Bystander Intervention Workshop
It is my personal desire to tangle work and play so completely that the things which I do for fun or inspiration are the things which are my vocation. So when my lover Abigail came to visit before New Years, I asked her if she was willing to do a workshop on Bystander Intervention at Twin Oaks and at the newly formed income sharing community in Richmond, Quercus. Abigail agreed to the workshops, not knowing what she was getting herself into.
Abigail does interactive theater. This means, among other things, that she creates workshops with role plays of problematic scenarios where participants are given the opportunity to practice intervening in the scenes and experience how they work. By practicing interventions, and receiving real time feedback about what works and what doesn’t, participants get the lived experience of stepping in as a bystander, and are more likely to actually intervene the next time they are faced with a situation where someone is potentially being harmed.
Bystander intervention is the idea that it is not enough to chat about how to create healthy and safe culture. When you see someone oppressing or threatening someone else, you have to do something about it.
The problem is, unlike physics or history classes, bystander intervention almost never has one right answer. Those willing to stand up to bad behavior have to evaluate the losses and gains associated with various strategies. It is never all gains.
I learned the three general strategies for addressing situations where a bystander should intervene. These are called the “3 Ds” and were originally outlined by Dorothy Edwards, Executive Director of Green Dot:
- Direct Intervention
Direct Intervention is where you take on the oppression straight on. There are lots of different ways to do this. In one role play, a guy at a party was trying to have sex with a gal who was intoxicated. He knew she did not like him sober, but was hoping “she would be frisky when she was drunk.” Ash from Quercus intervened by asking him if it would not be better for him to look for someone who really wanted to have sex with him. A question so obvious it was completely disarming.
Some of the most powerful interventions of the workshops were shocking. In a role play where people were betting on the gender of a new barista, Jillian intervened by asking the perpetrator, “Do you have a penis in those pants? You want to show us?” The shocked perp wanted to know why she was asking. She calmly replied, “You were so interested in what was happening in the barista’s pants, that I was curious about yours.”
Hawina, in the workshop done at Twin Oaks, did the slut shamers one better. After they had spoken briefly about how terrible one woman was who had been involved in multiple romantic interactions, Hawina stepped into the role play and said, “Yeah, well, it says in the Bible that whores should be stoned to death!” When the shocked slut shamers said this might go too far, Hawina replied that they seemed to be completely on board with the belief that women who were ‘too sexual’ ought to be shamed and punished. It was another brilliant and disarming example of a comment that made the perpetrators re-evaluate their own behavior.
Perhaps appropriately, during the workshop in Richmond, I actually had to do an intervention. There was a transient person who was hanging out at Quercus who was extremely drunk. His name was Glib. It was clear from even before the workshop that Glib was in no state to be a workshop participant and would be interrupting the event if we did not discuss his involvement. He was quiet for the first few moments of the workshop and then started his non-stop talking. I asked him to step outside with me and chat. It was not an easy conversation. He was occasionally defensive, he resented being singled out and being talked to. At moments our talk got heated, but we did agree in the end that if he could respect that people were there to attend the workshop and not listen to him, then he could participate. Mostly he stayed out of the event, but for the last 20 minutes or so, he attended and was respectful of what was happening.
Distraction has many forms. Often it is fast and simple. The intoxicated gal who the creepy guy was trying to seduce was rescued by one bystander who came in and said “It is time to go,” grabbed her hand and pulled her away. This is classic distraction. The perp is left without the person they are coming on to. It interrupts the problematic behavior, but not by directly confronting it.
The advantage of this format often is that there is fairly little risk, unless the target of the abuse does not cooperate (or desire the intervention). The intervener said that she has done this before with people she does not know. The danger here is if there is some interest on the part of the target in the perpetrator, you can end up in a tug of war with the perp.
Unlike direct intervention, distraction often leaves the perp without any strong message that their behavior was problematic. There is no “educational moment.”. And here the trade off can be, “Do I get my friend out of this jam?” versus “Do I try to take care of my community which has this problematic person in it currently?” Again, there are more trade offs. Getting your friend away may be all you feel like you have energy for. If you are in a bar or other public setting, it can be quite difficult to confront the perp in any meaningful way that takes care of others. And the risk of direct confrontation goes way up when you are sticking around to discuss or negotiate with the prospective assailant.
Delegation is the final tool and perhaps the hardest one to use in these anarchist identified communities.
During the role play of the drunk person at a party, someone jumped into the action and said, “I am her brother” (referring to the intoxicated woman). This was a lie, but it still might be an effective technique. Other possible persons for delegation are hosts of the party, or friends of the guest who is a possible threat. Just because you could confront someone, does not mean you should, and there are often more effective people to confront them.
One problem with delegation is that it disempowers the prospective victim. In the role play, when this technique was used, the target person did not feel comfortable having to depend on some external man to take care of her. Contacting the police may raise similar issues. Many communities are reluctant to call the police on their own membership, especially for minor violations. (That said, none of the communities I work with take the rights of survivors away, so the survivors can always choose to bring in law enforcement if they think this is best.) Adding to the complications of this work, you may not easily find a solution which works for all parties.
Both workshops went well, despite one needing an intervention. The role plays were entertaining, informative and got at key issues both times they were offered. What we found over the 90 minutes of discussion and theater was that people got more animated and daring as the problems became more deeply examined. And daring is definitely what is needed.