Be a GOOD Bystander: Preventing Sexual Assault

16 05 2008

If you saw someone being attacked—a man being mugged on the street, a woman being raped in an alley—would you do something? Would you intervene, call for help, phone the police…or avert your gaze, speed up your footsteps, and pretend it never happened?

I want to focus on one particular aspect of the incident I wrote about on Sunday, when a woman was sexually assaulted on-stage by a comedian (“comedian”) as part of his “act”. I’m not talking about the comedian himself, certainly not the woman (unless you’re the victim-blaming type), and not even the culture that allowed it to happen—but the audience. The audience who sat there and watched it happen—and let it happen. As written in The Guardian:

How on earth can these people solemnly preach to us all about the terrible trauma his poor victim must have felt when they all sat in the audience and watched without lifting a finger, then went home and sat in front of their laptops sanctimoniously tapping away at a self-righteous denouncement of his actions which they had just sat and allowed to happen?

You know what the saddest part is? I can understand it.

The bystander effect is one of the most well-known psychological studies in examining how our social consciences work, and what it says is:

When there is an attack or crime being committed, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually help.

In other words, if you see a man or woman being attacked in an empty street, and no one else is around, you are much, much more likely to help them or call the police; and you will almost certainly not help them or do anything if they were being attacked in broad daylight, on the busiest street in your city, during rush hour. Unless, of course, you’re genuinely good and brave and valiant like that—which, let’s be honest, many of us aren’t. (Although, if someone would like to do a study on the effects of exposure to capoeira music on a given group of bystanders while witnessing an attack, I’m open to suggestions!)

The following is literally the textbook case of the bystander effect—it’s what started the whole study of this phenomenon in the first place (emphasis mine):

Forty years ago, Kitty Genovese was attacked and murdered outside her New York City apartment building. Thirty-eight people heard her calls for help as they watched from behind their apartment windows. The attack lasted more than half an hour. After it was over, someone called the police, who arrived within two minutes.

Pretty astounding, don’t you think? And I’ve touched on the bystander effect personally here, describing how on my way home one night I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing a woman being attacked or not, and didn’t know how to react. That led to a discussion in which a very important question was raised:

How do we overcome the bystander effect?

After all, nobody wants to be the insecure, self-justifying, crowd-mentality loser who let a woman get knifed or a man suffer hate crime in front of their very eyes, right?

Although I am the last person who has any concrete solutions to this problem, I firmly believe that the more you know about something, the more you’ll be capable of fighting against it when you need to. So first, I’ll list some things that I’ve picked up along the way. If you witness an attack:

Use your cellphone (or any phone). It’s relatively risk-free, you can do it at a distance from the attack, and you can probably remain anonymous if you’re that concerned about it. The important thing is: just pick up and dial! 9-1-1 [or whatever the emergency number is in your region]. It’s not hard; or it is hard, but not so hard that you can’t force yourself to do it in order to save somebody’s life.

Follow your gut instinct. If you think something’s not right, it probably isn’t. If your stomache, chest, throat, and blood pulse are telling you something’s not right, then it almost definitely isn’t.

Suppress your “What if I’m wrong/What if I embarrass myself?” inside voice. After all, what’s worse: the effects of a little embarassment on you, or the effects of a sexual and/or violent attack on the victim?

Empathize. Studies show that a bystander is more likely to intervene if they see themselves as being a part of the same social group as the victim, or if they have a connection with them in some way. That is, white bystanders are more likely to help if the victim is white, women are more likely to help (than not help) if the victim is a woman, and so on.

The interesting thing is that apparently, this perception can be expanded to include larger and larger groups. So if you see someone being attacked or assaulted, maybe instead of seeing them as a stranger who doesn’t look, think, or live like you, make yourself realize that it’s another student being assaulted there, or another <insert job title>, or another <insert nationality>, or another brother/sister/father/mother, or, in fact, another human being…just like you.

Get training. As capoeiristas, we arguably have a slight advantage over the average non-martial artist when it comes to attacks and self-defense. However, this doesn’t matter if you believe you can’t use capoeira in “real-life” situations. Why? One major reason that bystanders don’t intervene in emergency situations is, quite simply, they don’t know how.

They know they should do something, but have no idea what course of action to take, and are scared they’ll do something wrong, or make things worse. So, if you are serious about wanting to be able to prevent sexual assault when you see it, research ways to identify and stop such situations, so that you’ll be prepared and have confidence in what you’re doing when the necessary time comes.

Know your help will help, no matter what. Having suggested “get training” above, just a reminder that training is not AT ALL necessary in preventing sexual assault or any attack. You don’t need special training in order to shout outloud, yell for help, or call the police. In a study, assault perpetrators said they were able to succeed with their crimes because they knew people would let them. They counted on the bystander effect! Prove them wrong.

Learn how it works. Finally, what I said earlier: the more you know about something, the more capable you will be of fighting it. If you can tell yourself in a situation that your discomfort in helping is due purely to this phenomenon that is distorting your judgement, then you are more likely to overcome it and take action. In that vein, I’m linking to several articles below that are definitely worth a read to find out more about being a good (or bad) bystander, so please take the time to read them.

  • Stepping up to stop sexual assault – A really informative article that discusses the bystander effect in the comedian/assaulted woman case and talks about bystander training (what it can do and how it works).
  • Failing to Fight the Good Fight – It’s not just sexual assault that the bystander effect applies to. This article describes how the author was the only one to stand up against racism in a crowded London metro.
  • As individuals, we help. As a corporate whole, we don’t. – An article about the bystander effect, inspired by a recent incident where cars in traffic swerved around a woman lying in the middle of the road with her head bleeding. Just read the first page (it kind of goes off-track after that).

The first article makes a really good point, that applies to this post as well: Nobody needs bystander training. None of you need to have read this post in order to increase the chances you will help someone you see being victimized, in the future. As I said, any person off the street, any one of us, has the power to intervene when we see someone doing something wrong to another person. More often than not, all it takes is a single word or gesture that shows the perpetrator that people notice. The only problem is overcoming the social forces and tiny voice in our head that says we can’t, for this or that or whatever (non-)reason.

In other words, don’t be a lemming, and don’t be insecure or afraid to take action. Yes, it might be difficult, and I’m not saying or even sure that I’ll be able to do something the next time it’s asked of me, but…someone’s life (which includes life as they know it, e.g. rape is a horrifically life-changing event) could depend on it.





Walking Home

5 03 2008

I was walking home from the grocery store the other night, bags in hand, when suddenly I heard the sound of a woman more or less screaming bloody murder.  I looked around and saw four guys and a woman across the street in front of me, probably in their 20’s (numbers are an exception to the no apostrophes in plurals rule), and it seriously looked and sounded like the woman was being attacked.  At one point it appeared she was trapped in between three of the guys, then she got away and ran around a car, and then the fourth guy chased and seized her, and you could hear all the guys laughing.

Obviously, after all this time, I wasn’t about to do nothing.  Or was I?  I kept watching to see if it really was an attack, as it wasn’t that late at night and there were still people out on the street, walking up and down both sidewalks.  Should I cross the street and tell the guys to stop, and help her?  (But what if I’m wrong?  Or what if they attack me too?)  Should I call the police?  I started reaching for my cell phone, then realized I didn’t even know the local police/emergency number.

Should I leave it for someone else to handle?  (So this is what the bystander effect feels like.)  I noticed another, older woman jogging towards me, and she was looking over at the woman and four guys as well.  Desperately hoping she would somehow take this out of my hands, I practically went right up to meet her and looked her straight in the eyes, almost blurting out, “Do you see what’s happening, too?  Should we do something?”  But before I could even make a sound, she was gone; she hadn’t even slowed down her jog.  At that moment, once our eyes had met with no results, I felt we were immediately sworn accomplices, co-conspirators in Operation: Desert Silence.

I took a few more uncertain, conflicted steps towards the direction of my home.  (Wouldn’t she make more effort to actually run away if she were truly being attacked?  Oh, so this is how victim-blaming works.)  Suddenly, I saw another man a few feet away from me, in the shadow of a storefront.  He was watching the scene across the street as well, and dialing on his cellphone at the same time.  My mind desperately freewheeled, grasping at straws while still fearing the short one.  (He must be calling the police; it’s okay.)

I took more steps towards home, turning back towards the scene every few seconds.  (Aren’t you a feminist?  Or do your values only stand as far as your keyboard?)  Then I turned completely around and walked back the way I came, so that I would be almost directly across the street from the men and woman again.  They were still going at it, but the commotion seemed to have simmered down a bit.  I kept watching, walking back and forth over that section of sidewalk between the grocery store and my home so it wouldn’t seem as obvious (Or should you make it obvious, that someone notices?  Would that help?).  Eventually, I ascertained they were basically goofing off, playing some sort of flirty tag/cat-and-mouse but just very noisily; moreover, I’m pretty sure I also saw the woman end up resting in one of the guys arms.  So, I went home.

(But what if?)