Bringing in the Bystander: Youth Bystander Representations and Sexual Assault Prevention Education

Sarah Whitney1
1Penn State University, Erie, United States

In American higher education sexual assault prevention programs, a paradigm shift from risk-reduction to bystander education is underway.  Galvanized by the Obama administration’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter admonishing higher educations to prioritize ending gender discrimination and applying Title IX legislation, universities are changing the way students are taught about sexual assault.  Training programs now emphasize the active intervention of the bystander into the potential victim/perpetrator dyad. While the term “bystander” might simply seem synonymous with “witness” or “observer,” in the language of sexual assault prevention it takes on additional meaning, depicting someone who is empowered to disrupt a violent scenario.   Within young adult literature (YA), a growing corpus of bystander novels similarly contend that teenagers who witness sexual assault can make pro-social choices to stop violence.  This project analyzes fictional youth bystanders, focusing upon works based upon real-life American criminal cases.  One, drawn from the Glen Ridge rape case in which a girl with disabilities was subject to group sexual assault, traces the consequences of ineffective (silent) bystanders.  The second, inspired by the Steubenville high school case, in which a group sexual assault was shared widely on social media, features a bystander empowered to seek justice even at her own social cost.  I consider the applied value in including bystander novels in training curricula, arguing they can create empathy, identify scripts within rape culture, and provide pathways and encouragement for young adults to intervene in anti-sexual violence work.

Sarah Whitney is a faculty member in Women’s Studies and English at Penn State University, Erie (The Behrend College).  Her research investigates how women and girls use narrative to depict the trauma of sexual violence.   Her recent book is Splattered Ink: Postfeminist Gothic Fiction and Gendered Violence (University of Illinois, 2016).  Her current book manuscript explores how young adult literature (YA) depicts rape.  Her favorite courses to teach are her criminology seminar, Sexual and Domestic Violence, and her freshman course in Fashion, Gender and Identity.



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