Bystander Intervention Key to Ending Sexual Assault

This article is copied from Pitt News posted Tuesday, May 26, 2015 5:11 pm | Updated: 6:19 pm, Tue May 26, 2015.

The Pitt News Editorial BoardDecisions that Matter

What does sexual assault look like?

Does it have to be explicit physical contact, like groping, or can it be more subdued, like telling someone to smile? Last semester, a group of Carnegie Mellon University students developed “Decisions that Matter,” an interactive experience that illustrates forms of sexual assault likely to appear on college campuses. Unlike most other sexual assault educational initiatives, “Decisions that Matter” teaches the importance of bystander intervention over victim blaming — a step toward eradicating today’s rape culture.

This online graphic novel-style game hones in on a bystander’s responsibility in uncomfortable situations like catcalling or crude dancing at a party. The user approaches three difficult sexual assault scenarios and must decide whether or not to intervene. Focusing on bystander accountability, rather than solely the victim’s actions, helps to diffuse the destructive nature of victim blaming.

Most sexual assault education approaches focus on the victim — whether it’s nail polish that changes color when you put your finger into a drugged drink, rape whistles or programs that push victims to report their attackers post de-facto. “Decisions that Matter,” though, is a novel, educational tool because it places the onus of responsibility on everyone, not just the victim. 

 Stephanie Fawaz, a graduate student at CMU who helped design the interactive experience, said the creators understood the bystander role to be a position of potential power.

“When witnessing an incident of sexual assault, there are lots of actions that a bystander can take to try and disrupt what’s happening,” she said.

 Fawaz said the idea to focus on bystander intervention came from her team’s client, Jess Klein, coordinator of gender programs and sexual violence prevention at CMU. 

According to Klein, bystanders can help diffuse a situation by “speaking up and speaking out, [practicing] accountability [and] challenging someone’s entitlements.”

 Fawaz and Klein alike hope the interactive game will change our current victim-blaming culture. Through role-playing, users can practice empathy for victims, which will likely translate to sexual assault prevention.

While the game doesn’t perfectly mirror real life, it comes pretty close. The illustrations are depicted from the player’s point of view — you can see a red Solo cup in your hand and the other characters in the simulation address you, directly. The main characters, Natalie and Luke, use colloquial language and even swear, so the game doesn’t come off as forced or unrealistic. Most importantly, though, the simulation gives you a limited amount of time to make important decisions about whether or not to intervene in a sexual assault scenario, mirroring the snap decisions we all must make in the real world.

 The reaction to the simulation has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Fawaz. 

Whether the person going through the experience succeeds or fails to prevent the assault, “people seem to really start thinking critically about the choices they were making and reflect on what they think they should do when this happens to them in real life,” Fawaz said.

 Currently, the design team is speaking with outlets like Schell Games and entering the game into competitions and festivals in hopes of creating a more mainstream educational application. With a dearth of productive sexual assault education materials, Fawaz hopes that “Decisions that Matter” will help people “grasp the issue and [its] implications … better.”

 By creating an engaging platform for college students to learn about bystander responsibility and sexual assault prevention, Fawaz and company are spreading awareness. Even if the simulation only helps one person get out of an uncomfortable situation, it’s still a net-positive.

 While we hope that you are never in a situation where you or someone around you experiences sexual assault, it’s better to be prepared — to know what sexual assault looks like. Try out “Decisions that Matter” and join the movement to end sexual assault on college campuses.

Check out “Decisions that Matter” by clicking here.