I’ve Got Your Back: Fighting the “Bystander Effect”


This is a guest post by Hollaback! Executive Director Emily May. Pic above of Emily with bad-ass train Hollaback!er Nicola Briggs

For six years now, I’ve read every single story submitted to Hollaback!. They have inspired me, made me cry, and made me rage. But the ones that frustrate me the most are the ones where people blankly watched the harassment happen and never offered to help. Here are a few examples:

When a 16 year old realized that she and her friend were alone in a park with a masturbating man she said, “The mothers in the park automatically caught on and left, without saying anything to my friend and I.”

When a young woman was stalked and verbally assaulted she wrote, “There were a number of people waiting in the train station lobby that were viewing the interaction, but yet I felt alone.”

And when a woman was surrounded and verbally harassed by a large group of young men she wrote, “What bothers me most about it is that it wasn’t some dark lonely street. It was early evening on a crowded street and no one seemed to notice.”

The failure of bystanders to act causes a double whammy of traumatization. First, you have some crappy thing happen to you. Then, you believe that no one cares, and that they are all just staring at you, doing nothing. The silence from bystanders normalizes the harassment and leaves you thinking: Do they think it’s your fault? And as if that’s not bad enough, then you start to wonder if they are right — which couldn’t be more wrong.

Over 15% of the stories on our site talk about this phenomenon called the “bystander effect.” People hope that someone else will intervene, and even when they know they won’t they feel like it’s not safe or the “woman wouldn’t want it.” There is this idea that if you want to intervene you need to strap on a superhero costume, swoop in, and beat everyone up. But really it just means asking the person if they are OK, if there is anything that you can do.

Hollaback! is launching the “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign to show bystanders how to intervene, and to celebrate when they do by mapping their stories in green dots. You can support our work by donating here. Join us as we build a world where we all have each other’s backs.

Join the Conversation

  • davenj

    “There is this idea that if you want to intervene you need to strap on a superhero costume, swoop in, and beat everyone up. But really it just means asking the person if they are OK, if there is anything that you can do.”

    Not necessarily. Public intervention is gendered, as is the posturing around public intervention.

    This is coming from someone who has intervened several times on public transportation. I almost got into a fight with a guy taking pictures on his phone of two underage girls. I had to move to a new car of the train after confronting someone who was verbally accosting someone else.

    Truthfully, gender and gender posturing make violence a real possibility when you intervene in public. It’s important to have others’ backs, but it’s also important to realize that violence is a legitimate potential outcome of this, and to be aware of it.

    • http://feministing.com/members/amale/ a male

      “Public intervention is gendered, as is the posturing around public intervention.”

      Agreed. I am male, and over 170 lbs. I am also 5’7″ and most likely alone, without friends to watch MY back. Obviously, there are no police close enough to prevent or stop what is already happening.

      It is naive to think that “Are you alright?” = end of incident, will be the end of me stepping into a situation involving a hostile male, or that only cowards harass or assault women, perceiving them as weaker, and would break off the harassment/assault, and leave a man alone. Does he have a knife or gun? Is he deliberately looking for trouble by doing it in a public place? Does he have friends I don’t know about? If a hostile male is willing to stalk a woman, is he going to come after me or my family for interfering or publicly “humiliating” him if I am successful in stopping him? Right now in my small community (and I live in “paradise,” mind you), is the case of a man who allegedly shot another dead in broad daylight, for reporting to police that the alleged shooter had robbed the victim earlier. Report crime = death for that man. Potential witnesses for this broad daylight shooting are unwilling to come forward or are changing their story because by now they certainly know what could happen to them for cooperating with the investigation. The months earlier broad daylight robbery of the victim by the alleged shooter in a shopping center is also unresolved. Criminals in my community (“Paradise” by the way) are willing to kill to try to avoid arrest or jail time for smaller crimes, which would not be unusual in other communities. And you wonder why people don’t want to get involved?

      Let’s pretend (because I’ve never heard it happen) that I hear what sounds like my neighbor beating his wife or children. I call it in to the police anonymously. Gee, who does he think reported him if/when the police come, or what will he think when he sees police talking to me 30 feet next door? What will he think of me testifying in open court? What do I think will happen while he is out on bail? Who is going to protect me, or my family while I am at work? Now ask me why I have guns, and carry a gun at home.

      And “a LARGE group of young men,” SURROUNDING a young woman? There is no mystery to me why bystanders did not get involved. Even if it were my wife or children as victims, I’d want guns in hand before going in there. Someone WOULD be a hero for getting involved in such a situation.

      • davenj

        Yep. I had a friend who died while stopping a guy from harassing his female friend outside of a bar. The guy punched him in the side of the head and he went down into a curb.

        He died of massive cerebral trauma.

        Intervening is important, but one has to take one’s own safety into account first and foremost. I absolutely don’t want people to feel alone, shamed, or without recourse, but I also don’t want to die in some stupid fight on the street.

        • http://feministing.com/members/amale/ a male

          “really it just means asking the person if they are OK, if there is anything that you can do” is naive. For a man, it can mean sudden, random violence and death at the hands of strangers.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kllamb2/ Kristen

    Thank you for calling attention to this. The reality is in a lot of violent situations there is someone else (bystander) who could do something and potentially impact the outcome. I am a Green Dot Educator and was curious if the green dots you are using for the map have a relation to the program.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    Every situation is different and I think every person who does take the role of seemingly impassive bystander has his or her own reasons to not be involved. But aside from that, it would be very helpful if we were educated or informed about the proper ways to intervene.

    I wonder if there’s a way to keep people safe without worrying about threats to one’s physical safety.

    • http://feministing.com/members/amale/ a male

      “it would be very helpful if we were educated or informed about the proper ways to intervene.”

      I am also all ears about how to intervene in an ongoing harassment or assault, without myself being assaulted or killed, or subjecting my loved ones to possible reprisal attacks.