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Moving from Bystander Apathy to Empowerment, with a special guest post by author Lisa Burstein

#SVYALit Project Index

When we talk about sexual violence and rape, we must talk about what is often called The Bystander Effect. The bystander effect is the phenomenon in which a person will know that a crime is occurring, and yet do nothing to intervene on behalf of the victim. For example, when a 15-year-old girl was brutally gang raped in California, more than 20 bystanders watched as this event occurred. None of them tried to stop the assault. None of them called the police. And we saw in Steubenville how teens shared video recorded evidence of the assault and still failed to get the police involved. Part of the recent RAINN recommendations to the White House on addressing the issue of sexual violence on college campuses involves bystander education:

1. Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence. (from RAINN)

Their goal is, and everyone’s goal should be, to educate others about what sexual violence is and what it can look like so that bystanders can be empowered to step in and say no, this is not consensual.  There is a brilliant scene that demonstrates this concept in THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE by Leila Sales. The scene is set in an underground club. A teenage girl has been drinking; in fact, she is so drunk that the guys who are “making out” with her are basically holding her up. Another teenage girl, if I am remembering correctly it was her friend, looks over and sees this happen. She walks over and tells these guys they need to stop. When they assert that no, she is a willing participant, the girl says flat out she is too drunk to consent. Imagine if more of spoke up when we saw things that didn’t look quite right.

As part of the Dear Teen Me project, author Lisa Burstein shares a heartbreaking story about the time that she was raped. And she has mentioned as part of this story that she had a friend in another room that was aware of what was happening. He was a bystander who chose to do nothing.  She is currently writing a book in which she talks about this experience from that friend’s point of view. Today, she is sharing a little bit about it with us.

Thinking About the Boy as a Bystander 

I’ve written before about my experience being raped by my ex-boyfriend when I was seventeen years old. You can see a post about that here. But this post is about something else. This is not about me, or the boy who raped me, this is about the boy who was a bystander.


The boy who saw what was happening right in front of him and left.

The boy I considered a friend who saw me being assaulted and chose to do nothing.
The boy who I knew understood something was wrong because he called me later to make sure I was okay.
The boy who made me wonder what he did with his guilt.
It’s a question you hope you’re never faced with. Or if you are faced with having to stop someone from being hurt you assume you’ll do the right thing. You’re positive you’ll step in and do whatever you can.
If you have a friend who you see needs help. You help, right?
Or is it more complicated than that when it involves sexual assault, especially when you are a guy? When maybe it seems easier to stay out of it, or ignore it. If you aren’t the one engaging in the assault than it isn’t your concern.
It made me wonder. Girls are taught they are allowed to say no. Boys are taught that no means no. But what are people taught when they see someone being assaulted?

I’ve thought about this a lot.
For years I’ve wondered how my friend felt after walking away from me that night.
What did he do with what must have been the gnawing feeling in his gut as he walked away? If he could go back would he have done things differently?

I’ve thought about it so much I decided to write a character based on him.

I’ve decided fictionally to give him a second chance.

Having turned him into a character and having to be in his shoes and write his thoughts, feelings and fears, I’ve come to see that maybe his actions weren’t all his fault. That just like me he was only seventeen.
That as confused as I felt about what was happening to me, he must have been similarly confused by what he saw. 
This was also twenty years ago.

I am not in high school or college anymore, but I’m encouraged that some of the education around sexual assault now includes what you should do as a bystander.
Now includes not being afraid to tell about what happened to you, or what you see.

We are all bystanders until we speak out.

— Lisa Burstein

About Again:
Her second chance at college
His second chance at redemption
Their first chance at love

At twenty-nine Kate’s life has finally hit the rock-bottom it’s been shuttling toward since she flunked out of college. Losing her job and her boss/boyfriend in one drunk black out of a night she sees her only solution as starting over where she made all her mistakes the first time. When alcohol and partying and boys took over her existence. Freshman year.

Pretending she’s a nineteen-year-old freshman again with a new roommate and full class schedule is easy, following her new self-imposed sober and celibate rules is proving to be anything but.

Especially when she meets her shy, sweet Resident Adviser Carter.

As a second-semester senior enduring a college career filled with regret for the actions of one night, Carter is more than ready to graduate and get the hell out. He can’t wait to leave school and try to start moving on from the night his freshman year when everything about him changed. The night he saw his frat brothers about to sexually assault a freshman girl and instead of helping her, he looked the other way and left. His guilt for his cowardice and everyone campus branding him as guilty in the assault has made for a lonely four years.

That is until he meets the new undergrad on his floor, spunky, confident Kate.
Their growing friendship and undeniable attraction makes it harder and harder to hide the demons from their pasts–the former-selves they are trying so desperately to keep from each other–but when their secrets are finally revealed will their chance still be there.
Lisa Burstein is a tea seller by day and a writer by night. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of Pretty Amy, The Next Forever, Dear Cassie and Sneaking Candy. As well as a contributor to the upcoming essay collection, Break These Rules: 35 YA Authors On Speaking Up, Standing Out, and Being Yourself. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her very patient husband, a neurotic dog and two cats.
Some Resources on Bystander Empowerment and Intervention:


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