artwork, or an essay.  

You can register to become an active bystander through Canvas, or by getting in touch with  the team by emailing bystander@ucc.ie. Full details of how to access the course content are available on the UCC Bystander Intervention website. Upon completion of the module,  participants are not only equipped with a knowledge of intervention strategies and a greater  understanding of the factors contributing to discrimination and gender-based violence, but are also awarded a Digital Badge by UCC. These Digital Badges are a recognition of an  individual’s commitment to exerting a powerful positive cultural change in the university, and  can be uploaded to LinkedIn.  

Regardless of the fact that you may not, consider yourself to be contributing to the significant problems of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct on campus, you can be part of the solution. Everyone can set aside the short amount of time needed to complete the module. In completing the programme, you will be promoting a positive change in campus culture so that we can all enjoy a more safe, supportive, and respectful college experience, to reiterate the  vision of the National Framework for Consent in HEIs. 

The University Express team are delighted to collaborate with Bystander Intervention this year  to continue to raise awareness of the factors that contribute to sexual assault, and how we, as a  community, can combat these issues in UCC. If you’d like to contribute any ideas or articles  to this column, or the Features section generally, don’t hesitate to get in touch via email at features@universityexpress.ie


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