Billy Bush says he committed 'bystander abuse' in Trump's infamous 'grab 'em by the pussy' tape

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer

In an exclusive interview with People magazine, former Today show co-host Billy Bush shares that since losing his job after the release last year of the Access Hollywood tape in which Bush can be heard joking with now-President Trump about the latter’s affinity for groping and harassing women, he has had plenty of time to think about what transpired. He’s also used that time to learn more about gender-based violence.

Billy Bush interviews Donald Trump in 2015. (Getty Images)

“There is a term for what I did,” Bush told People. “It’s called bystander abuse. It says by not doing anything you are endorsing the moment. I have to live with that.”

On the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape, Trump tells Bush, “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Bush replies, “Whatever you want,” to which Trump offers, “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Bush continues to laugh and converse with Trump as they interact with soap opera star Arianne Zucker, whom Trump at one point describes as saying, “It looks good.”

To return to Bush’s more recent statement: What is bystander abuse, and what role does it play in violence against women?

Experts agree that bystander intervention and culture is a critical part in addressing gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Sara McGovern, the press secretary for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), tells Yahoo Lifestyle in a statement that while the “only person responsible for committing sexual assault is a perpetrator,” it’s nonetheless also true that “all of us have the ability to look out for each other’s safety. Anyone who practices bystander intervention can help prevent sexual violence, whether they’re stepping in to confront inappropriate behavior or simply explaining that joking about sexual violence is offensive and unacceptable.”

Sarah McMahon is the associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “If you’re not saying something, then you’re a part of the problem.” McMahon notes that increasingly, colleges and universities are focusing their sexual-violence-prevention efforts on bystander-intervention training for exactly this reason.

“I think bystanders are an integral piece in trying to combat gender-based violence,” Elizabeth Boyle, a state organizer with the advocacy group Know Your IX, which works to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in schools, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If you’re a bystander and you don’t act [as in the Bush-Trump incident], that means that this toxic rhetoric of sexual violence is OK to use when it’s not.”

Boyle emphasizes that Bush’s comments, and the Access Hollywood incident more generally, underscore a critical component to sexual violence — and the ability, or sometimes inability, of bystanders to intervene often has devastating results.

“I think [Bush’s statement] touches on how much power dynamics are involved in someone not intervening,” Boyle says. “For bystanders, it is so important that they chime in even if they are afraid of the power dynamic present, because if they don’t, someone will be harmed. [A lack of bystander intervention] is abuse. If you are standing by and see or hear someone harming another person and you don’t do anything about it, you are complicit. When you stay silent, you are hurting someone.”

Boyle explains that much of Know Your IX’s work is focused on providing and ensuring the availability of bystander-intervention training on college campuses. She adds that this training is critical in identifying the reality of the power dynamics at play — which can either empower a bystander to take action or prevent him or her from doing so — when it comes to sexual violence and harassment.

“Being a good bystander means assessing the situation and choosing the best path to support those who feel powerless. It’s empowering to remember that no matter who has the power in a situation [of sexual violence or harassment], a bystander still has the power to stand up to a perpetrator,” Boyle says.

She notes that because bystanders are not the ones directly involved in a physical or verbal attack, they often have more power than the subject of the attack. And while a survivor of sexual violence or harassment might feel frozen at the time of attack and not be able to react, a person not directly involved is in better control of his or her own situation — and thus better able to intervene and act.

McMahon notes that it’s often helpful for people to develop prepared comments for situations like this, in case they need to intervene as a bystander in the event of sexual harassment or violence.

“When we talk with students, we say, ‘What would you do if someone around you was making a rape joke?’ Some people feel very comfortable directly challenging that, but other people may not. So we talk about how you can change the topic, or not laugh, or not just go along with it. You may not feel comfortable directly going to someone and confronting them, but there are lots of ways to resist participation on those types of comments or behaviors.”

McMahon says another key bystander behavior is checking in with a person you’ve seen targeted by sexual violence or harassment afterward and offering your support.

“You can say, ‘I heard what happened, and I don’t think it was right. How can I be a support to you?’ You can provide resources and support and let that person know that you don’t condone the behavior you saw,” McMahon says. “There are also times when we can challenge our peers who we see acting in abusive ways. You can say, ‘I heard what you said before and it’s not appropriate, and it’s been bothering me.’ The more we send messages that we disapprove of this kind of behavior, the more we can shift the culture. Bystander intervention is about shifting the culture and saying that certain behaviors are not tolerated and that we as a society have expectations of one another to act in a certain way.”

Boyle says that on college campuses, bystander intervention works. “Students feel empowered by this training and no longer feel weak and like they can no longer do something to solve an obvious problem at hand,” she emphasizes.

Which is also the takeaway, Boyle says, from the Bush-Trump encounter.

“Anyone involved in sexual violence is a culprit of it. Being there and not doing anything makes you complicit. So for us as an organization, it’s important to empower young men and women to stand up when they see things that are wrong and not stay silent.”

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