Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is "My Strength" a Bystander Intervention Campaign?

by Patrick McGann
Director of Strategy and Planning

[I've been in all day trainings and at a photo shoot this week, so I didn't have time to write the next part of "How I Came to Work at Men Can Stop Rape." I'll continue that next week. This week I'm using a blog I wrote a month or two back to have ready for a situation like this.]

For some time now, I’ve identified our “My Strength Is Not for Hurting” campaign as primarily consent focused rather than bystander intervention focused. The campaign language primarily represents two people in a relationship. Examples include: “So when she changed her mind, I stopped,” “So when I got mixed signals, I asked what she wanted,” and “So when she was drunk, I backed off.” Both people are inside the experience. They’re participants. No bystander would be part of the scenarios according to the definition of bystander: “a person present but not involved; chance spectator; onlooker.”

But Sarah McMahon, Judy Postmus, and Ruth Anne Koenick (2011) present a different view. They update the Bystander Attitude Scale and Bystander Behavior Scale and rename BI the “engaging bystander approach” (EBA) to stress that a bystander can take action. Some of the EBA interventions in their scale fit my understanding of what it means to be a bystander: “Check in with my friend who looks drunk when s/he goes to a room with someone else at a party,” and “Challenge a friend who made a sexist joke,” for instance. But some don’t. Some are very similar to the consent messages in the My Strength campaign: “Stop sexual activity when asked to, even if I am already sexually aroused,” and “Decide not to have sex with a partner if s/he is drunk.”

Overall, I find McMahon, Postmus, and Koenick’s study very helpful – especially their framing of EBA and the Bystander Attitude Scale in relation to what they term the sexual violence continuum. But I also find their article confusing. Who is the bystander in “Decide not to have sex with a partner if s/he is drunk”? Is the suggestion that the person making the decision is the onlooker? Is this onlooker intervening by deciding not to have sex with her/his drunken partner? If s/he doesn’t intervene, does that mean s/he sexually assaults her/his drunken partner? What if we apply this understanding to another situation? Melanie Carlson (2008) writes about the gang rape of an unconscious 15-year-old girl by four males with six other males present. Would we claim that all 10 are bystanders or just the six? Are the lines being blurred between perpetrators and bystanders?

When we go to a college to conduct trainings, one of our goals is to help everyone – students, peer educators, RAs, faculty, campus police, administrators, and so on – get on the same page when it comes to engaging men in the prevention of sexual violence on campus. I’d like to get on the same page with McMahon, Postmus, and Koenick – especially because I respect their work so much.



Bystander. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved May 5, 2011, from Web site:

Carlson, M. (2008). I'd rather go along and be considered a man: Masculinity and bystander intervention. Journal of Men’s Studies, 16 (1), 3-17.

McMahon, S., Postmus J.L., and Koenick, R.A. (2011). Conceptualizing the engaging bystander approach to sexual violence prevention on college campuses. Journal of College Student Development, 52 (1), 115-130.
Patrick McGann, Ph.D. has been involved with Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) since the organization’s inception in 1997. As Director of Strategy and Planning, Patrick co-authored a sexual assault prevention strategy for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in 2008 and oversaw the development of the HURTS ONE. AFFECTS ALL. public education campaign for DoD in 2010. He regularly gives presentations across the country on engaging men in the prevention of gender-based violence Share

1 comment:

  1. The EBA approach sounds pretty motivating but I agree that it is vague in terms of identifying perpetrators and bystanders.