STREET HARASSMENT AND THE BYSTANDER EFFECT: When Society Lets the Riffraff Rule the Roost

The Bystander Effect or Genovese syndrome is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely related to the number of bystanders; in other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.(1)

The case of Kitty Genovese is often cited as an example of the "bystander effect". It is also the case that originally stimulated social psychological research in this area. Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer. According to newspaper accounts, the attack lasted for at least a half an hour. The murderer attacked Genovese and stabbed her, then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and finished the assault. Newspaper reports after Genovese's death claimed that 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene or even contact the police.(1)

In October 2009, a 15-year-old girl at a Richmond High homecoming dance was gang raped while a number of onlookers did nothing and were said to have been laughing, jeering, and taking photos with their cell phones. According to the Richmond Police Department, the girl was raped by at least four different suspects who committed multiple sex acts. She was flown to a hospital in critical condition after the attack.(2)

Early in the morning of April 18, a 31-year-old homeless was stabbed while trying to save a woman from an attacker with a knife in Queens, New York. The homeless man, now identified as Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, was stabbed and left dying on the street in a pool of blood for more than an hour.(3)

Surveillance video, obtained by the New York Post, shows people walking by the man. One person took a photograph on his mobile phone then walked away and another stopped, shook Tale-Yax, and even rolled him over so that his wounds were visible. Still, officials weren't called until one-hour-and-twenty minutes after Tale-Yax collapsed.(3)


Street Harassment is an example of the Bystander Effect in action. It may be less extreme than the above examples, but it follows the exact same pattern. The following video link shows the Bystander Effect at work on a subway.

The Bystander Effect has multiple origins, but a part of it comes from the bystanders feelings of powerlessness. Powerlessness leads to apathy. Apathy creates powerlessness. It is a vicious cycle of deny, delay, and do nothing. But in reality, the power lies in the hands of the bystanders. It is their inaction that allows the harasser to act with total impunity.

The dirty little secret that all street harassers know is that it is very easy to intimidate the general public. They realize that by talking loudly and making dramatic gestures they can get away with outrageous behavior. Both men and women will be fearful of getting involved. Therefore, the harasser is able to take charge. Street harassment provides the harasser the opportunity to flip the social structure. The riffraff get to rule the roost. The harasser has learned from experience how much he can get away with. He reads the bystanders. He uses his harassment to take control not only over his target, but over the bystanders as well.

The bystanders are now faced with a choice. They can get involved, or they can internally justify their inaction with rationalizations such as: “I am too busy”, “it’s not my problem”, and “the harasser may turn on me”. Alternatively, the rationalizations could seek minimize the scope of the problem, “well, she looks ok”, “he was only kidding”, or “he didn’t hurt her”. Another form of justification is to blame the target of harassment, “she was asking for it”. All of these rationalizations are methods for the bystander to minimize their feelings of cognitive dissonance. They must justify the conflict of their inaction with the type of moral person they believe themselves to be.

The reality of modern society is that few people have developed the ability to do more than to disengage from a perceived threat. They have conditioned themselves to be non-responsive as opposed to being proactive. Therefore, while it may be too much to expect that the bystanders directly confront the harasser with his unsocial behavior; it is not too much to expect that they provide some type of moral support to the target of harassment. In the case of the video, someone could have seated themselves next to woman being harassed.

Every instance of street harassment is an opportunity to rewrite history. It is an opportunity to diminish the Bystander Effect. It provides people with a concrete opportunity to stand up for their beliefs. By taking action, no matter how small, bystanders will recondition themselves from being passive observers into proactive participants. Major change will not happen overnight. Reconditioning only comes through continuous small steps. Each step becomes a little bolder than the one before. Eventually, bystanders will be able to assert control and the riffraff will no longer rule the roost.