Not-so-innocent bystanders

In Steubenville, bystanders took pictures of the events leading up to sexual assault, but technology allows even bar fights to be broadcast (Cara Smith/AQ)
In Steubenville, bystanders took pictures of the events leading up to sexual assault, but technology allows even bar fights to be broadcast (Cara Smith/AQ)

We drove home from work together everyday. My father would pick me up from my summer job at the cemetery after his shift at the city’s Public Works. The five-minute drive along the highway to our neighbourhood was usually uneventful — until one day late in July.

A woman knelt by the side of the road. She seemed disoriented.

My father wanted to stop. I told him no, someone else would. He stopped anyway.

“Are you alright?” he asked her.

“I’m fine.”

But she was on the ground, and there was blood trickling from her head. She needed help and my father was the only one of hundreds of commuters to pull over, call 911 and help a stranger.

It’s called the bystander effect, and, in August of last year in Steubenville, Ohio, it was demonstrated on a horrific scale.

Two young men were convicted recently of raping a young woman during back-to-school parties in August 2012. She was too intoxicated to consent, or even to remember what happened. She may never have realized she’d been taken advantage of, if it weren’t for the pictures and videos.

“It’s too common,” says Jennifer Richard, of the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Clinic.
“No one stopped and said ‘that’s gross, that’s wrong, that’s rape.’”

Richards acknowledges the bystander effect played a role in the Steubenville case, where other partygoers filmed, photographed, and later broadcast images of the sexual assault and lead-up on the internet. In this case, though, it is part of a bigger rape culture.

“How sad is it that we have to have this conversation about not having sex with women when they’re unconscious,” chimes in Maggie Cairns, a co-worker of Richards’.

When I asked the women who is responsible to intervene in situations like these, they said it’s tricky.

“People don’t step forward because sexual assault often doesn’t look like what we think it looks like. Usually it’s people who know each other,” says Richards.

“People don’t want to get involved in other people’s relationships. It’s confusing.”

“And awkward,” adds Cairns.


While Steubenville is the most recent high-profile example of the bystander effect, it’s been in the public consciousness for years.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered near her home in Queens, New York City. Though she cried out and shouted for help, she was ignored, despite there being dozens of witnesses to her stabbing.

What witnesses to Genovese’s murder may have experienced is called diffusion of responsibility. In a large group, everyone assumes someone else will take care of the problem. The phenomenon has been nicknamed “Genovese syndrome.”

“Research shows people, especially in large groups, pass by, and people don’t recognize these situations as critical situations. But still, civilized people consider this to be bizarre behavior,” explains Timothy Hachey, a PhD candidate in social and cultural psychology at the University of New Brunswick.

Hachey explains the phenomenon’s three facets: diffusion of responsibility, evaluation apprehension, and the idea someone else may be better suited to step in.

“When there are only a few people, each person has a bigger responsibility to act, but when something goes wrong in a crowed, people feel the responsibility less,” says Hachey.

“Bystanders are also worried about judgment coming from the rest of the group. Humiliation is a big factor.”

Though it may seem hope for the human race is lost, and that groups offer a false sense of security in case of emergency, Hachey has found some exceptions.

Anxious people tend to step up.

“They’re so focused on how people are seeing them, they feel more responsible,” says Hachey.

People with social anxiety are tuned in to the physical cues of others, usually to gauge their own social standing, but in this case, it works in the favour of any perceived victim.

Of course, this is only in a controlled experiment.

“How do we recreate this in a controlled way? We can’t do it perfectly. But when the Genovese case happened, it sparked a landmark study and the model stands for 40 years.”


All Hachey knows, he learned from studies. Kyle Douglas gained his expertise from summers as a lifeguard.

Anticipating bystander apathy, job delegation to civilians was part of his National Lifeguard Service training, standard across Canada.

“I was working at Magic Mountain in Moncton. It was a really hot day and a lady had a stroke. There were 2,000 people at the park. Maybe a handful of people tried to help, but most just stayed back,” he says.

In this situation, Douglas’s training details a series of steps. First, the lifeguard must assess the situation. Then, the lifeguard delegates small jobs like calling 911, finding a blanket, and pushing the crowd back.

“People don’t organize well if they’re not told specifically. You need to call them by name and give them a job,” says Douglas.

He has his own theory as to why the bystander effect is so prevalent in highway accidents, minor injuries, and even tragedies like the Genovese case or Steubenville.

“Very few of us are leaders, and we don’t deal well with stressful situations. We’re afraid of failure,” he says.

The workers and counsellors at Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre might agree. After all, many are afraid to step in on a sexual assault for fear of being scorned by the perpetrator or the victim.

When I asked them why a brawl between men is easily broken up, but a man pushing his girlfriend against the wall is often ignored, they paused to think.

“The government of New Brunswick did a study a few years ago talking about the values of people in New Brunswick,” says Jennifer Richards.

“A big amount of people thought it was still okay to hit your wife. The attitudes are still there. Even if you don’t realize your belief in it, it may be easier to excuse.”

After all, a fight between two men seems to be purely physical, but violence against a woman is more complicated. And anyway, bystanders wouldn’t want things to get awkward.

Richards and Cairns believe there is a moral obligation of men and women to do something.

“We can effect a lot of change but we have to sit at the table with men, too, since they have lots of the power,” says Richards.

“Women can’t stop the violence,” says Cairns.

“We need men to step up.”


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