What Can a Bystander Do?

by HALEY BURNSIDE, Senior Writer

Two years ago this month, I was sexually assaulted. It was my freshman year at Manhattan College. I was eighteen years old. I have never told anyone that I was sexually assaulted using those words, because I did not believe my own experience.

Rather than recounting the incident, I would like to share the results. Because of the way of society conditions people, we are taught to automatically question statements like my opening one. The “innocent until proven guilty” standard keeps us reluctant to believe people who claim to have been assaulted. This conditioning is something I have tried to shake. Unfortunately, even after my own assault, I could not immediately change my view.

I was afraid to tell anyone because I did not want to seem like an attention-seeker. That is the accusation always made at victims who speak out; they are just doing this for attention. I have heard and seen what people are saying and writing about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and I cannot express how deeply I fear ever hearing those statements directed at me.

Even after I had been touched against my will, I could not bring myself to believe those around me. Hearing other women in my life share their stories came with a voice of doubt in the back of my head. “She just wants attention.” As awful as it is, this was what I was taught to believe.

I internalized this dangerous mindset and could not bring myself to share my experiences. Surely, everyone would only see it as a grab for attention. I kept the incident a secret from most, and even when I shared my story I did so in a flippant manner to downplay the event.

This news cycle involving Kavanaugh and Ford has made sexual assault an inescapable topic. Typically, my sexual assault only crosses my mind once every few weeks. These past two weeks have made it impossible to go a few hours without thinking about what happened two years ago. I have been listening (almost obsessively) to the news coverage, the social media commentary, and the opinions of my peers. Through this observation I have come to several realizations, with one being at the forefront of my mind.

Bystanders have been wondering what they can do in a time like this. As neither a perpetrator or a victim of sexual crimes, what role can a bystander play in stopping one? There is something that we can all start doing, and that is to change our language when discussing these matters. We need to stop asking “why would she wait so long?” and “why didn’t she report it” or “is she just doing this for fame or money?” These types of questions make people reluctant to share their experiences. Because I did not want to seem like another girl trying to publically play the victim, I did not talk to anyone. I believe that the way we phrase our thoughts matters deeply when discussing delicate topics like sexual assault, and I would love to see a change in the current discourse.

When describing myself, the word “victim” would not even be one of the first 2000 words I would use. I do not wish to use one bad experience in my life to define myself. I do not walk around every day carrying the negative effects of my experience. I would go as far to say it is a non event in my blessed, fulfilling, happy life. That being said, I know that I am lucky. Others have experienced much darker results of sexual misconduct. For them, hearing those irrelevant and victim-blaming questions must be immensely detrimental to their healing.

We all know words cannot bruise, cut, or sting anyone physically. This does not mean that words cannot cause harm. As a writer, I believe in the power of words. That is why I felt it was important for me to share my experience. I also believe in change. If I could shake that mindset that was a constant in my life for twenty years, our society as a whole can certainly do the same. “Believe survivors” is not just a cutesy slogan. The first step in fixing our sexual assault epidemic is being honest about it. To do that, we need to stop assuming the worst in survivors and take the time to listen. We should all call out those who use that language and take the time to explain why it is wrong. If you want to help change things and you do not know how, I urge you to start there. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful that could be to a survivor.

Editor’s Note: Haley Burnside is a senior writer of The Quadrangle. The views expressed in this article are hers, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manhattan College, The Quadrangle or its Editorial Board.