The Soapbox: The Bystander Effect

The above statistics were published by The Guardian, and go some way to expressing the pitifully low rate of convictions for rape and sexual assault here in the UK.

I wanted to talk today about excuses. I have always been someone who has strong opinions, and I do get wound up by things that most people choose to ignore. But recently, I’m finding that people are increasingly confused by the strength of feeling I have about issues like sexual assault.

I spend a lot of time online, and a lot of that time is spent is reading articles on websites like Feministing  and The Vagenda. Some of these articles are funny, like The Vagenda’s regular dissecting of women’s magazines, some are about fairly ‘fluffy’ things, like a prank where a performance art group swapped the voice boxes of GI Joe and Barbie toys and put them back on the shelves. Others are shocking.

Last night, I read this piece by a contributor to Feministing, about a rape that took place on a bus in Glasgow. I’ve since read more about this incident, and it continues to horrify me. A 14 year old girl was raped by two men on the upper deck of a bus. The attack lasted around ten minutes, before the girl’s friend realised what was happening and raised the alarm. The girls got off the bus, caught a different bus home, and called the police. Her attackers remained on the bus, but were later ejected for ‘lewd, disruptive behaviour’. The driver claims he didn’t know the assault was happening. Quite rightly, questions are being asked about how such an assault can take place without other passengers or the driver being aware of it immediately? Why is there a blind-spot in the bus’ CCTV big enough for two men to rape a teenage girl? Why does being loud on a bus get you kicked off, but raping another passenger doesn’t?

I tweeted a link to the piece on Feministing. This morning, I woke up to find I had a reply. A male friend tweeted back to me, pointing out that this is ‘the bystander effect’, and that nobody would have stepped in if it was a boy being attacked. This is probably true. Lots of people do ignore all sorts of things taking place, be it a girl being raped on a bus, or a boy having his wallet stolen in a shop. People turn a blind eye, often afraid of getting involved.
But why does this happen? What is in it us that makes us pretend not to see? I like to think that I’d step in if I saw a sexual assault taking place. But would I be too frightened and keep quiet?

In a way, I think this instinct to ignore it is the same instinct that makes people bury their head in the sand in general about incidents like this. The same instinct that makes people uncomfortable when we talk about these incidents. Whenever I share links on social media about stories like this, someone responds telling me to calm down, to chill out, that bad things happen to boys too. Yes, men are assaulted and raped too. It’s far less common, but it happens. But that doesn’t lessen the awfulness of some of the things that happen to women. And sexual assault and rape happens to women far more often than it happens to men. Why is it that people are made uncomfortable by me sharing a link to an article, news story or opinion piece that has caught my attention?

It is nearly always men who respond to me in this way. Often men I am very fond of. It worries me slightly that people are confused that I engage in this sort of subject matter. Should I not talk about horrific events, like this rape in Glasgow or like the Steubenville rape in America? Should I not retweet from wonderful projects like Everyday Sexism? Should I not write blog posts like this?

Whenever I link to, or blog about, something like this, at least one person replies with some sort of reasoning for what’s happened, or to tell me to calm down, or often that there’s no point talking about this stuff, as it won’t change anything. Or theres’s the other end of the scale, where well-meaning guys then send me links to everything about women on the internet ever.

I appreciate that people don’t like to think about bad things. I understand that these cases are newsworthy because they don’t happen every day. But they do happen, and they ought to be talked about. Talking about it, addressing the issues raised, is important. Awareness is a very important weapon.

I think what struck me about this particular rape was that this girl should have been safe. Women are bombarded with advice to keep them safe. We’re told, if we’re going anywhere at night, to stay with friends, to not walk home alone. Public transport ought to be safe. This girl did what we’re advised to do. Rather than walk home alone at 10.30pm, she got a bus with a friend. There were other passengers and a driver. She should have been safe. And yet she wasn’t.

I often get public transport late at night. Thanks to being in a long distance relationship, the last train home is familiar territory for me. In fact, on Monday, I caught the last train home from Coventry, spent half an hour at 11pm sitting in Oxford station waiting for a connection, and eventually arrived home at a little before 1am. At no point during my journey did I think I wasn’t safe. They were plenty of other passengers around, as well as station and train staff. I’m always careful not to sit in empty carriages, or hang around on badly lit station platforms. I get a taxi home from the station, rather than save the money and walk. If anything had happened, someone would have stepped in. Right?
Maybe not. Nobody stepped in for the girl in Glasgow. Is this now yet another thing I have to think twice about doing because I might not be safe? Because if someone assaults me on a train home, someone might turn a blind eye and let it happen?
I shouldn’t be in a situation where that’s excusable behaviour. Nobody should.

I suppose what annoyed me, and what always annoys me, about the responses I often get online, is the being told what I should and should not feel angry about or threatened by. If a story bothers me, that’s up to me, and if I wish to share it, I will. If you’re not interested, don’t read. The point is, I think women feel unsafe much more than men do. It’s unpleasant, feeling intimidated by something as simple as making your way home. It’s distressing that even when you’re taking all the precautions women are advised to take to stay safe, it’s apparently not enough.
I think being angry about that is pretty acceptable. To be frank, if you’re aren’t angry, you’re probably not paying attention.

  • Rape is bad. It is the one crime (I can think of) that is unquestionably morally indefensible. My heart goes out to the girl. I sincerely hope those men are caught, punished and, importantly, rehabilitated. I hope the girl is given all the support she needs to recover and not be held back by this savagery.
    You are right to be outraged and angry because they DO happen everyday. If we take the statistics at the top of your post, they tell us that there 15,670 RECORDED cases a year. If we say only 3/4 of those are genuine (false accusations do happen unfortunately) that is still over 30 rapes a day. Just in the UK. Something is fundamentally wrong in the world. And these are just the recorded cases. I’d be interested to know how the estimated figure is arrived at?
    The question isn’t,”How can this happen here?” It’s, “Why does this happen?”
    The original journalist can be forgiven in asking the “How?” question as she is reporting the mood in the local community. Society is desensitised with live updates of horrific events from around they world. Recently we’ve been appalled by the hideous attacks in India, U.S and now Brazil. Far away places. Guess what? People are fucked up here too. It’s just even nastier up close.
    What I don’t understand is why you and the Feministing columnist decry everyone around as complicit? I agree that rape is probably a product of a patriarchal society. Would sexual assault exist in a matriarchy? Yes, but, I would guess, not any where near as severe or proliferate. That doesn’t mean that the people in the vicinity were instruments in the rape or in the proliferation of a patriarchy or even examples of the Bystander Effect. It seems this frightening event has been hijacked for an argument it doesn’t even lend itself to. Even the reportage of events has been changed to suit a tone that smacks of misandry in the Femisiting article. The word “trauma” isn’t in inverted commas to patronise. It’s to indicate the actual words used. Which was actually “traumatised” Even you, George, have used “journalistic licence” and are condescending when you suggest that people are confused by your strong feelings on sexual assault! You say no-one came to her aid. As soon as her friend realised 3 people intervened. They removed her from the bus and waited with her for another. Now, why the police didn’t get called as soon as the girl was safely away from her attackers… why the 3 didn’t then go to the police… I’ve no idea. I would suggest to wait and see rather than decide ourselves.
    I hope you don’t decide that I’m telling you what to feel or to “calm down”. I agree with you that rape culture needs to be talked about. That women have got it worse and that this can’t go on. However it can be difficult to join the conversation if you’re is being shouted at.
    Again my thoughts are with the girl.

  • I agree with you about the original journalist; I’ve read the original article in the Glasgow Herald since, as well as reports from a lot of other sources. She has taken things like “traumatised” to mean things they don’t. I think hers is an emotional response.

    The bystander effect comes in with the fact it took ten minutes for anyone to help her. Ten minutes is a long time to be assaulted with no help. The three people who stepped in when her friend raised the alarm are commendable. But the even after this, the driver seems to think he still had no idea what was happening. Which just doesn’t seem feasible to me. Not noticing the attack happening is one thing, you’d hope he was concentrating on driving. Although, ever single double decker bus I’ve ever been on has a camera on the upper level so the driver can see what’s going on. He should have noticed, really, but didn’t. But when the girl’s friend made enough fuss to draw the attention and get the help of three other passengers, and then all five of these people get off the bus…surely something must have drawn his attention?

    People often are confused by my strong feelings about it. I welcome questions and intelligent debate, but unfortunately, a lot of the time, whether it’s an incident of sexual assault I’m talking about, or cat-calling, someone wonders why I’m bothered. It didn’t happen to me, so why am I making a fuss. Often it’s the ‘calm down, dear’ response.

    This particular case has got a lot of strange points to it; why wasn’t it picked up on the cameras? Why weren’t the police called immediately? And yes, why did it take ten minutes, in a public place, for someone to realise something was wrong?

  • jodie

    Get angry and stay angry. I often think people don’t like talking about “taboo” things is because they simply dint talk about then- they only way to educate and share is talking about them. When I first started dating my boyfriend he was embarrassed by the majority of my conversations (I worked in a elderly ward so it was a lot of poo talk) and about my amazing boobs/woman no on in general. Now he describes every action.
    I know this is a strange comparison but I’m not very good at arguing points which is where I need you to keep tweeting and writing post. We need to share subjects fir action to happen.
    Maybe then when someone’s getting assaulted in a busy area they might be stopped, and women can walk the streets again.