The bystander

  • Poetry & Prose

The bystander


This is the story of a person

whose body I inhabited one time,

many years ago as a teenager.

This is the story of all the things that in my life

I didn’t notice at the time.

How on earth could I not tell?

The lack of thought.

The lack of sense.

It feels so strange.

I have since learned,

but I will start

with a story from back then.


When I was 10 a friend said things to me,

that I have not since been able to forget.

About spying on girls, about following them,

about touching them,

about sex.

I was young and thought this to be harmless.

I was a kid and dismissed all the thoughts.

Then he left and I didn’t see him for years,

I didn’t hear about him. I didn’t know.

Until one night when they told me

he had raped a girl who was much younger,

and then he fled

and then who knows.


When I was 13 my friends at school said things to me,

about porn and drinking and sex.

About wanting to get some,

deserving to get some,

about wearing them down,

chasing them around,

and how you have to be a little forceful,

a little assertive,

a lot of a man.

About taking your chance when you need to,

about taking charge when you can,

and if they slap you that’s fine.

You can risk a slap for some action.

You can risk a friend for some fun.


And no thought in their minds

of respect or consent

or awareness or friendship,

nothing like that.

And why?

Why did we never have this conversation?

Why is respect so far off our minds?

Why is consent not a standard?


When I was 16 my best friend confided in me,

his plans and his obsessions and his escapades.

How he cheated on his girlfriend of many years,

how he thought women were best used for sex,

how he liked turning a no into some action,

how he he deserved to get everything from them.

He liked to ”break” them, he said.

Draw the line at making out?

Just grope them.

Just force it.

Just teach them to like it, he said.

And I wished that he was lying and dismissed it.

We were young and I hoped this was all talk.

He had always been a show-off by hyperbole, after all.


We haven’t talked in years.

I haven’t seen him in years.

And I am ashamed to say it took me a long time to finally realize

that when people talk of the bystander effect

when it comes to rape culture and sexism

they are referring to me when I was 16, or 13, or 10.

The me from the past who did nothing and stayed quiet.

Who tried to think this was all joking around and teenager talk.

The stories he told,

the adventures my ”friends” wanted,

the fantasies they craved

were not about sex but about power.

About abuse. About assault.

And the line is not fine.

It’s not blurry.

It’s not confusing.

It is clear.

It is obvious.

It is there.

So why?

Why did I not know when I was a kid?

Why did it take me so long to realize?


Sex is prevalent in our culture and our lives.

There is sex in ads and movies and shows and casual conversation.

There is sex ed in school and with friends and at home.

There is sex with your partner or your casual encounter.

There is sex in our daily, want it or not.

Consent and respect?

How many ads or shows?

How many hours at school?

How often with friends?

I wonder.

If it was as prevalent as sex,

would we still have so many problems?

At least a step in the right direction,

gets us closer to finding out.


I hope we do.

We need to try.