Sexual Assault Research Examines Relationship Between Victims And Bystanders
Research by a Penn State Ph.D. candidate is taking a novel approach to sexual assault — looking at the relationship between assaults and bystanders through the eyes of victims to better understand how bystander intervention plays a role in the problem facing our society today.
Christy Beck is a licensed therapist and runs Beck Psychotherapy in downtown State College. Most of the literature on bystander intervention focuses on people around the assault, but not the victims themselves, Beck explained.
“For me, it was ‘who better to inform bystander intervention than the people who have been through it,'” she said.
Starting early last fall, Beck interviewed 10 female students — all victims of sexual assault while at Penn State. The study included a range of cases, from inappropriate touching to rape. The participants included students from all grade levels.
“I didn’t ask about the assault itself, but most did talk about it,” Beck said. “I don’t want to speak for the participants, but I think it was empowering for them to talk about it.”
Beck focused on the relationship between victims and bystanders before, during, and after their assault. Many bystanders are hesitant to intervene and Beck said it’s a common problem — believing someone else will take responsibility and help or not knowing what to do. What she found, though, is victims in these situations want people to intervene.
“Every single person I talked to said, ‘Yes, I would’ve wanted someone to help.’ It doesn’t have to be dramatic,” Beck said. “Just a small, ‘Hey, is everything okay?’”
When those bystanders are also friends, the expectations are higher and the effects can be drastic. Beck said some women in her study reported significant fallouts with friends who could’ve intervened but didn’t. This became a “second layer” of the sexual assault that Beck discovered: the effects of assault on a victim’s relationships.
Known bystanders’ actions at the time of the assault are crucial. Almost as important is how friends handle being told about the assault.
“When your friend discloses this to you, it’s really important to believe them,” Beck said. “It doesn’t take away the experience, but it helps. If they tried to blame them or make excuses for the perpetrator, [victims] felt betrayed.”
“It’s a highly underreported crime. Most of the women [in this study] didn’t report their assault,” Beck said. She added the women worried they wouldn’t be believed and didn’t want to be “dragged through the coals” trying to prove their cases.
Beck said bystander intervention isn’t meant to take responsibility away from perpetrators. Rather, it’s to raise awareness in the general community to move away from an acceptance of rape culture.
Penn State reported 81 sexual assaults through its Timely Warning system from Feb. 3, 2015 to today. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics using data from colleges between 1995 and 2013 found 80 percent of college sexual assaults go unreported. If those numbers are true, the real number of assaults at Penn State would be about 405 in three years.
Beck doesn’t know how to fix the issue from a systemic position, but felt the women in her study were really wanting to be part of making it better. Beck believes the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are gaining momentum, and hopes they’ll positively impact colleges campuses, as well.
“From catcalling all the way up to assault, there’s stuff we have to deal with every day.”