When we go to parties, we’re responsible not only for our own safety, but also for the safety of those around us. That isn’t to say that when you go out you need to be on constant watch for date rape. Simply be aware of your surroundings. If you see something that looks wrong, speak up. Don’t let the bystander effect get the better of you.
The bystander effect is when an individual is less likely to act due to the presence of others. In other words, if you’re surrounded by other people during an emergency, you’ll have more trouble doing something about it because you think someone else will take up the responsibility.
A series of drunken events surrounding the Halloween dance this year got me thinking about the bystander effect. I’m still mulling over whether these events should leave me feeling hopeful, hopeless or somewhere in between. I’ll let you, as the reader, be the judge.
This past Saturday, I got way too drunk. When I arrived at the dance I was only slightly tipsy. At some point, however, all those pre-dance Blueberry Burnett’s shots seemed to hit me and by the end of the night I was falling over every minute or so. By 1:30 a.m., my friends decided it was time to take me home.
Upon leaving the dance, my group dispersed a little, so my boyfriend and I were more or less walking back alone. To be perfectly honest, I was in pretty rough shape. I could barely walk, and occasionally I would just slump to the ground and lay there, collecting crunchy, brown leaves in my neon blue wig. Each time I did this, my boyfriend would lift the my limp, uncooperative self off the ground and keep leading me back to my dorm.
To a bystander, this situation should look pretty questionable. A relatively sober guy leading an incapacitated, immobile girl back home after a Haas dance immediately is a red flag. It did raise red flags for a number of the people who saw us walking back. Although my recollection of this part of the night is hazy at best, my boyfriend informed me the next day of some of the concerned comments generated by our walk home. Passersby said things like “What is that guy doing?”
What I found encouraging about the comments was that all of the judgmental ones seemed to be directed at the “perpetrator” rather than the “victim”. I’m using quotes around these words because in actuality, there was no perpetrator or victim in this situation—just my boyfriend trying to get me home safely.
However, to the bystanders, it appeared that something potentially involving a victim and a perpetrator was happening and these bystanders were judging the perpetrator rather than the victim. The sad reality is that in many ways we continue to live in a society that blames the victim, which is why I was heartened by the comments. Whether we want to admit it or not, slut-shaming and victim blaming are still prevalent. It brought me a certain level of comfort to know that the bystanders from Saturday night had been expressing hostility towards the person they had perceived to be the perpetrator, rather than the victim.
On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder: What if what the bystanders thought they were seeing was actually happening? What if a guy who I didn’t know and who didn’t have my best interests in mind was walking me home instead of my boyfriend? I don’t particularly want to let my imagination wander down that path. But if something had happened to me, it would have happened partially because none of the bystanders who seemed so perturbed actually intervened.
I don’t mean to judge or blame any of the bystanders for their actions (or lack thereof). They did what I think 99 percent of people would have done: nothing. The bystander effect is a very real problem that affects everyone—even the most considerate and compassionate of individuals who always think of the well-being of others. No one is immune to the bystander affect, but acknowledging its existence and knowing how it can change our behavior can help us realize when we are falling victim to its influence.
I think that more than anything else, it was this group distribution of responsibility that caused no one to step in on Saturday, even when bystanders were disturbed by what they thought they were witnessing. There were tons of people who saw the same thing, but perhaps they all figured someone else would be the one to act. Or maybe they worried about what would happen if they had acted.
But think about it. If just one of them had intervened, what’s the worst that could have happened? My boyfriend would say, “It’s not what you think, I’m her boyfriend and I’m taking her back to her room and putting her to bed.”
In instances where a potential victim is too drunk to know what is going on, let alone consent to any sort of sexual activity, having a third party member step in and question the potential perpetrator’s intentions could very likely prevent a sexual assault from occurring. If there is one point I am hoping to drive home it is this: in most cases, virtually no harm can come from intervening in these situations. Maybe you’ll feel awkward intervening in someone else’s business. Maybe the suspected perpetrator will get offended by the accusations. But you also may help someone who needs it, and that should be worth all the awkwardness and offense in the world.