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Male bystander intervention can help end sexual assaults, experts say

A promotional poster in the hallway of the CBC broadcast centre in Toronto for the CBC program Q featuring the show's host Jian Ghomeshi photographed Oct. 26. It has since been taken down.

Roger Hallett/The Globe and Mail

Allegations of assault against former CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi are highlighting the need for men to speak up when other men behave inappropriately.

One emerging program so far introduced at a handful of Canadian universities – developed over decades in the United States – helps men intervene in spite of social norms to stay silent and trains friends of women who have been assaulted on how to respond. As the number of allegations against Mr. Ghomeshi have risen, many women and some men have written articles on social media revealing that they had been warned about going on dates with Mr. Ghomeshi, but did not feel they were in a position to talk to him about it.

Getting men to step in is crucial, researchers say. That's where "bystander intervention" programs come in.

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"The whole point of the program is to get men who are not themselves abusive to play a role in changing the norms in male peer culture, and challenge and interrupt abusive behaviours by their peers," said Jackson Katz, who is the co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, who introduced the "bystander" approach to sexual assault as a way to put the focus on men's role in stopping it.

He likens silence by men on sexual assault or harassment as similar to white people not challenging racism by peers. "The core of the teaching is about responsibility and social responsibility … if you're a man and you are silent in the face of abusive behaviour, your silence is a form of consent and complicity, your silence is giving consent to that behaviour."

The University of Windsor has gone further than any other campus in Canada in adopting bystander training, introducing a for-credit semester course for peer counsellors who then deliver three-hour workshops to other students. Fifty per cent of spots in the course at Windsor are reserved for men. McGill University and St. Mary's have also included bystander training in their orientation and consent programs and McGill will introduce a longer-term program this winter.

Research on the impact of the program at Windsor by professors Charlene Senn and Anne Forrest, who led the initiative, has found that students who have taken the courses say they are more likely and feel better equipped to intervene when they encounter harassment or sexually inappropriate situations than those who have not participated. Similar findings from the University of New Hampshire, where a bystander-based program was developed over 20 years ago, have led to its adoption across American campuses.

"One of the key things in bystander education is to help people understand a continuum of inappropriate sexual behaviour. People imagine they are walking down the street and they imagine a man on top of a woman and that is so rare because stranger assault is so rare," Dr. Senn said.

Bystander intervention is also designed to help students know what to do when a friend says they have been assaulted.

Alicia Raimundo, a recent university graduate who speaks on mental health at campuses across the country echoed Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair who earlier this week had said the police will not pursue any of the women who have anonymously alleged they were violently assaulted by Mr. Ghomeshi. Friday night, police said they are investigating after two women contacted them. Mr. Ghomeshi has not been charged with any crime.

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Ms. Raimundo was surprised when a counsellor immediately asked her if she wants to go to the police after she spoke about her own sexual assault. "If you have a hard time telling one person, imagine explaining why your assault is real in front of 12 strangers. … People who weren't involved in the Ghomeshi case were angry, people get angry for you and tell you what you need but I think they need to allow the person to decide," Ms. Raimundo said.

That's where male peers can move from being bystanders to intervenors.

"There are subtle pressures on men to conform … men make a calculation not to say something because they know there are potential consequences, being seen as not one of the guys, being seen as getting into another guy's business," Dr. Katz said, adding that in the Ghomeshi case, the former Q host's power would be among the calculations of colleagues.

"We don't have to come up with new ideas on how to engage with this, we have to institutionalize the programs that work."

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More

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