Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Are You Talking to Me? What We Know about Men and Bystander Intervention

by Patrick McGann
Director of Strategy and Planning

In the cramped confines of a flight to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee, Patrick Lemmon and I spent most of our time brainstorming. It was 2000 and my first out-of-town trip for the Men’s Rape Prevention Project, now know as Men Can Stop Rape. Patrick would be speaking during Tennessee’s Take Back the Night, and then the both of us would conduct a workshop for men immediately after the event. In those days, we were advocating bystander intervention before we knew it was called bystander intervention. It wasn’t until later that we learned what we were doing.

Before we left, we had been revising and developing our training manual, and Patrick wanted to use the time on the plane to continue working on it by coming up with reasons why men don’t speak up when other men behave in sexist and potentially sexually violent ways. We wanted to personalize the reasons, so they were all first person, and the list was long. I managed to track down the list on our server and will only present half of it:

I don’t rape so it’s not my problem * They’ll think I’m gay * My friends will laugh at me * No one will agree with me * I’ll get my ass kicked * I’ll lose my “manhood club” card * It’s not my responsibility * I’m not into that touchy-feely stuff * People will know I’m gay * The jokes are funny * Women choose to be in Playboy * None of my friends do it * Maybe she just needed to get laid * I don’t know what to say * What can one guy do? * Maybe she asked for it * Look what she was wearing * It won’t make any difference anyway * I don’t know the person * I’m no activist * That’s women’s work * What’s the big deal * I’m too drunk * They’re just words * Can’t she take a joke? * It’s okay if women don’t hear it * It’s just guy talk * Women do it too * I’m just minding my own business * It’ll piss my friend off * I’d be confronting people all the time * It’s how THEY talk, not me * There’s only one of me and a bunch of them * He didn’t mean it that way * He’ll think I’m being racist * I did it once and it didn’t go well * Why do I always have to be the one? * I’ll get fired * It’ll piss her off * It’s a compliment * I do that, say that, feel that, and believe that, too.

We don’t use the list any longer, but I wanted to share it because it suggests the complicated and myriad ways that men react to and resist opportunities for intervention. Recent research suggests that men’s resistance is stronger than women’s. We are starting to know from studies like Sarah McMahon, Judy Postmus, and Ruth Anne Koenick’s (2011) that compared to college age males, college age females have more positive bystander attitudes and behaviors. The researchers claim that gender “is a salient factor….” Vicki Banyard, Mary Moynihan, and Elizabeth Plante (2007) come to a similar conclusion and call for more studies to investigate whether bystander intervention education may be different for men and women. Sarah McMahon and Alexandria Dick (2011) also comment on how men are less likely to intervene and attribute it to the social norms of hegemonic masculinity, characterized by “heterosexuality, strength, and sexual prowess.” The pressure to “do masculinity” is especially present in certain group contexts where hegemonic norms dominate. Therefore, men are concerned about how other men will see them and treat them if they speak out against those norms, and this is a significant inhibiting factor.

I bring up this difference between men and women because it indicates that we shouldn’t overlook gender in relation to bystander intervention. If we want men to speak up and talk to others when they have the opportunity to intervene, we first have to listen to them when developing our trainings and programs. Then, on the basis of what we hear, we have to make sure that we are talking to them – or in the words of Men Can Stop Rape, that we’re meeting them where they are. And the research suggests we can’t do this without addressing masculinity.

Patrick McGann, Ph.D. has been involved with Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) since the organization’s inception in 1997. Patrick co-authored a sexual assault prevention strategy for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and oversaw the development of the HURTS ONE. AFFECTS ALL. public education campaign for DoD. He regularly gives presentations across the country on engaging men in the prevention of gender-based violence.


Banyard, V.L., Moynihan, M. M., & Plante, E. G. (2007). Sexual violence prevention through bystander education: An experimental evaluation. Journal of Community Psychology, 35 (4), 463-481.

McMahon, S. and A. Dick. (2011). “Being in a room of like-minded men”: An exploratory study of men’s participation in a bystander intervention program to prevent intimate partner violence. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 19 (1), 3-18.

McMahon, S., J. L. Postmus, and R. A. Koenick. (2011). Conceptualizing the engaging bystander approach to sexual violence prevention on college campuses. Journal of College Student Development, 52 (1), 115-130. Share

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