Forty-five years ago, Americans were shocked by the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese. According to the media at the time, Ms Genovese was attacked multiple times over 30 minutes while 38 men and women saw the assault and did nothing to help. The incident captured the country’s attention and launched a massive public inquiry into how caring people could watch an attack yet remain helplessly inactive. Last week, her murderer, Winston Moseley died in prison at the age of 81.
After the Genovese case, social scientists Latane and Daley (1969) published their groundbreaking research about “bystander apathy.” They concluded that to take any significant action, a bystander must see what is going on, decide that the situation is serious, and then decide to get involved. The bystander must then choose an action and feel that they can perform it. For many bystanders these five steps present an overwhelming sequence of decisions and the result is doing nothing.
More recent research has shown that the story of people watching the rape and murder and doing nothing is just not true. If the true story is told, then we can learn more about the factors that led some people to call out the window “Leave that girl alone” and at least temporarily stop the attack. Or others who called the police, but when the screaming stopped, they had nothing to report. As Americans, we seem to be fascinated with the story that no one did anything to help. I can’t help but wonder if our willingness to intervene would be changed if we saw the examples of where someone did reach out to help.
Yet this feeling of helplessness is often echoed in the workshops I have led on this topic. Someone almost always asks the question, “I saw a young woman being harassed on the bus/subway/street… what should I do?” or “I saw a parent yelling and hitting their child on the playground/supermarket/street… what should I do?” In every case, I ask, what did you do? And through that question, I often hear of the myriad of options that occurred – almost all of them meaning that some action was taken. It might have been to talk with the store manager, or offer some help, or determine that the situation may become violent and call the police or other official in most cases people did take some action. And if that is the case, then one needs to ask, what actions were effective?
Effectiveness of a bystander approach is currently being evaluated at the college, high school and middle school levels. Well known programs with promising results include: Bringing in the Bystander, Green Dot, Coaching Boys into Men and many others. When exploring bystander prevention models, and I encourage everyone to do so, I believe that sex offender treatment providers have invaluable insights and perspectives few people possess. That perspective includes how to have a conversation with another adult, adolescent or child when there is some concern about their behavior. While these conversations may be a part of daily treatment programs, how to bring up the topic, how to talk about behaviors without immediate accusations, how to follow-up on the conversations, etc. all are a simple part of a treatment providers work. But to the general public, confronting behaviors, voicing concerns, holding someone accountable for their behaviors are ALL important skills that treatment providers can teach in their communities.
Joan Tabachnick, MBA
Joan Tabachnick, MBA
Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Abuse Prevention by Joan Tabachnick:
Bringing in the Bystander: http://cola.unh.edu/prevention-innovations/bystander-prevention
Green Dot Program: https://www.livethegreendot.com/
The Nationals Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) developed an excellent overview of programs: http://www.nsvrc.org/bystander-intervention-campaigns-and-programs