April 15, 2014

Summary: The ‘Bystander Effect’ is the theory that the more people there are to witness an event, the less likely a person will do something to stop it.  This is true for victims of sexual abuse; sometimes, the signs of abuse are displayed in plain sight, but a precious few take action.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Has anyone ever watched video footage of somebody being brutally beaten in public, and yet nobody feels the need to step in and do anything about it?  A reasonable person watching such a video might look at the screen flabbergasted, wondering how not a single person couldn’t step in and stop something that was clearly wrong.  But, that feeling is different when you’re physically near the situation, especially if there is a large group of people in the area to stop it.

This is called the Bystander Effect; basically, it’s a phenomenon in which people are less likely to intervene around a large group of people because the responsibility to intervene is shared among the onlookers.  Also, failure to intervene because you think somebody else will do it is also a factor into the Bystander Effect.  A key understanding of the Bystander Effect is that there is a shared diffusion of responsibility; if there were less people, the individual would have more of a pressing need to intervene.

There are hundreds of case studies that illustrate the Bystander Effect’s existence; perhaps none more important than the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese in New York, where she was stabbed to death in the street.  When she called out for help, nobody came, despite residents hearing her cries for help.  The debate in 1964 is still quite relevant 50 years later: were New Yorkers that callous?  Could they let a woman die like that without lifting a finger to help?  There is another aspect to this phenomenon; if other onlookers fail to act, it could be a signal to you that a response is not needed.  In the Genovese case, the onlookers thought they were witnessing a lover’s quarrel, not a murder – the ambiguity seemingly froze these onlookers into inaction.

For the bystander, there are the feelings of fear; fear of making somebody angry, escalating violence, or misunderstanding the situation.  Since the Genovese murder, a concerted effort was undertaken to move bystanders to act more responsibly – the Bystander Intervention Approach.  As it applies to preventing sexual assault, the approach focuses on opportunities or situations to intervene with before something catastrophic happens; for example, intervening at a party when a man is harassing a woman, or if a teacher begins playing favorites with your child.  The bystander approach has tangible benefits in sexual abuse situations:

–         Discourages victim blaming: If a victim breaks their silence, the problem is not a “you” problem, but turns into a “we” problem when bystanders are involved as part of the solution.

–         Chance to change societal norms: Societal norms are a large factor in how somebody reacts to a catastrophic situation; this is also true about prevention.  If the issue of sexual abuse is addressed before the event, it is likely to increase a bystander’s need to respond.

–         Shares the burden equally among men and women: Sexual abuses are mostly male-on-female incidents; but the potential to prevent it is equal among men and women.

So, when is the right time to intervene?  The truth is, there are hundreds of comments, harassments etc. that occur before the abuse is consummated.  The “event’ is not the end-all, be-all; rather, it’s more like a continuum that escalates from the minor incident to the abuse itself.  The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, founded by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, shows such a continuum:

Anywhere in this behavioral continuum, there are opportunities to step in and prevent a sexual abuse – especially so in child molestation cases.  The bystanders in the best situation to step in are those that know the myths about molestation, how to protect people from abuse, and preventative measures; however, ANYBODY can act to prevent sexual abuse from occurring; it’s as simple as knowing wrong from right, and having the courage to defend the defenseless.


In one case study, a bystander that intervened had a succinct and perfect explanation to why they took action: “I know what she might have to face.  I just could not live with myself if I sat there and did nothing.”  That selfless and powerful statement reinforces our ability as a society to be the ‘knight in shining armor’ that is sometimes needed in these situations.  Sexual abuse is something we can fight, and fight together.  Our communities and our people deserve a safe environment – it is up to us as individuals to do our part to provide that to our fellow man, woman and child.

At Estey & Bomberger, we call on everybody in our society to do their part in providing a safe living environment for our citizens. If you encounter a situation unfolding in front of your eyes, and nobody is doing anything about it, remember this: it can’t always be somebody else to prevent it from happening – sometimes, it has to be you. 


Did they really do nothing? The murder of Kitty Genovese

Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention