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.