Dear Campus Rape Prevention Educators Adopting the Bystander Intervention Model:

The White House tapped the University of New Hampshire’s bystander intervention program, Prevention Innovations, as a model for sexual assault prevention at the national level. Chances are you have or are adopting that comprehensive bystander intervention program or one very similar to it. UNH’s program trains individuals not only to identify dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, but how to intervene actively and safely. A second leg of that program is a social marketing campaign, which includes posters, bus wraps, and buttons that show realistic situations and potential bystander responses.


This social marketing campaign centers on a “Know Your Power®” theme. This community-mobilization approach enlists men as allies in the struggle to stop rape by telling them how powerful they are. Similar to the old campaign that placed in men’s restroom urinals stickers that read, “You’re holding the power to stop rape in your hands,” the “Know Your Power” campaign tells men they have the power not to rape.

And to rape. That’s right; implied in the message to men – and to women– that men have the power to stop rape (presumably by other men) is the message to men – and to women – that men also have the power to rape if they want to or if no bystander intervenes.

Women apparently can train as bystanders alongside men, and thus, at least in theory, have the power to intervene as a bystander in select situations and in particular ways. Sadly, though, nothing in these campaign materials suggests that there is anything the woman targeted for assault can do, in the moment, to stop the assault.

And that’s simply not true. Women are, and can be, enormously powerful. Resisting sexual assault is a viable option. It can work. It does work. Women can do it, men can do it, kids can do it. Of equal importance, women gain a sense of empowerment when learning self-defense. We want to emphasize that the research shows that women need to know their power. Women have the power (and the legal right) to fight back.

Of course, stressing self-defense is never a reason to let men or society or the university off the hook for ending rape culture. Indeed, if more men thought more of their campus coeds knew how to break their arm, we’re pretty sure they wouldn’t feel off the hook.

And would it really be so offensive or too radical to tell women to know the power they have?  So far, though, colleges are telling men to know their power and telling women to know their nines (as in Title IX of the Educational Equity Act).

Can we guarantee that self-defense will work for every person in every situation? Of course not. Nor can bystander intervention programs make that claim, and as far as we can tell, no one asks that those programs do. We teach swimming even though some people will still drown, we recommend the flu shot even though some people will still get flu, we tell people not to smoke even though some people will still get lung cancer….you get the idea.

But it does work, and we should also be telling those stories. Sexual assault awareness and prevention materials must include stories of thwarted assaults, not just completed ones. If our stories consist exclusively of bystanders saving victims, we teach everyone that once an assault is in progress (because not all bystanders will intervene, and not every assault has a bystander), there is nothing that can be done to stop it. And that’s not necessarily or always true.

Hence, we recommend that all campuses offer self-defense training as an option and, importantly, that colleges and universities frame this as part of their mission to fulfill the federal mandate to educate all new college students in sexual assault prevention. Not all students might want to take self-defense training, and that is fine. But without self-defense as part of the sexual assault prevention and education efforts on campus, we are telling women that they are to rely on concerned bystanders, university policies, and the law for protection against acquaintance, date, and party rape. We might as well tell women, We’re here for you, we’re creating knights in shining armor to come rescue you—and if they don’t, princesses, it’s gonna happen.

Only self-defense training reminds everyone – no matter their sex or gender, no matter their sexual orientation, no matter their assault or perpetration history – that women are not damsels in distress, and men are not magical omnipotent creatures.

The message of the University of New Hampshire bystander intervention program is “Know Your Power.” That should not just apply to men and bystanders. We beg you to know (and teach) her power. The message of bystander intervention programs is don’t be a bystander. We want women to know they don’t have to wait for one, either.


Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey

One response

  1. Another wonderful article Jill and Martha. This is now my go-to link for my clarion call to not leave women and girls out of the sexual assault prevention paradigm. We teach boys and girls in our programming but we also believe that ALL mens programming on this issue should include women’s voices and participation. Women have been studying and taking action on this issue for over 40 years through their empowerment defense work and to my knowledge not a single agency has consulted with them. With the partnership of women this type of campaign language would never have gotten the green light.

    So guys, you really don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Invite women in, ask about their experiences in prevention and in being the primary target of the violence you are seeking to prevent. There is a wealth of knowledge there that could benefit thousands of young men and women that should not be ignored.

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