Last last year, as many as 10 young men gang-raped a 15-year-old girl, while another 10 people watched, in Richmond, California. As horrible as the attack was, with many questions that swarm regarding one’s ability to witness such a gruesome attack without intervening or calling for help, we already have a name for this phenomenon: the bystander effect. The term was coined to make sense of how 38 people witnessed, by hearing and/or seeing, the violent rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. And, subsequent research has found that the diffusion of responsibility, or the pressure one perceives to intervene, increases as the number of people present increases.
A Disconnect Between Problems And Solutions
Unlike other countries, like some in Europe, many of the US’s Good Samaritan laws are focused on protecting individuals who help in emergency situations from criminal and financial liability, yet, there is little about holding responsible those who fail to intervene in such situations. (Think back to the 1997 death Princess Diana, when seven paparazzi were later charged with failing to abide by France’s Good Samaritan law.) Further, the primary solution that has been offered by activists, scholars, and lay people to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault) is to equip women with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to protect themselves from future attacks. This, unfortunately, means that, when these strategies fail, and a woman is sexually assaulted or raped, she is at risk for being blamed for her own attack (“victim-blaming“).
A victim-blaming post at the Daily Princetonian has sparked a wave of criticism of the continued prevalence of victim-blaming for sexual violence, coupled with the emergence of evidence that colleges are failing to seek justice for victims of sexual violence (see here, here, here, and here). For example, NPR reported on a woman who was raped in her Indiana University dorm in 2006, sought to bring criminal charges up on her rapist, but never received justice. The rapist was suspended from IU for a year, but returned, forcing the woman to drop out for fear for her safety and emotional well-being. So, for all of the pushing to report sexual assaults when they happen, given that so few women report them when they happen, there is a great chance the police and, if a college student, the university will fail to do anything meaningful. Heck, just last week, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst admitted to raping a woman, but, essentially, he will face no punishment from UMass. So, women are told to protect themselves (i.e., be covered head to toe, don’t get drunk, and don’t hookup), and then are blamed if they are raped and are given few options to see that justice is achieved.
Hold The Community Responsible
Over the years, I have come across rape conceptualized as a social problem, public health concern, and product of sexism and patriarchy, to mention a few. The missing link, however, has been conceptualizing sexual violence as a community problem. As long as we provide prevention strategies for potential victims and potential perpetrators of sexual violence, we will continue to leave individuals to protect themselves and blame them when they fail to do so. The critical shift, then, is to hold everyone responsible for preventing sexual violence. This includes every member in the community – advocates, activists, educators, law enforcement officials, social workers, psychologists, medical professionals, and so forth. And, this includes prevention at every point on the continuum of sexual violence, not simply intervening when an event has reached the point of rape. This means challenging sexist jokes or comments, calling out harassing behavior, pushing for changes in social and community norms about gender roles, sexual behavior, and relationships, and, of course, intervening when rape and sexual assault occur. This approach has been called bystander intervention, but, clearly implicates everyone as a bystander, not merely those who witness the most intense, violent forms of sexual violence. The goal of such an approach is to prevent sexual violence before it ever starts, and also shifting the responsibility and blame from potential victims to the entire community.
For some reason, we continue to think about rape and sexual assault as an entirely different category of crime. High crime rates, in terms of robberies, thefts, vandalism, assaults, and murders, can unify a community (i.e., neighborhood watch, town hall meetings) and get the attention of politicians and law enforcement, but rape and sexual assault does not seem to mobilize communities in the same way. Murder, assault, and robbery victims are not blamed for their own attack, no matter what they did, who they are, or how they’re dressed, yet the same is not true for victims of sexual violence. Areas with high rates of sexual violence aren’t categorized as “problem areas” in the same way that they are when other types of crimes are common; if that were true, most college campuses would be deemed high-crime areas. (Yet, we let rapists continue to attend school and live on campus even when they’ve been convicted of sexual assault or rape.) It’s time we take seriously sexual violence as a problem of the community.