Bystander Approach

Duke women read MVP Playbook

MVP's Shannon Spriggs and Jessica Bartter lead female athletes at Duke University through an MVP Playbook scenario discussion in 2008.

MVP introduced bystander intervention to the gender  violence prevention education field and has been on the cutting edge of its development since the early nineties.  The chief curricular innovation of MVP is a training tool called the Playbook, which consists of a series of realistic scenarios depicting abusive male (and sometimes female) behavior. The Playbook – with separate versions for men and women — transports participants into scenarios as witnesses to actual or potential abuse, then challenges them to consider a number of concrete options for intervention before, during, or after an incident. Many people mistakenly believe that they have only two options in instances of actual or potential violence: intervene physically and possibly expose themselves to personal harm, or do nothing. As a result, they often choose to do nothing.

But intervening physically or doing nothing are not the only possible choices. The MVP Model seeks to provide bystanders with numerous options, most of which carry no risk of personal injury. With more options to choose from, people are more likely to respond and not be passive and silent – and hence complicit – in violence or abuse by others. Many young men and women, and people in U.S. society in general, have been socialized to be passive bystanders in the face of sexist abuse and violence. This conditioning is reflected in the oft-heard statement that a situation “between a man and a woman” is “none of my business.”

One historical antecedent of this belief is the English common law doctrine that a man’s home is his castle, and that family matters are properly confined to the domestic sphere. One of the long-term projects of feminist jurisprudence and social activism is to erode the private-public dichotomy, because the domestic sphere is one of the key sites of women’s subordination. More recently, social scientists have examined the phenomenon of bystander apathy in the face of violence. Research into the social psychology of bystander behavior accelerated in the wake of the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death by a man in the public courtyard of a Queens, New York apartment complex. The case drew widespread attention because dozens of neighbors peered out from behind their window shades at the sound of the woman’s screams but no one intervened — or even called the police — until she was dead.

Leaders Act Campaign: Ben Watson poster

Leaders Act Campaign: Ben Watson poster

MVP sessions can only begin to explore some of the deeply rooted cultural characteristics that make these sorts of tragedies possible. But one of the crucial aspects of MVP discussions – which are typically interactive and animated – is that focusing on specific cases of abuse can often lead to open, wide-ranging discussions about masculinity, gender relations, abuses of power and conformist behavior. In all-male sessions, racially diverse groups of men discuss such questions as: why do men hit women? Why do men sexually assault women? How do cultural definitions of manhood contribute to sexual and domestic violence and other sexist behaviors? Why do some men make it clear that they won’t accept that sort of behavior from their peers, while others remain silent? How is the silence of peers understood by abusers? What message is conveyed to victims when the abuser’s friends don’t confront him? Why do some heterosexually identified men harass and beat up gay men? Does the accompanying silence on the part of some of their heterosexual peers legitimize the abuse? Why or why not?

Unlike prevention efforts that target men as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, MVP has the potential to expand dramatically the number of men willing to confront the issue of men’s violence against women. This is a result of the MVP philosophy of working with men as empowered bystanders — not against them as potential perpetrators. This positive approach has the effect of reducing men’s defensiveness around the discussion of these issues, which provides the basis for the emergence of more proactive and preventive responses.

Duke Football training

Duke male student athletes sharing a point