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Bystander Intervention: How You Can Prevent a Sexual Assault

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This post was co-authored with Caroline Heres and Julie Gelb.

The night that changed my life started out as nothing out of the ordinary. I attended a party with a few girlfriends, danced around in a room full of people and later hung out with a few fraternity boys. Each person I crossed paths with that night was an actor in the situation. Each one was either the rapist or the passive bystander. I took on the role as the victim due to the actions of my rapist, but also in part due to the lack of empowerment and intervention by the bystanders.

My name is Jackie, and I attend Syracuse University along with my two friends, Caroline and Julie, and roughly 15,000 other undergraduates - 56 percent of which are women. If we use the current statistic that 1 in 4 women will be victims of sexual assault during their collegiate experience, more than 2,000 women will be victimized before they receive their diploma at SU. That's nearly 2,000 lives that could have been saved from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and over 2,000 rapes that could have been prevented if someone had intervened - including ours.

College rape has recently gained national media attention as a result of the White House Task Force for violating Title IX regulations at many American universities. Administrations aside, it's just as important for us as students to address this issue as well.

Part of our mission for The Girl Code Movement is to end the passivity of bystanders in suspicious situations in common college settings. If everyone speaks up in these moments, fewer cases of sexual violence will occur. As a bystander you have two options when you suspect a potentially harmful situation. You can either do nothing, or you can stop it from happening. At the time of our assaults, there were witnesses before the rapes took place -- witnesses that could have stepped in to make sure we were okay, that we were consenting to the actions put upon us.

In general, students are unlikely to step in during a potentially dangerous situation, usually because of the fear of misreading what could be a red flag. Studies have shown that in large group settings, like that of a college party, people feel less obligated to take action when they notice something suspicious since their responsibility is diffused among multiple bystanders.

Being an empowered bystander starts with identifying an at-risk woman. This woman could be a random girl at a party, or she could be your best friend showing signs of an abusive relationship. While we oftentimes want to think that rapists are strangers, we tend to forget that rape is rarely initiated by someone you don't know and is almost always brought on by an acquaintance, friend, or even a boyfriend.

It's imperative to know when to step into a seemingly dangerous situation. If you see a guy feeding drinks to a girl who is in no condition to drink any more, or if you see him persistently approaching her even though she is clearly not interested - these could be warning signs that it's time to say something. Even something as seemingly innocent as not hearing from a friend for an uncharacteristically long time during a night out, could be a red flag.

It's also important to know how to intervene. You can explain your concern to the guy and girl, redirect a person's focus in order to separate them, or tell her she must accompany you to the bar or the bathroom. Bump into the pair "accidentally" by spilling your drink to separate the two. If a situation becomes aggressive or violent, call the police. Even outside of a party environment, if a friend shows signs of physical abuse or restraint, it's imperative to address it with her. As a bystander, if you find yourself questioning a situation, take action; there's no harm in being wrong. You should never assume, and always trust your instinct.

College rape is a community issue that all students must address, and while we are just three girls trying to make a difference, it will take students from across the nation to change the prevalence of rape on their own campuses and to lower the current statistics.

Being an empowered bystander is one way to begin to change the numbers. It could mean positively impacting the course of someone's life. Unfortunately, sexual assault and rape can and does happen. Fortunately, every individual has the capability to change the statistics if they just step in.

Disclaimer: This blog post is not a reflection of Syracuse University and their handling of our rapes while on campus.