The Responsibility of the Bystander


Until we hold bystanders accountable as accessories to the crimes of sexual abuse and assault, children and adults will continue to be victimized. Silence always protects the perpetrators. I’m not just talking about Hollywood or CBS or USA Gymnastics. I’m talking about families and schools and churches and Boy Scout troops, sports teams and the nice man down the street who loves kids. 

We will always have people who sexually violate the vulnerable. We should try to spot them as youngsters and give them the treatment they need so they don’t offend. We should be offering treatment to everyone who has offended to help them stop. But we don’t. So we will always have people who sexually abuse and assault others. It’s so terribly sad and so terribly true.

Stopping perpetrators is the job of bystanders. That includes the family bystanders, neighbors, and institutions that provide safe havens for perpetrators. When survivors—especially women—come forward about being abused by powerful men, some people roll their eyes and decide those women are out to “get” something or they must be crazy or it’s their own damned fault. If someone comes forward about sexual abuse in their own family, they’re lucky if they still havea family when the dust settles. We all know that the kind priest, the loving father, the fun-loving scout leader, the coach, the brilliant rabbi, and on and on couldn’t possibly be predators! “Why, he’s so nice!” Or, “ She’sso nice! And she’s a mother!! It’s impossible!” Black and white thinking turns others into cartoons; it misses the complexity of their humanity.

It’s time to open our eyes. Abusers don’t necessarily drool. We can’t spot them. They look just like us. Predators know how to hide behind masks. They know how to groom children. They know how to silence their victims. It’s time to open our ears: Listen to those who come forward. That doesn’t mean that every single person who claims they were abused or assaulted is telling the truth. But don’t be so quick to dismiss them because you don’t want to face what they are saying, don’t want to believe that “nice” people can do cruel things, don’t want the powerful to be angry at you. It’s hard to look sexual violence in the face. It’s ugly.

I’m a psychologist who specializes in treating trauma and I’m a survivor. I know what it’s like to not be believed, to be accused of being crazy or looking for attention. I know what it’s like to be shunned by family. And I know how it feels to be listened to, believed, accepted, embraced. It’s healing. It helps move the shame off the victim’s shoulders to where it belongs—on the backs of the perpetrators and the bystanders who avert their eyes, the grip of denial and the culture of secrecy. 

As Judith Herman, M.D., writes in her seminal book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror,“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.” 

Whose side are you on?