Dear Engaged Bystander: For more than a year, I have focused this bystander blog on preventing sexual violence. As I complete this last blog entry, I hope to offer an equally compelling argument for us to extend bystander intervention AFTER the abuse has been perpetrated.
When someone discloses sexual abuse, the people around them often respond in fear and in anger. If it is their child, family or friend who is victimized, that anger can turn to rage. If we read or hear about the trauma but we don’t know the victim, then our response may be to isolate ourselves from the people and the pain with the singular thought of “keeping myself, my child, my friends, my family safe”.
How do fear, anger and rage help us listen to what a victim needs? How does our rage help us do whatever is necessary to keep the victim safe? (I do recognize that it does help to create public policy…) Although the anger and rage may feel right, are they really helpful in our attempts to hold someone accountable for their actions? It is hard to be truly vigilant when we are enraged. And the isolation created by “keeping myself, my family and my child safe” may be our first instinctive response, but we can’t stop there. If we do, listen to the rest of the sentence: “I don’t care as much about YOUR child, or your friend, as long as mine is safe...” It sends the message that we were powerless to prevent the abuse and equally powerless to stop any future abuse. That is NOT a message I want to send to anyone.
During one of my workshops, a leader in the tribal community compassionately said to me, “The problem with you white people is that you would cut off your head if you could do get rid of a headache. You can’t do that with headaches and you can’t do that with sex offenders. They are a part of our community.” I will never forget these words and I still struggle in a good way with how to apply them in my own communities.
I KNOW that our first response must always protect the victim. But if we stop there, it is clearly not enough. Like a stone that is thrown into a pond, we need to follow the ripples outward. We need to take a systemic look at a situation which means that we need to not only protect the victim, but we also need to ensure that each victim has the resources to heal.
Following the ripples outward, we need to hold the abuser accountable for his or her actions AND we need ensure that when he or she returns to the community has the resources to integrate safely back into that community. This has been a huge failure in our society, especially when the person who abuses is a child or adolescent. But to ensure safety for the victim, the abuser and the community we need to understand the risk factors and protective factors of those who abuse and how to create effective safety plans for abusers, families, institutions and communities. How many of us have taken the time to understand those who abuse – especially the children and teens who abuse? I believe that it is through this understanding that we can learn how to protect those we love. If you have not looked at the research or talked with someone who works with sex offenders, then consider taking on that responsibility.
Where to find it? Some great places to begin are the NSVRC fact sheet , the Center for Sex Offender Management and the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.  I also co-write through NEARI Press a monthly fact sheet about adolescents who are sexually abusive that highlights the most current research .
Continuing to follow the ripples outwards, we, as bystanders, need to look at our responsibilities to help our communities heal. I have heard so many stories where people who do something, even just acknowledge a survivor’s experience 40 years later can have a huge impact on healing. Unfortunately, there are very few models and resources for community healing and this is critical to our movement. If we can imagine and safely implement a variety of responses to sexual abuse that range from prison to lifetime probation to returning safely into job, home and community we will empower the community to keep ourselves and our community safe. We are not helpless in the face of sexual violence. But to do this, we need to have a VERY different response to:
We also need to be sure that our response is both immediate and long term. To me, this is the role that bystanders need to take on. We feel the impact and can affect change for years after the abuse is perpetrated. We are not helpless in the face of sexual violence and we need to stay involved from the point of prevention, through a disclosure of sexual abuse to a place of healing in the community. There are a few models of this kind of accountability and safety in the community, but they do exist. If you have not yet read about Circles of Support and Accountability or the incredible response of the First Nation of Canada in Hollow Water , please take the time to read about these.
I know you know this, but if we accept the fact that we all are affected by a sexual assault then we also need to take on the responsibility of finding a path of safety for everyone in the community. If we, as bystanders, stay connected to the victim, the abuser and everyone in their families and circles of friends then ALL of us are safer.
With this blog ending, please take the time, today, this week to try to challenge yourself to be a more active bystander. It might mean reading some of these resources or choosing to offer help to someone at the supermarket checkout line. Robert Kennedy said “Few of us have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events and in the total of all those acts, will be written the history of our generation."
I will miss writing this blog and the chance to interact so please keep in touch . And with the works of Bobby Kennedy in mind, I know that together, we will make our homes, communities and society a safer place for those we love.
PS Thanks to Becky Palmer, a friend and colleague who offered some fabulous ideas for this blog and always wonderful conversation. Becky works with both survivors and offenders at Alternative Behavior Treatment Centers and is on the Board of Directors of ATSA .