The Bystander Moment

On October 28, the WGRC, Title IX Office, and the Athletics and Healthy Masculinity Initiative held a screening and discussion of Jackson Katz’s most recent documentary, The Bystander Moment. The film focuses on how our culture of unhealthy masculinity has contributed to the outrageous rates at which sexual assault occurs, both on and off college campuses. The attendees of this event were comprised mostly of student athletes, a group on college campuses that is often associated with harmful masculinity. But after watching the film and listening to the post-screening discussion, it seems that this trope of toxic masculinity in sports could very possibly be on its way out.

While the film was directed by Jeremy Earp, its content focused on the work of scholar and activist Jackson Katz. The first male-identifying WGSS minor at the University of Amherst, Katz has spent his career working to create a more gender-balanced conversation when it comes to issues like sexual assault and gendered violence. His belief is that sexual assault shouldn’t be discussed in terms of a binary, with men being the potential perpetrators and women being the likely victims. Instead, he proposes that everyone should be addressed as potential upstanders, whose awareness of damaging gender dynamics allows them to intervene and hopefully prevent violent behaviors before they happen. This was the model used in Katz’s MVP program, Mentors against Violence Prevention, which encourages student athletes to be leaders in healthy gender dynamics.

I keep using this term, gender dynamics, so let me clarify what I mean when I say they are often either healthy or toxic. Simply, gender dynamics are the ways in which the different genders interact with each other. But because these interactions are usually influenced by greater sociocultural ideas of what gender should be, our gender dynamics are often affected by inequitable and unequal power hierarchies, otherwise known as the patriarchy. Patriarchal systems put men above women, and the gender-binary (male or female) above gender-nonconforming people, thus creating a society with arbitrary and discriminatory gender dynamics. An example of these dynamics is the idea that in order to be perceived as masculine, men must be able to physically or emotionally dominate another person. By normalizing this association between masculinity and dominance, our society is making it easier for toxic gender dynamics to occur. These then contribute towards very harmful behaviors, such as sexual assault.

The connection between unsafe, socially acceptable gender dynamics and gendered violence is heavily emphasized in The Bystander Moment. Katz makes it very clear that we cannot stop rape from happening if we do not pinpoint the existing beliefs and behaviors that make people to do it. In other words, we must challenge the systematic processes and socialization engrained in rape culture in order to truly prevent assaults from occurring. This part of the film really struck me, because all too often rape and sexual assault are talked about as singular events, when in reality they are all connected by deeply rooted cultural beliefs. Of course, every assault is singular, in that it affects a specific individual, with no two people processing the trauma in the same exact way. But maybe if we can begin discussing sexual assault as a symptom of unhealthy social and gendered dynamics, then we could not only practice more effective prevention methods, but also help survivors and victims feel less alone in their experiences.

These messages of unhealthy masculinity really seemed to resonate with the people at the viewing, too. During the post-screening discussion, a couple of people discussed how until they had been made aware of it, they had no idea that they had been growing up in such an unhealthy culture of masculinity. This comment not only highlights how traits of toxic masculinity are deeply embedded in people’s experiences, but also points out that it isn’t common for them to be challenged in our daily lives. Confronting these beliefs requires intense critical thinking, which was another take away emphasized during the post discussion. The viewers were encouraged to take the information they had learned about in the film, and spread it to as many people as they could. They were also encouraged to continue thinking critically about the way in which their beliefs and actions are linked. It is incredibly common for people to adapt their behaviors to the crowd they are in, but when it comes to discussions and behaviors around sexual assault, people should hold strong to their values. While critical thinking and discussions surrounding gender may not seem like the most immediate or effective ways of stopping sexual assault, their long-term effects can help contribute to a more educated and equitable world. Because harmful tropes surrounding gender dynamics are so invisible sometimes, merely discussing how they can be damaging brings awareness to the issue and allows people to challenge them through constructive discourse.

As a volunteer for a local sexual assault hotline, I have seen lots of amazing work being done to help and advocate for people who have already been assaulted. But when it comes to prevention, the tactics that are commonly used don’t seem to be very effective. All too often, prevention work is aimed at potential victims, who are encouraged to practice self-awareness or self-preservation. In my opinion, these tactics can create intense anxiety around going out and being vulnerable with others by putting pressure on people, often women, to make sure they don’t get assaulted. That is why I found Katz’s main argument in The Bystander Moment so powerful. The film’s message completely threw out the idea that it is only the potential victims’ responsibility to prevent attacks. Instead, Katz encourages everyone to think about how they are a part of the overarching problem at hand, by asking them to reflect on the way unhealthy gender dynamics have shaped their beliefs. The use of broader, critical thinking seems like a much more effective way of ending rape culture than any methods aimed exclusively at potential victims. It is important that we all try to think critically about our gendered experiences, and how they might influence or contribute to rape culture.

Written by Maddy Smith ’21, WGRC student worker