Sexual assault and the bystander effect: Inaction of passers-by is a grave problem which needs to be addressed

On 29 April, in Jehanabad, Bihar, a group of men molested a minor girl in broad daylight, while the people who had gathered around the scene did nothing to help her. Some even took videos of the incident, which then went viral. Just a few weeks earlier, on 5 April, a woman was attacked and molested by a man while on board a Mumbai local train, in full view of the passengers who didn’t even attempt to stop the attacker.

18-year-old Samyukhtha Sunil was one among many women harassed during the infamous 2017 New Year’s Eve incident in Bengaluru on Brigade Road. She talks about how she was attacked by a man but nobody helped her. “There were people all around me who saw me struggling but they didn’t do anything to stop him. Maybe they thought that I was just pretending or that it was nothing serious, I don’t know what was going through their minds while I was struggling to escape.”

We hear these stories all the time and we wonder, when it comes to accidents, molestation and assaults, why do bystanders often stand and stare instead of helping the victim? Turns out this is a well-documented psychological phenomenon. Research over many decades has shown that the more the number of people watching a crisis play out, the less likely they are to help a victim. So, if a person is witness to a crisis unfolding, they are more likely to help if they’re the only person around.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Why? According to psychologists, we can blame this on what is known as diffused responsibility, the feeling that someone else will do the job otherwise known as the bystander effect. The bystander effect is also called the Genovese syndrome, named after Kitty Genovese, an American bar manager who was murdered in the 1960s, a crime many, many people seem to have been aware of as it progressed. The phenomenon continues to be the subject of research and yields many other insights. For instance, psychologists say that bystanders look to each other to decide whether to intervene and often conclude that there is no need because of ‘pluralistic ignorance’. In simple terms, it means that each person in the crowd thinks that s/he is the only one who thinks there is something wrong and since no one else is reacting, the situation must be actually alright. No one bells the cat because each person assumes from the other people’s faces that there is no need to bell the cat.

Pradipta Sanghvi, chairperson at the Bangalore-based volunteer group Sneha Society for Counselling, says, “It isn't uncommon for some people to simply escape from the scene or to not even bother to help the victims. It is not selfish but it isn’t selfless either,” says Sanghvi. “As humans, our first instinct is to protect ourselves when we are in danger. That could explain why some bystanders’ first reaction is to escape the scene and not offer help," she adds.

All of this is rather dire information because it seems to imply that the human instinct is to not help someone in obvious need. This is true, hence the idea of a heroine (or hero) who does things that are inconvenient, astonishing and risky. However, studying the bystander effect has also led to research in hacking this human instinct to run home with eyes averted and milk packet in hand.

Remember that bystanders are not just strangers. As we know, women are most likely to face danger and violence within their homes from people they know. So, you could be a bystander in the context of family, flatmates, hostel or gym and still face the enormous confusion about next steps.

When do bystanders help?

According to research, bystanders are likely to help if one or more of the following conditions apply.

1. When they are feeling upbeat and positive about the world and life.

2. When they are frequent witnesses to people doing other kinds of socially useful or charitable actions. So, if you live in a colony where people frequently engage in social activities such as feeding the homeless or organising medical camps for the underprivileged, your neighbours, who have witnesses, are more likely to step in during a crisis.

3. If they are close to home or in a familiar neigbourhood. C, a middle-aged doctor, says, “I was on my way back from the grocery story very early one morning when I saw a group of young guys attacking an old man and an old woman. I felt outraged that this was happening in my neighbourhood where my children play. I jumped in and started hitting the boys with whatever was in my hands and shouting loudly. They ran away. I offered to take the old man and woman home to check their injuries and then discovered they were not together. She too had been a bystander on a morning walk and she had jumped in, too angry that this was happening near her house!”

4. When people feel like the victim ‘deserves help’. This is a horrible one in India and around the world where bystanders run a complex 'app' to decide whether the victim is decent. The 'app' runs rapidly through the victim’s clothes, class, caste indicators, religion, the language in which she is crying out for help, and then often decides the victim is not worthy of help or worse, that she deserves whatever horrible thing is happening to her.

5. If people think of the victim as ‘apna’ in any way, they are more likely to help. Same unfortunate calculation as above.

6. You would guess that the victim being familiar would increase their chances of getting help from bystanders. But research also shows that if the bystanders are friends with each other, they are more likely to help.

7. When they are sober: To put it another way, heavy drinkers are much less likely to help, especially if heavy drinking is seen as part of a bro culture which is comfortable with sexism and violence.

8. When they are not sexist. 38-year-old Vasantha has been working as a domestic worker in Bengaluru for the past ten years. She recounts an incident where her husband began to beat her up and nobody intervened. She says: “I knew that all my neighbours and my so called ‘friends’ were listening and I think some even saw it happen, but none of them came to stop him. After the whole incident, some of them came up to me and told me to forget about it and that ‘these things happen’.” This ignorance of domestic violence in plain sight and rationalising it as the man’s prerogative or escape valve is common across class and leaves victims feeling doubly invisible.

9. Being some sort of expert. If you have been trained in anything like lifeguard CPR, emergency first aid and so on, it does give you the framework of understanding to swiftly recognise a crisis for what it is. More importantly, it gives you the confidence to step up when no one else is doing that. This is why you often hear of girls and women with martial arts stepping up to help someone else. It’s not because they are black-belts, it’s because they feel strong and brave.

It is important to feel that the law supports you as a bystander. Everyone knows a story of someone who helped someone and then the police <insert horrible vicious ending for the kind-hearted>.

42-year-old Vasundhara was on a bus from Bengaluru to Belgaum when it crashed into another vehicle and toppled. “The glass windows had shattered and since I was sitting right in front, the glass pieces fell on me and I was bleeding very badly. Luckily, my husband, whom I was travelling with, wasn’t as badly injured as me and managed to help me and a few others out of the bus. This happened in the middle of the night and we were very afraid. An auto driver who was around the area at that time helped us get to the hospital. He was a bit hesitant at first because he didn’t want to get involved with the police, but he agreed to drop us off at the hospital and leave. I don’t know what we would have done without him," she said.

In 2017, Karnataka became the first state in the country to pass the Good Samaritan law which preserves the bystander’s anonymity, extent of involvement and protects him or her from civil or criminal action. In 2016, the Supreme Court also passed the Force of Law ruling that protected those who aided victims of road accidents. But both these legal recourses protect bystanders who help usually in the case of accidents, so more laws would be helpful.

How can bystanders help without endangering themselves? Let’s take one category of crisis. If you witness public or private harassment of women, what can you do?

1. Take the lead and remind yourself that everyone who is standing around and staring is looking for a cue. Your stepping up will help break everyone out of Mandrake’s mass hypnosis situation.

2. Call out and say something as simple as stop!

3. Say ‘the police is coming’ or ‘someone has called the police’. M, a 38-year-old Delhi housewife, says on an occasion where she witnessed her father-in-law beating her mother-in-law in front of the large joint family, one young cousin faked panic that she had heard the police coming. No one called the police but it was enough to end the violence for the moment.

4. Make eye-contact with other bystanders deliberately and convey your feelings of disgust, anger and fear to cue them similiarly. Say, “We must help her.” Then give specific instructions, “You gentleman in the kurta, please help me get this lady up from the ground. Madam, please put her things back in her bag.”

5. Bypassing the aggressor, ask the victim if he/she is okay and try to make her speak to you.

6. You can pretend that you know the victim and you were looking for her, “Everyone is waiting for you at the store. Come, come let’s go,” and so on.

7. You can try to create a distraction and hope to give the victim enough time to get away. Telling the aggressor anything, from the fact that someone is calling him to his car is getting towed or his mobile phone falling down, might be the couple of minutes required to run away.

8. Active bystanders must be aware of their surroundings and always put their own safety first.

We can’t all be heroines or take risks with our lives or that one intervention will solve everything. But perhaps with some strategising and some luck, your intervention may defuse the crisis in front of you. And it will be one less story in which people ask, “But why didn’t anyone help her?”

(With inputs from Shruti Kondi)

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women's magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.


Updated Date: May 05, 2018 20:49 PM

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