Trying to help yourself and realizing you can do nothing is one type of pain. Realizing tens, hundreds or even thousands of other people could have stopped the pain is devastating.

As I stood in a crowd of thousands listening to Macklemore, I continued to pull my dress down as a stranger continued to hike it back up and repeatedly touch me. While this was happening, I never once stopped to think about why I was the only person in the crowd trying to defend myself.

Did others around me not see this man touching me?

The bystander effect may explain why people “ignored” my assault. This phenomenon takes place when the presence of others hinders a persons’ ability to take action in an emergency situation and the responsibility of intervening is diffused amongst the crowd.

In my situation, it is quite possible that every person near me thought the other people were going to intervene. Maybe they thought I had it taken care of?

Even so, nobody told the man who sexually assaulted me to stop, and he won. Ultimately, I believe the bystander effect is the reason nobody in the crowd came to my rescue the night I was sexually assaulted. 

What is Diffusion of Responsibility?

The bystander effect first became evident after the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964. Genovese was stabbed to death outside of her apartment building.

After the fact, 38 neighbors admitted to hearing her screams, three actually saw the attack take place, and yet none of them intervened. Studies aimed at explaining this phenomenon found that the more people that are present in an emergency situation, the less likely they are to intervene.

Researchers attributed these results to the “diffusion of responsibility.”

In Genovese’s situation, neighbors may have seen other apartment lights on and seen other neighbors in the window and assumed they were going to intervene. After this event, many studies were conducted to fully understand why this phenomenon takes place.

However, only recently have bystander intervention programs emerged that aim to teach individuals how to properly take action against the bystander effect.

Educational Bystander Intervention Programs and Trainings

I was fortunate enough to have been trained in bystander intervention educational programs at my university. However, there are colleges and universities that do not stress bystander intervention as part of their curriculum.

A recent meta-analysis found that bystander intervention training makes a difference in college students’ bystander efficacy.

College students who were educated in bystander intervention indicated a higher bystander efficacy, intent to help others, and decreased bystander behavior.

In contrast, students who did not take part in the educational training reported less likelihood to intervene in an emergency situation. However, bystander intervention programs have only recently begun to appear in research within the past decade.

It would not be fair for me to assume that every single person in that crowd was educated in bystander intervention. All I can do is provide the steps to ensure that every reader is equipped with the skills to intervene. 

Misconceptions of Bystander Effect and How to Intervene and Help a Potential Victim

People who are not educated in bystander intervention may claim that they do not know how to help. It is common for people to say:

  • “I don’t want to cause a scene.”
  • “It’s not my business.”
  • “I don’t want my friend to be mad at me.”

These phrases are common misconceptions. The first step in intervening is recognizing that your actions can make a difference in stopping perpetrators and combatting sexual assault. RAINN created an easy acronym (CARE) that lists the steps to intervening:

Create a distraction. This could be as easy as asking the person in distress to go to the bathroom or telling them you have a friend that wants to meet them. 

Ask directly. Directly approach the person in distress and ask them if they are okay and need help. 

Refer to an authority. Looking for a bouncer, bartender, police officer, or manager of an establishment is a fast way to intervene and let the perpetrator know that their presence is not welcome.

Enlist others. If all else fails, there is strength in numbers. Enlisting the help of friends or even strangers can help the person in distress feel supported. 

I was not one of the fortunate ones that were saved by a friend, authority figure, or group when I was sexually assaulted.

My only hope is that moving forward more people have the tools to intervene if they see somebody in need. Combatting sexual assault ends when all people are equipped with the tools to help people in distress.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINNEnd Rape on CampusKnow Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Written By: Megan Delgado

Megan is a rising senior at Queens University in Charlotte, where she’s a member of the 5-time NCAA Division 2 Champion Women’s Swim Team.

Originally from Southern California, she’s the biggest Disney nerd ever and dreams of raising a corgi.

Megan is majoring in psychology, minoring in human services, and has wanted to be a writer her entire life!


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