spring break

Bystander Intervention in Rape Culture

Posted on April 17, 2015

Would you intervene if you witnessed a sexual assault? Would you call the police if you felt unable or unwilling to tackle the perpetrator?

A video has emerged showing hundreds of people standing and watching while an incapacitated woman was gang raped on a beach in Florida during spring break celebrations last month. The police officer investigating the incident said the footage was the “most disgusting, sickening thing” he had ever seen.

“There’s hundreds, hundreds of people standing there – watching, looking, seeing, hearing what’s going on. And yet our culture and our society and our young people have got to the point where obviously this is acceptable somewhere.”

How is it acceptable? Why did nobody do anything to help? Once the initial rage on reading the media reports had subsided, two things came to mind.

The first is the bystander effect, which refers to the phenomenon whereby the greater the number of people present, the less likely they are to help a person in distress. The three main reasons for this are diffusion of responsibility (someone else will do it), ambiguity (am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?) and cohesion (not wanting to stand out from the crowd).

If you saw what appeared to be an incapacitated woman being gang raped on a beach, do you think you would call the the police? Would you assume someone else had called for help or would you wonder if, somehow, the woman had actually consented to this? Or asked for it? I mean, it’s spring break, she’s obviously had a lot to drink and is probably wearing a bikini or other skimpy beachwear. And how embarrassing would it be to find out that one of the men was actually her boyfriend and she had begged him to have public group sex with his friends while she pretended to be asleep?

Can hundreds upon hundreds of onlookers simply have been paralysed by inertia or did many of them just not think there was anything wrong with what they were seeing? Maybe we are so used to hearing sexual assault victim-blaming myths that we use them to justify our own complicity. And maybe we are so desensitised to seeing abusive porn that we find it hard to tell the difference between consensual sex and rape.

Earlier this year, the DPP issued new instructions to police and prosecutors for assessing the issue of consent in rape cases. Now victims are considered unable to consent if they are incapacitated due to drink or drugs or if the suspect holds a position of power over the victim. But how are teenagers supposed to know about consent when they learn about sex by watching mainstream porn routinely depict the humiliation and abuse of women?

A recent NSPCC survey of 12-17 year olds found that one in five 12-13 year olds think watching porn is normal. 20 per cent of those surveyed said they had seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them and 12 per cent admitted to being part of or making a sexually explicit video.

Prof Christian Graugaard of Aalborg University in Denmark has called for porn to be shown in sex education classes to help teenagers learn the difference between what they watch online and real sexual relationships. While it’s unlikely that such a scheme will make it past Britain’s moral guardians, the need to talk to teenagers about porn, consent and sexism has never been greater.

Once we start the conversation about consent, then awareness of the bystander effect should help combat the bystander effect. In Jackson Katz’s much-cited Ted Talk, ‘Violence against women – it’s a men’s issue’, he advocates using bystander intervention to challenge abuse. If you’re not a perpetrator or a victim, then you’re a bystander and your silence is a form of consent and complicity. As bystanders to rape culture, it is every reasonable person’s responsibility to call out abuse and to create a peer culture where violent and sexist behaviour is unacceptable.

By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Huffington Post on 24 April, 2015.

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