At Hopkins, every undergraduate student has the experience of sitting through five hours of Bystander Intervention Training (BIT) sessions during their freshman year. For the last four years, the University has mandated that students attend this training in order to better equip them to prevent forms of gender violence including sexual assault.
BIT has transformed rapidly since 2014, when only 10 optional sessions were offered, to address the diverse needs of the Hopkins community. The program was initially based off of trainings at the University of New Hampshire and Duke University and mostly catered toward fraternities and sororities.
At Hopkins, BIT was initially focused on educating student-athletes. Today, BIT employs 15 peer trainers and has readapted to better engage with the entire student body.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Sexual Violence Prevention & Education Coordinator Alyse Campbell stated that BIT is rooted in bringing attention to the bystander as opposed to perpetrators or survivors of sexual assault.
“A lot of bystander intervention programs tend to talk about women as potential survivors and men as potential perpetrators and we really don’t want to talk to an audience like that,” she said. “We want to talk to everybody as people who have an impact in their communities.”
Campbell explained that the program has evolved to address student concerns and feedback.
“We’ve taken out some of the activities or pieces that we felt didn’t resonate with students,” she said.
Some elements that have been removed include a video depicting a reductive view of sexual assault, a video containing transphobic comments and activities that were insensitive to survivors of sexual violence. According to Campbell, these changes have helped create a more inclusive environment.
An example of an activity that was not sensitive to survivors was one where students were told to crumple up pieces of paper and to try to smooth them out again. BIT trainers told students that no matter how hard they tried, the paper could never be smooth again.
The purpose of this activity was to show students that survivors of sexual assault could not expect to “go back” to how they were before their assault and to dissuade people from committing sexual assault.
However, an article in The News-Letter pointed out that although this activity was intended to increase empathy toward survivors, it ultimately ignored the fact that participants in BIT may be survivors of sexual assault themselves and noted that the activity could be detrimental to survivors’ mental health.
BIT trainer Isadora Schaller explained that this activity was only beneficial to a small portion of the Hopkins population, particularly men, who may not understand how to feel for a survivor.
“I really advocated for us not to do that anymore because in my personal opinion, there are only a few people who need to hear that, and there are a lot of people who don’t,” she said.
Campbell agreed with these sentiments, stating that she had been considering taking out this portion of the training for about a year. Eventually, she concluded that the advantages of telling the community to empathize with survivors were outweighed by the risk of triggering survivors. In addition, she believes that modern-day culture is transitioning to becoming more accepting of survivors.
“I’m hopeful that we’re in a place where we don’t as much have to ask people to empathize with survivors. I hope that people understand that it’s never a good thing for people to experience gender violence,” she said.
Other portions of BIT sessions have also been removed, such as a video that depicted a story of gender violence. The video portrayed a male law student at Duke University assaulting female peers. BIT trainer Lindsey Cohen explained that the video was problematic for several reasons.
“The video was a stereotypical video about a frat scene,” she said. “It was very one-sided.”
Schaller also said that this video caused issues because it presents a black and white version of what sexual violence and assault looks like. She explained that the male character in the video is malicious, intentional and premeditative. Schaller argued that by presenting a stereotyped version of rape culture, students have a skewed vision of what constitutes sexual violence.
“After talking to men who had seen the video, it kind of created an image of a rapist in their minds and they don’t identify with that. It’s my opinion that most assaults on campus are not going to look exactly like what was shown in [the video],” she said.
A large part of BIT sessions is dedicated to teaching students how to intervene in potentially dangerous situations. Peer trainers inform students of three possible interventions — direct, distract, delegate. Schaller explained that aside from formal BIT sessions, trainers speak to individual organizations on request. She noted that she has been asked by members of Greek life to speak to fraternities outside of the formal BIT program. Schaller found that additional programming events were typically requested after fraternity members faced misconduct allegations.
“Working with Greek culture here, I’ve found that a lot of gender violence comes from a lack of education and misunderstanding what consent is. Especially in reference to alcohol and drugs,“ Schaller said. “We have this immense pressure to participate in the hook-up culture. Especially for men.”
She noted that hyper-masculinity and a pressure to have sex to prove one’s worth promotes this ideology. To combat this, her informal BIT training session with organizations are different because they are tailored to fit the organization they are addressing. Schaller also stated that these sessions are typically much shorter and have much more participation.
“In the unofficial sessions, I’m more of a facilitator for a conversation,“ she said.
Senior Brice Messenger has been a BIT trainer for three years and has noticed the culture change around BIT sessions. He admitted that initially, there was a lot of pushback from his fellow students against the mandated trainings, but throughout the years, students have been more receptive to the information and more eager to participate. He added that despite students’ occasional unwillingness to attend the trainings, it is vital for every student to understand their role as a bystander.
“At end of the day, everyone is going to be a bystander. We understand that a survivor going to training might make people uncomfortable. But talking to them as a bystander [instead of a survivor] helps them be on the same page and to cut [gender violence] off at the source, rather than waiting for incidents to happen,” he said.
Diva Parekh has written an opinions piece on BIT. She did not contribute to writing or reporting for this piece.