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Column: Combating sexual assault with bystander intervention

October 3, 2019
<p>A woman wears a teal ribbon during a Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 13, 2019 at the Hannah Administration Building. </p>

A woman wears a teal ribbon during a Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 13, 2019 at the Hannah Administration Building.

Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

My little sister Molly was sexually harassed in front of hundreds of people and no one did a thing.

Molly was at PRIME music festival in Lansing, so bystanders weren’t seeing anything out of the ordinary. She was wearing a top with buckle straps and two men kept unbuckling them. She would fix the buckles and try to walk away, but they persisted so she left the festival.

My friend Gabby went to the concert as well and was also harassed. I asked her if she knew what happened to Molly. She didn’t, but said at one point, a man reached up her skirt and when she turned around she couldn’t tell who did it. For all she knew, he was still standing right behind her.

Molly went to bed pretty early that night. She was clearly stressed out about what happened and curled up on a chair in my living room with a friend’s dog that was staying for the weekend. When she woke up the next day, I asked her if anything else happened and she said no, but she did say a man tried to get her to take a piece of his gum and it “definitely wasn’t gum.”

This is terrifying. I’m not a “what if” person, but the thought of what would have happened if she took whatever he was trying to give her is chilling. 

In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation released the findings of their study about the most dangerous nations in the world for women. The United States ranked 10th, the only developed nation on the list. 

If you’re not a fan of analytics, the president of the United States told us he likes to grope women without consent and that wasn’t a disqualifying factor for half of the nation.

There are a lot of big picture things that need to change. More than a quarter of Congress needs to be made up of women. The scary low conviction rate for sex crimes needs to be addressed. Groping strangers cannot remain socially acceptable.

But these things take generations to change. I have two other sisters who are 14 and 16 years old, who could very well be on this campus subjected to the same behavior as Molly was within the next few years. We need to be better now.

Altering our bystander behavior is the fastest thing we can all do. Research shows that individuals are less likely to act during critical situations if there are a lot of people around. Everyone assumes someone else will do something, and if no one else does something, then nothing wrong must be happening after all. 

This line of thinking has enabled men to abuse women in public for generations. Even with movements like #MeToo, things are barely improving.

It isn’t hard to see when someone is being made uncomfortable in a crowd. If you see a woman pushing a man away, assume something is wrong. 

Subtle abuse should be called out too. Gabby told me one of the worst things about being at a crowded party is how many guys put their hand on her hip when they walk by. This isn’t harmless, it’s common. The two are often confused. 

There isn’t another PRIME music festival until next year, but there will be hundreds of parties on campus this year providing a very similar environment. Here are a couple things you can do as a bystander:

Approach the woman being harassed and pretend like you know her. Tell her a friend is looking for her or just point somewhere if it’s loud. If she’s in a dangerous situation, she might use that as an excuse to get out of it. Chances are, the abuser doesn’t follow her. The problem with this approach is it leaves him with the chance of doing the same thing to someone else.

You can also approach the situation directly. If the perpetrator is physically intimidating, grab a friend or get the attention of someone near you. Explain what you saw and I’m sure they’d be willing to help. Almost everyone wants to aid someone in danger, but no one wants to assume the responsibility of being the first person to take action.

Approach them and ask if she’s alright. Be careful not to come off as aggressive, you don’t want to escalate the situation to the point of 

becoming violent. This is another reason why it’s good to be in a group. He isn’t likely to fight multiple people. Even if the guy is there with friends, defending their buddy because he was violating someone probably isn’t the hill they want to die on.

Now is an appropriate time to mention that, as a male, I don’t know what I’m talking about. There’s a difference between understanding that something happens and personally knowing what it feels like.

So please, leave the tips for what bystanders should know and look out for that I missed in the comments. Better yet, write a letter to our editor.

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When it comes to sexual misconduct in the Greater Lansing community, women have been let down by too many people to count. The courts aren’t going to stop giving sweetheart deals to privileged men. Abusers are going to continue to take advantage of environments that are accepting of their atrocious behavior.

Help isn’t coming. This is on us to look out for one another, to condemn this behavior and stop it.


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