Doing Your Bit

When you have vulnerable people being harassed, what can you do? And I mean you. I have written a lot recently on my blog about the importance of bystanders. To learn more, I attended a recent training session regarding Bystander Interventions run under the auspices of the University of Cambridge’s Breaking the Silence Campaign. The University launched this in 2017. Amongst other things it allows for anonymous reporting so that the university can monitor the scale of the problem. There are some telling statistics, one of the most startling of the ones we were told about was, that of 276 students reporting sexual harassment, only 6 did not know the perpetrator. Stranger-rape is not the common feature of life on campus that people may imagine; damage is most likely to be done by someone in your friendship or academic group, or a staff member with whom you are interacting. Those are not comfortable facts. Nor is the fact that stalking – in person or online – is most likely to be carried out by an ex-partner. Strangers are not the evil we should be worrying about. Friends, colleagues and even teachers are, at least within a university setting.

The training covered not only legal and practical aspects (including links to resources), but also took us through some plausible scenarios using various video clips. One of these was particularly dramatic, showing all the opportunities for interventions by onlookers which were missed, followed by the script ‘rewritten’ to show how a ‘happier’ outcome for the young female victim might have been facilitated. Many of the attendees at this session will go on to role play around scenarios. However, an old fogey such as myself might be seen as a dampener on openness or disclosure to students 40 years my junior, and so I will not participate myself in these subsequent sessions. Nevertheless Churchill’s Senior Tutor, who was also present,  and myself will be bigging up the importance of this programme within the College and beyond.

There is absolutely no doubt role-plays are a crucial part of gaining confidence for how to deal with what may be tricky and distressing situations. For feeling ‘empowered’, as was stated during the training. Although the only role-play I have done in any formal training in the university was too brief and superficial to be helpful, many years ago when in the States I trained as a suicide counsellor. During that training we were given various opportunities to role play, both as ‘victim’ and as ‘helper’. All this time later I can still remember the power of these activities. When asked to imagine myself as contemplating suicide and identifying how I might carry it out, I was deeply disturbed immediately to imagine myself jumping off a (specific) bridge in Cambridge into the Cam. In actual fact I suspect, unless the toxic waters of the river killed me, the jump was from such a low height that it would have been unlikely to be a very successful attempt, but the solidity of that vision, at a time when I had already been away from Cambridge for two years and had never had suicidal thoughts as a student anyhow, was fairly terrifying.

Less immediately specifically memorable were the role plays to work out how to assist others in their own troubles; how not to ask closed or leading questions (though this turned out to be a useful skill for later life when interviewing students, postdocs or other staff), nor to attempt to solve their problems as a psychotherapist would, but simply to empathise, validate feelings, get the individual to a safe place with appropriate support and identify what resources might be available and useful to them. However, when putting myself into a victim’s place again I was horrified to find when describing a troubling situation to a fellow trainee, that I was rocking backwards and forwards, a common tendency in the distressed. Again I recall this with disturbing clarity.

The power of role-playing is real, the confidence conferred by practicing different ways of tackling challenging situations when in a safe place, be it around suicide or harassment, is crucial to enable one to be a good supporter. Like media training in its very different place, being made to articulate possibly less-than-articulate thoughts on the spur of the moment is a valuable skill; having the confidence to get involved in fraught situations reasonably sure that you can improve or defuse them is indeed empowering. Practicing strategies before one needs to put them into action is extremely helpful.

In my own case the training still didn’t give me sufficient strength to deal with the role of suicide counsellor. Back in the US 40 years ago I was put in a situation where I had to handle phone calls alone, with no colleague to download to at once. The Samaritans, at the same time in the UK, had already moved on to ensuring there was always a second person with whom one could share stressful experiences immediately. I found the burden of the one call I took from a genuine suicide risk too overwhelming to continue, despite knowing that for that night at least I had succeeded in providing adequate support: the person rang back later the same night after my shift had ended to say they would not go through with it. Policies were changed in that particular organisation thereafter to ensure that support for the counsellors themselves was immediately available.

For bystanders the situation may be different. In a university setting all that may be required is for bar staff to monitor situations and be alert to remarks such as the ‘ask for Angela’ campaign suggests (my college bar is signed up to this); for a friend to check that their pal really is happy to get into a taxi with someone they don’t know well when they are so drunk as to be barely conscious; even for a stranger to be aware when a girl in the corner is being pinned to the wall in an uncomfortable way so that intervention is likely to be kind (a situation that is all too real for me and more recently than I would like); for people in groups not to laugh at sexist/racist jokes so as not to perpetuate bad cultures….the list of relatively small actions that could change the climate for all of us is long, the consequences of carrying them out substantial.

It is worth remarking that at this week’s Bystander Intervention training there were (I’d guess) approximately equal numbers of males and females present, somewhere between 100 and 150 in total of committed people determined to eradicate some part of the toxicity and dangers life in our university environment can create. The University and its colleges cannot and must not tolerate harassment. I am sure all fellow Heads of House understand this and will be supporting their own students in providing support for those who need it on this front.


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