Has The Bystander Effect Undermined Sexual Assault Against Women?

The content on this post is highly sensitive. Comments and discussions are welcome.


One of my personal favorites when it comes to watchable and listenable content on the Internet has to be real-life crime documentaries.

Besides having thrilling plotlines and uneasy cliffhangers, these films explore some of the most ghastly acts that man perpetrates towards his fellows, malice notwithstanding. And that fascinates me. Perhaps the reason I am drawn to them, honestly, is that they are a great tool to use when learning about the human psyche.

Why do people behave they way they do? Are there any presuppositions, arguments and perspectives that often go unnoticed about a situation? Most importantly, with murder investigations, the pertinent question that arises could be: Why didn’t someone do (or say) something?

The degree to which this query can be discussed provides a clear picture of how society interprets high-risk situations and why the Bystander Effect can limit one’s actions during these cases.

We are always surrounded by the risk for danger, in varying probabilities, depending on our location, mood, activity and setting. It is likely that a brawl will occur in a nightclub than in a library; one could be at serious risk of a concussion if they were a rugby player; all these are situations that we have either found ourselves in or heard about.

We often assess risk using the parameters I have mentioned and are able to make informed decisions about our actions. Easier said than done, right?

The problem comes when people expect that high-risk situations are predictable – when they are not. They demand that the person keep from making assumptions, which could lead to dire results. For example, there are people who calmly go about their daily grind on automobiles with minimum fuss over whether the safety belts are cinched tight or not; at least they are guaranteed to beat the morning traffic to the office. Or how about the wait at the bus stage, where a group of men are cat-calling several women, ladies? How then is the risk assessed at this point?

A divide occurs, naturally. Gender. The underpinning parameter that explains why a group can be averse to the risks facing another group, even when facing a similar situation. This is the major parameter that misleads many groups of people into reaching conclusions based on assumptions and generalizations.

Using the earlier example, then, we can all agree then that both genders will interpret the situation differently: the subject (the men cat-calling) considers the activity low-risk as it presents no immediate danger to the subject and neither does it impute any danger. The victim (ladies being cat-called) considers the situation high-risk as, to them, the activity presents direct harm to them or threatens them. Important to understand that cat-calling is among the prime antecedents to derogatory talk often with a sexual connotation directed towards the victim, or a part of their body/self.

We can see that both genders/groups can consequently, respectfully, have their own considerations of a situation and come to an understanding that the particular situation presents a higher risk to one group (the ladies).

What follows then, or what should follow, is an appreciation that easing away the factors attributing to high risk of danger towards one group will benefit the relationship that both enjoy. When both groups are comfortable in a similar situation, with risk being minimized actively, then the society as a whole would enjoy civil discourse, openness and honesty.

People who intentionally create uncomfortable environments for others are genuinely devoid of being able to enjoy life without depressing another’s. This, as you can almost tell, is a sad life bound by narcissism and the taut chords of egotism. People should actively lower the risk of danger that anyone around may be bound to face without antagonizing the situation further (the reasonable thing, maybe not the most popular thing though).

Let us circle back, then, to the question “Why didn’t you do or say anything?” Critical, straight to the bone. It brings us to the term of discussion: The Bystander Effect.

When both groups are comfortable in a similar situation, with risk being minimized actively, then the society as a whole would enjoy civil discourse, openness and honesty.

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Ever heard of it?

Psychology Today explains that the Bystander Effect “occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime.”

It is very prevalent in the world we live in today and discomforting is the sad reality to which this phenomenon points: NO ONE REALLY CARES. Regardless of whether it’s high-risk, low-risk, scarring, untruthful, people will make the choice of saving themselves rather than the next person.

This is an art that the world of these ages has mastered to perfection, an idol it has expertly hewn out of the callousness of their hearts, carving it with their scathing hands and setting it up on their puffed-up heads. Instead of appreciating the risks and dangers that situations place on particular people, the default action is to firstly undermine the victim’s experience. People unwisely choose to complain and look to blame someone, a target upon which they can mete out their uncaring, vile comments on social media. Victimizers opt for “Someone ought to do something”, or “They would have been more careful” and the self-aggrandizing “Why did they expose themselves to {insert high-risk situation}”.

The Bystander Effect has failed us.

People would rather not, honestly.

Victims of sexual abuse are the most affected persons of the failures that noncommittal action present. It is therefore not surprising to learn from the UN Women Global Database on Violence Against Women that, as of 2014, over 40.7% of ever-partnered women had experienced lifetime physical/sexual intimate partner violence. A statistic as dispiriting and oddly revealing as this is painted even more ghastlier in reality: with even more cases going unreported due to social stigma and victim harassments.

As many as 88% of women report at least one incident of sexual or physical victimization by the time they graduate from college. Perhaps more alarming is that even with the facts stretched out for us to consider, we still hear of accusations leveled at affected groups often ringing with contempt-laced agitation and unfounded logic. Bystanders are super awesome at doing this, but they suck at putting their criticisms and spurious assumptions through the “is-it-feasible wringer”.

Ask yourself: Are the assumptions being made/I’m making about this group/person feasible or not?

Instead of appreciating the risks and dangers that situations place on particular people, the default action is to firstly undermine the victim’s experience.

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The society needs to realize that discussing the rife dangers that one group faces in a situation does not delegitimize the dangers that another group may face in the same situation or a different one. Yes, we need the input of both groups if the horns of sexual abuse, assault and/or harassments are to be cut off.

The Bystander Effect limits a person who would also be willing to assist in a high-risk situation. The inaction by others is usually to blame.

How many times do tiffs between two innocuous people degrade into full-blown fist-fights without the intervention of a sole person? The obvious excuses that are brought up include the need to preserve one’s own safety (but not enough to raise alarm? Laughable) and the unfamiliarity of the victims. Sidelined and utterly forgotten are the deep-rooted issues: the victim blaming mentality, the traumatic experiences of misogyny and sexism that female victims of sexual abuse face, the lack of an understanding to consent and entitlement as well as the role that alcohol and substance abuse plays.

Conversation is not enough.

According to the National Mental Health Policy, it is estimated that up to 25% of outpatients and up to 40% of in-patients in health facilities suffer from mental health disorders. A further look reveals that among the high-risk persons, women’s vulnerability to factors such as poverty, sexual and domestic violence, discrimination and conflicts has exposed them to high prevalence of certain mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The statistics are once again revealing a trend: one group is likely to suffer from the dangers that high-risk situations present to them, in this case sexual abuse. Not only do we need conversation to spark mentality change, we also need to put in place actionable steps as a society, and actionable programs as a country. If the society allows a distraction from the fact that women are more susceptible to mental health disorders caused by sexual harassments, then it loses the focal point, and it will naturally, with fervent desperation, attack the situation using the wrong victim-blaming mindset.

People forget that the victims of some nasty ordeals could easily be members of their own family, close friends and relatives. How meaningful and heartwarming it would be if people treated their fellows as if they were members of the same blood? Empathy is usually lost when one cannot relate to the experience of the affected person/group because of their own biases, limited thinking, skewed perspectives bolstered either by their upbringing, culture, religion and life experience.

However, acknowledging that life is different and dynamic for each and every person on this earth breaths new life into people’s mentality, thoughts and judgments. Coming to this point of realization is difficult for many, others even die before they can grasp the immensity contained in the simple act of empathy. Instead of settling to be a bystander, the mature call would be to stand up. Upstanders, as opposed to bystanders, take action proactively to remedy the situation and minimize the risk. They speak up when they witness that a person/group is in a high-risk situation and is facing the dangers associated.

Bystander intervention training, alongside the rule of consent and safe-sex practices, should be mandated in institutions of learning to empower adolescents to gain a better insight of how to help others and themselves too in high-risk situations. The benefit of the doubt should not be allowed free rein into the matters of sexual abuse. We can save that for weathermen reporters on our TV stations.

Choose to be an upstander.

Stand. Speak and Act.
Be an upstander

The content in this post is highly sensitive in nature. To contact the Niskize National Suicide Emergency Line, call (254) 718 227 440 . Download and read the National Mental Health Policy for Kenya HERE.

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