Is Building Better Bystanders the Solution?

In response to sexual assaults that have occurred over the past few years, the US military has placed a significant emphasis on “bystander intervention.”  As an example, the very recent leadership memorandum from the US Air Force on sexual assault addressed only a single audience:

We must be united in our commitment to intervene when we see the potential for harm, to act affirmatively when we observe tolerance of sexist behavior and attitudes, and to provide victim care…

In other words, the Air Force focused solely on third parties to sexual assault, never once addressing victims or perpetrators.  There is some validity to that perspective, as the vast majority of the Air Force is neither a victim nor perpetrator of sexual assault.  Still, attempting to base an entire program of crime prevention on observers, rather than those actually involved in the crime, seems to be missing a key component.

The basic premise is that sexual assaults would be less likely to occur if someone (else) intervened early on. As many of these incidents involve alcohol, the idea is that a more-sober friend is able to protect a more-inebriated potential victim.

An Ohio University professor was recently quoted discussing the same concept as applied to the culture of drinking in college. Responding to OU’s Thomas Vander Ven, the FRC’s Julia Kiewit says

No amount of “better bystanders” will instill the necessary virtue into individuals that enables them to make confident decisions and stand up to any societal pressure. This is a kind of moral courage that comes from formation that happens, among other places, in the family.

While the topic is different than that of the military (if only slightly, since drinking remains one of the key contributors to sexual assault), the point is certainly valid.

The military’s focus on bystander intervention seems to be a tacit admission that most sexual assaults in the military start in a “friendly” environment, rather than some macabre, random back alley assault.  In fact, the Air Force memo explicitly states “most” sexual assaults in the Air Force were perpetrated by Airmen.  If that’s the case, the Air Force has the ability to directly influence the behavior of both the perpetrator and the victim in “most” cases.  Thus, the FRC point provokes an interesting question:  Where is the military’s focus on the virtues and moral courage of individuals to make the right choices?

After all, a proactive approach that avoids a situation is far more productive than a reactive one that attempts to overcome it.