Maeve O’Keeffe (MOK): The murder of Ashling Murphy has been described as a watershed moment in prompting discussions about violence against women. How can we collectively ensure that this tragic event is a catalyst for change, and not just a news story that dies away after a couple of weeks?
Louise Crowley (LC): Historically, that has been the problem. This is not a one-off incident unfortunately, and whilst it’s not hugely common, it does happen and has happened, we know the number of women who have been murdered, typically by someone they know, though in this instance it was by a stranger. The conversations have started quite vociferously and with new people. There are new elements; men are more engaged and are more willing to consider their own roles. From that perspective I think that there has been a greater response with regards the breadth and the awareness of the conversations, it’s so important that that momentum is maintained, and doesn’t just become part of a news cycle. The passion and appetite for change – which I certainly have experience of first-hand in the appetite for Bystander training – we have to act now if we want to sustain it. We need to provide the opportunities for people to learn, we need to provide platforms for people to engage with the problems that underpin this type of behaviour. While the killing of Ashling Murphy was the most extreme manifestation of gender-based violence, that should not prevent us from addressing all types of abuse. I think that the momentum that did develop in the days after the murder, we need to hold onto it, and we need to engage all of those people who asked the questions on those days after the murder. It is important that those in a position to do so bring the opportunities for learning to them, whether it be in sports clubs, workplaces or educational settings and I think that collectivist approach is so important that shared collective desire for change. For too long it has been siloed – there have been groups, typically women, shouting for change – but this needs an all of society buy-in and an all of society effort to really effect change, otherwise we’ll just continue to talk to ourselves.
MOK: You’ve previously described the idea of the “pyramid of abuse” to explain how everyday catcalling, sexist jokes, and leering are related to more extreme acts of violence. Could you explain this idea, to those who might still think of this murder as “an isolated incident?”
LC: I suppose it is really important to recognise that this is an extreme situation; it is the ultimate manifestation of gender-based violence, but it doesn’t mean that we can dismiss it as a once-off incident. There is a spectrum of behaviours. […]Gender-based violence exists in our everyday world, not necessarily like this, but in ways that impact the society that we live in. This incident causes us to reflect on this issue as a society. It reflects, albeit in an enormous way, the capacity for women to feel threatened, to be threatened, and to be abused. And the message needs to be developed that all forms of abuse are unacceptable, because if we tolerate a society that accepts less horrific but still unacceptable forms of harassment, hostility or violence, we are giving a form of implicit permission for this behaviour. The people inclined to behave in this way will [go unchallenged], and we cannot predict the extremities to which these people will go. The message needs to be a blanket zero tolerance, a blanket ban on all forms of hostility and abuse. And that message must permeate then to all members of society, whether they are complicit in the behaviour, whether they perpetrate it themselves, whether they see it and ignore it. That becomes unacceptable, and we have a shift towards healthy relationships based on respect. We won’t reach everybody, we cannot reach everybody, but anybody we can reach, we must.
MOK: I think one of the most common misconceptions about Bystander training is that the people who really need the training aren’t the ones signing up. How would you respond to this?
LC: I think what’s really valuable about the bystander intervention approach is that we’re speaking to everybody because everybody has a capacity to make a difference. We’re not speaking to anybody as a perpetrator or as a potential perpetrator, or even to survivors or victims, we’re speaking to everybody in their capacity as a member of society who may witness or be party to acts that are unacceptable and that they can call it out, ask for change, and ask for better. In doing so they are contributing to a safer society. I like to think that it is inclusive and acceptable to all. And if we do have participants who are complicit or conducting acts that are unacceptable, it’s a way to help them better understand why these behaviours are unacceptable without accusing them of anything or targeting them, but rather using education. […] Education allows people to be better informed and hopefully make better choices. I believe [Bystander] can bring the community together. Although it might be an individual intervention, it relies on community, and being supported in your intervention. And the other side of bystander intervention is that it empowers people with the language and the sensibilities to respond when somebody has made a disclosure to them. So, if somebody tells you that they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted that you are better able to respond and say, “I hear you and I believe you, let me bring you the supports that would help you. I’m not qualified but I can bring you to the supports.” Equally, to be able to speak to an individual after an incident has occurred, and talk to them about their behaviour. You may not have intervened at the time, but you may have that conversation maybe at a safer time when you feel better able to talk to them. It is very wide-ranging but also very inclusive and that has been the feedback I’ve received from those who have participated in the training.
MOK: Can you tell me about your work in developing Bystander training for secondary schools?
LC: I started working with some Cork City and county schools in 2019 – seven of them. We went through the whole Bystander UCC training and changed practically every slide to make it age-appropriate and relevant to second level students – TY students in particular. Though it was stalled by covid, we received positive feedback from students and teachers. I’ve received Irish research funding to develop a new pilot that will be targeted at TY students and will focus on six key themes of the bystander training and will be delivered in six 40 minute classes and we will provide through video recording, (which makes it accessible to all schools) 10 or 15 minutes on each key theme and support teachers in a workshop approach to help students themselves to consider the issues that have been raised and then in turn respond. We had seven schools to begin with, and now we’ve had 45 in the last two weeks. And we’re very happy to take those schools on because I really believe that we have the capacity to reach students and to reflect their lived realities in this training; to allow them the safe environment to discuss issues that perhaps it’s difficult for them to raise by themselves. This is a very important and safe way of introducing these issues, and of course, it’s a classroom, so there is a shared learning and a shared recognition of a) the need for change and b) their capacity to do it, to change the culture within that class and that school.
MOK: How do you think that unacceptable behaviours have become so normalised so young?
LC: We know that a significant percentage of young people – particularly boys – are accessing porn and accessing it very young and very easily. Even primary school children are accessing porn, so that’s one issue. I suppose the broader sexualisation of encounters at a young age […] I think that they are living in a very sexualised environment. Also, the ease of access to phones and their capacity to send images to each other or access inappropriate material and share that becomes so normalised. I think it’s fair to say that the RSE curriculum in schools hasn’t caught up with young people’s lived reality and so what they’re learning and what they’re reflecting on perhaps does not address the realities that they face outside of school. That is one of the reasons that we are bringing bystander to schools. The problem is that the behaviour becomes ingrained at such a young age that it becomes normalised, and they don’t even recognise it as unacceptable. You’re never going to make an intervention unless you realise that something is problematic. I even hear it from UCC students who tell me, “Well, I go to a nightclub, of course I get groped, because that’s what happens.” [People dismiss it and] go “Yeah, yeah, that’s part of growing up,” when it’s actually completely unacceptable and you need people to realise that it’s unacceptable and you’d be surprised how many people don’t. You need people to say, “No, I don’t want to live like this,” and that’s ultimately what bystander is trying to do. It’s not just knowing how to intervene, it’s to understand your right to demand a safer society and to have a safe university experience or second level experience and to see your role in demanding that. I’ve always said we need a new normal; we need people to expect and experience a respectful society and respectful engagements.
MOK: Have you noted much difference between co-educational and single sex schools in rolling out Bystander?
LC: I have to say, irrespective of whether it was all boys, all girls, or mixed schools, the reception of the materials was really brilliant. You might think that an all-boys school would not receive it so well, but actually, they’ve been our strongest advocates and the student feedback has been really positive. I think that’s really important to recognise. However, from my studies in UCC, was for the male students to hear first-hand, the female students’ lived experiences; what happens when they go out on a Saturday night, what they receive on their phones. The male students are agog, they’re shocked to hear what their friends are experiencing. I think that there is something very artificial about boys and girls, whether it’s in a workplace or third level, only interacting at 18. […] With that approach you have ingrained and embedded views, and it can allow toxic views to develop without as much capacity for those views to be challenged, not only in words but also by engaging with the other gender but to see how they live. So, from a learning perspective I think that mixed schools are far healthier, and from a social perspective they’re far healthier. Now let’s be honest. They’re also breeding grounds for sexual harassment, and I’ve spoken to teachers from mixed schools who are telling me about what happens up against the lockers or passing along the corridor, but that is just a reflection of society. I don’t think it’s enough reason for mixed schools not to exist. It creates a learning environment that allows these issues to be addressed and improved, so my view is that for healthier and more awareness, mixed schools are a better environment.
In the past few weeks, there has been an insatiable demand for Bystander programmes to be expanded for different environments such as workplaces and sports clubs. Could you talk about the scope to develop Bystander training in these contexts?
The principles and the learning of bystander are the same wherever it is taught. And it also extends beyond sexual harassment and violence to all forms of unacceptable behaviour whether it’s bullying, racism, homophobia, whatever the case may be. The key learnings are crucial for all workplaces, all organisations, all environments. So how do we respond to the appetite for learning? Obviously, the training on UCC was designed for the students, but equally people are taking the training externally, and really benefiting from it, and so the messages are still the same even if the scenarios are more student-focussed. I do think that there’s scope for a universal tool kit to be developed that could be available and adapted quite easily, depending on the environment, the context. It could be supplemented by workplace workshops, again, depending on the environment, because of that combination of online delivery and engagement. Those conversations will happen organically from people who have taken the training; they will want to talk about it with some sort of structured facilitated workshop because it is also important to progress the learning and to share the learning from a peer-based perspective.