04/12/2016 10:28 EDT | Updated 04/13/2017 05:12 EDT

Bystander Intervention: Focusing On The Facts In Sexual Violence

New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - MARCH 08: View of scene where on March 13, 1964, Catherine 'Kitty' Genovese was murdered at 82-70 Austin St., Kew Garden, Queens, New York. Photo by Dennis Caruso/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, Winston Moseley, the man who murdered Kitty Genovese in 1964, died in prison. On March 13, 1964 when Genovese was arriving home from work she noticed Moseley approaching. Though she ran from him, Moseley caught up to her and stabbed her in the back. When Genovese cried out for help, Moseley escaped only to later return once Genovese was closer to her apartment building. Now out of the public's view, Moseley stabbed Genovese again repeatedly and sexually assaulted her as she lay dying.

At the time of the murder, the actions of the bystanders were misrepresented when it was reported that 38 witnesses to the crime failed to intervene. For academics, it was the place where the bystander tradition, the view that groups hinder helping behaviours, grew.

In their 1968 research into the bystander effect, Bibb Latané and John Darley explained that people who are alone will more likely intervene on someone's behalf over those who are with others. This is due to the "diffusion of responsibility" in which an individual's sense of responsibility is weakened or minimized by the presence of others. They concluded that group pressure constrains an individual's response.

However, over the years, the action or inaction of the witnesses to Genovese's sexual assault and murder was debated. Moreover, while some studies proved the strength of the bystander effect, others demonstrated that bystanders in a group may find the strength to act if they observe others doing the same.

While silence is always a part of crime, when it comes to certain crimes such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and institutional abuse, the silence gets louder.

But it is not enough to point to the journalistic inaccuracy in the reports about the witnesses to the crime in 1964 to explain the popularity of the bystander effect in the cultural imagination. We must also question academic inquiry and review in disciplines such as criminology, psychology, and sociology where the bystander tradition took a strong hold.

In questioning why a particular narrative about the bystanders to the Genovese murder has persisted for so long even though it was both contrary to the evidence about the bystanders present and counterintuitive, Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins note that "once a story becomes established, it is simply echoed by later versions."

They explain that prior to the emergence of the bystander tradition, groups were considered dangerous because of their capacity for action and violence, but that Latane and Darley's findings established the idea that groups are dangerous because of their inaction. In doing so, theories about groups and bystanders progressed in a particular way while those around gender and violence were neglected.

The bystander tradition, therefore, arose from a turning away from, or a silencing of important social factors that could and should have been examined at that time. While silence is always a part of crime, when it comes to certain crimes such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and institutional abuse, the silence gets louder.

It is, therefore, not only bystanders that need to be persuaded to intervene but academics and thought leaders as well, especially in considering their use of particular narratives to propel a cause forward. Remaining silent about the factors intertwined in crimes, such as gender, violence, or their sexual nature, only ensures that certain social problems remain unacknowledged and therefore unaddressed.

Responsibility is a crucial feature of bystander intervention, which is the move to counteract the bystander effect. Its application reaches far beyond those present at the time and extends to those thinking about the important and relevant issues and leading the way forward afterwards. Responsibility means not choosing what is sensational and headline-grabbing to focus on, like the bystander effect which did not even apply in the Genovese case, to the detriment of looking at and talking about the important social factors that are present.

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