Workshop shows how to step in and stand up to sexual assault

Donors help bring bystander intervention training to local businesses

Kate Black, '16 BA, - 14 September 2018

From the first frame, the video pulls you into the crowd. You see two young women on a carefree night out, dancing and having fun with good music and a few drinks. Suddenly, things take a turn. One of the women becomes lethargic as a man cosies up to her on the dance floor. She's dazed and listless as he buys her another shot, and then another. Eventually, he leads her home. She is limp and drunk. She closes her eyes. The man unzips his pants - and you're left to assume what happens next.

Bar owner Jesse Kupina and 40 of his employees from Edmonton-area venues Central Social Hall and The Ranch Roadhouse watched the educational video as part of 5 Minute Friend, a workshop for nightlife industry staff created and facilitated by the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre. Funded in part by donors and launched in April 2018, the interactive workshop teaches bar staff like Kupina's to identify and safely intervene in predatory or non-consensual behaviour in the bar.

Watching the second half of the video made Kupina's stomach sink. It rewinds and retraces the events of the night to imagine how several people could have stepped in to prevent the sexual assault - the friend who left the woman with the man, the bartender who poured her shot after shot, the bouncer who watched her be led away.

The takeaway for nightlife industry staff is that simple interventions can have a big impact.

"Maybe just asking a question - asking if she's OK or needs a ride home - could change how that evening plays out," says Kupina about the video. "There are a lot of opportunities for someone to step in."

Of course, the only person who can prevent a sexual assault is the one choosing to violate someone else's boundaries, says Sam Pearson, director of the U of A Sexual Assault Centre. But bystander intervention training like 5 Minute Friend can make a big difference in how we think about sexual violence.

"It shows that as a society we are going to look out for each other and step in when something doesn't feel right," she says.

The 5 Minute Friend workshop, offered in partnership with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, is one of the ways the centre reaches far beyond its small office in the Students' Union Building to educate people about consent and sexual assault. The centre offers training and outreach as well as professional and peer-led drop-in support services.

Shelby Henry first visited the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre as a client. Now, as a volunteer, she undergoes 60 hours of training each year.

With more donor support, the centre hopes to expand its offerings on campus and into the wider community, where it can share resources and expertise in working with 18- to 24-year-olds, who experience higher rates of sexual violence than the rest of the population.

Take Shelby Henry, for example. Her real-life experience is one that bar staff and the 5 Minute Friend workshop are trying to prevent.

Henry woke up the morning after a party with a sinking feeling in her stomach and little memory of what happened. She later found out she'd been drugged.

For two-and-a-half years, she pretended she was fine. But then she hit the breaking point.

Henry visited the U of A Sexual Assault Centre's resident psychologist regularly for three years, which helped her heal and learn that what happened wasn't her fault. "I felt like a weight had been lifted," she says.

Now, five years after she first came to the centre, Henry volunteers there as an intake support worker, providing drop-in crisis support for clients - both survivors and their supporters.

Volunteering has been a powerful experience for Henry, who remembers being on the other side of the centre's door. The weight of her painful memory lightens when she's working with clients. She gets to see them become advocates who dispel myths among their friends and go on to practise consent in their own lives, whether they're at school, at work or out at the bar.

"Volunteering made me realize what we're doing doesn't just affect survivors," she says. "It affects the whole population."