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.

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