Last week, I added my "Me too" to all the others going around social media. One of my friends responded with this:
"Most people don't do anything when forced to react to a tough/awkward/scary situation... Most men know that saying something about a butt slap will accomplish nothing productive, and then put them in a confrontational situation with someone that is probably drunk and/or has low (or no) need to conform to polite society."
That got me thinking: what should people do if they witness a sexual assault?
I contacted my friend, Tim, a police offer and father of two, and asked him for an interview. Tim would like to remind readers that this is not 100% guaranteed legal advice that will always keep you out of trouble and protect your physical safety. This is a hugely broad topic with many variables.
Social Butterfly Mom: As a police officer and father of two, how do you respond to my friend's statement?
Tim: I confront people daily. Even though many of them may be intoxicated or breaking the law at the time I deal with them, I rarely get involved in physical confrontations. Most people, when spoken to respectfully, will listen to what you have to say. They may not agree, but at least you will be able to get your point across that what they are doing is unacceptable. The more frequently someone hears that his actions are unacceptable, the more likely he is to change them to conform to societal expectations.
SBM: If you think that you're going to get hurt if you insert yourself in a situation, what should you do instead?
Tim: The best thing you can do is to call 911, and to maintain a visual on the situation. If you feel that someone else is already being harmed and you need to step in immediately to prevent further harm, that is a personal decision. I would also warn, you should have your mind made up ahead of time what exactly is the tipping point for you to intercede so there will be no hesitation if/when that time comes.
SBM: Is there any chance of getting into legal trouble if you step in?
Tim: The only things I can think of that may seem helpful but could be illegal, would be making actual physical contact with someone, or threatening someone with physical contact. In Illinois, these criminal statutes are called assault (threats) and battery (actual physical contact). Words alone are very rarely illegal (thank you, 1st Amendment), so simply stating facts or opinions are almost always safe to do in a legal sense.
SBM: Sometimes, when I've witnessed someone assault another (verbally), I address the victim instead of the aggressor. Is this safer?
Tim: It can be, especially if the offender doesn't see/hear you addressing the victim. A few things...I would not just make a statement against how the victim is being treated, but also add in the reality that there is support for her outside of an abusive relationship. Make it clear that you are only trying to help and support the victim, not cause any problems for the offender. Unfortunately, despite being victims of abuse/harassment, many people will still stand by the offender and defend his actions, so be prepared for the victim to brush off any support you may lend.
SBM: What should a person do if he sees someone being sexually assaulted verbally?
Tim: The best thing you can do is to intervene verbally. Call out to the victim and ask her if she is okay. If she engages you and asks for help, obviously, help her in any way you feel comfortable. If she says that she is fine and doesn't need help, you can ask follow up questions, such as: who is the person that is yelling at you and why is he upset? Do you need a way to get away from the aggressor, even if only temporarily?
SBM: How do you explain to your children their responsibility to defend others, while still keeping themselves safe?
Tim: I regularly talk with my children about age-appropriate topics that I deal with at work. I always try to impart to my children the passion I have for helping others who may not be able/willing to help themselves. We talk about situations they may see at school or in public, and discuss options for how to solve those problems. We talk about how to deal with bullying, involving them directly, or indirectly. We speak of the importance of treating everyone they meet with respect. I try to help them realize that not everyone has the same life experiences/knowledge/
SBM: Do you discuss with your daughter ways that she can defend herself in a potential assault situation?
Tim: I definitely talk to my daughter about how to protect herself. I think the most important thing we talk about with her is that her body is her own, and nobody should ever disrespect her limits, including her brother, or us as parents. Seeing as how she's extremely loud and unafraid to use physical force against her brother when she's uncomfortable, I can't see this being a problem for her to defend herself if she is ever in a bad situation.
SBM: What are the most important traits you hope to impart to your son on how to respect and defend women?
Tim: The most important lesson is, quite simply, the Golden Rule of treating others how you wish to be treated yourself. Any time a man starts thinking he is better, more important, or more worthy of respect simply because he is a man, is when the problems start. Any time anyone starts dehumanizing people who are different from him, is when the problems get really bad.
SBM: How does any of your advice differ if this is a workplace situation?
Tim: Regarding workplace assaults...You have some better options, because you probably know the victim and/or the offender, and already have a working relationship with them. You probably have an established policy or procedure that every employee is required to sign and acknowledge prior to employment beginning. I would start with the victim and ask her if she needed help with whatever it is you witnessed or perceived to be an assault. If she says no, depending on what you witnessed, I would again offer assistance to her as a victim, and emphasize your goal is to help her, not to get the offender in trouble or fired. If the assault was not a violation of company policy, or maybe borderline only, I would also suggest bringing your concerns to the offender first to see if he even realizes what he is doing and how it is being perceived. This also offers the offender a chance to correct any current problems and prevent any future concerns. If something is a clear violation of your company policy, I would recommend bringing it up to HR or the offender's direct supervisor to allow him/her to handle it appropriately based on the policy.
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