Should Bystanders Have A Legal Obligation To Intervene In A Rape?

This, right here, is what we talk about when we talk about “rape culture,” that a group of men should be struck senseless in the face of rape, rather than being moved to step in or get to safety and call the police.
Publish date:
January 8, 2013
rape, sexual assault, crime, gang rape, bystander effect, the long arm of the law

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bystander effect lately, especially in light of a series of horrific crimes where it was quite evident that bystanders knew what was going on and failed to intervene, sometimes actively cheering instead. Steubenville, of course, comes to mind, but I’m also reminded of a rape case in my own lovely state of California which was ruled “not a rape” because the victim was unmarried and initially thought she was having sex with her partner. Her rapist was cheered on by bystanders, just as bystanders cheered during a gang rape in Richmond in 2009.

A Redditor recently asked whether bystanders who don't intervene during a rape should be prosecuted:

I'm asking in relation to what happened in Steubenville in Ohio. Considering that people stood by and apparently did not try to intervene, I wonder if people should have a legal responsibility to intervene, as a moral responsibility apparently no longer suffices to mobilize people. What do you think?

My first, gut response was, “Hell yeah, throw the book at bystanders. Who the hell stands around and does nothing when acts of violence and horrible crimes are committed?”

And then I took a step back and thought about the issue, noting that it’s actually much more complicated than I was making it out to be. Many of the commenters also articulated the clear problems with making inactivity illegal, from a likely dip in reporting crimes (for fear that people would be implicated and charged) to more difficulty finding witnesses to the simple and poignant “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others” ethos.

Intervention in a rape or any other violent crime can turn one victim into two, numerous responses to the original post pointed out. It’s a painful truth. I believe that bystanders have an ethical duty to intervene if they can do so safely, and most definitely to call for assistance from law enforcement. But this is a case where legislating ethics would go very, very badly, and the ensuing laws would be effectively unenforceable anyway. You can't legislate people into common decency.

The problem with bystanders isn’t necessarily that they don’t do anything, although obviously that’s an issue. The larger problem is sometimes that they do in fact “do something” and that something is very unpleasant. They’re the ones cheering, creating a larger audience, goading the criminals on, feeding something terrible and monstrous that swells and grows as more people are attracted. They’re the ones who aren’t just condoning by remaining silent, but by actively high-fiving the criminals and creating a charged atmosphere.


Bystanders here are actively contributing to the crime, but they are also products of the culture they’re socialized in. Male bystanders to violent rapes are put in the position of having to cheer or be jeered at, to prove their masculinity by being “one of the boys,” while women are reminded that they’re in danger of joining (or becoming) the victim unless they play along. Never underestimate the power of a group when it comes to pressuring people into conformity.

Those witnesses who take photos and video, who laugh, who talk about the crime later with their friends, could be dismissed as cold-hearted and evil, but the reality, I’d argue, is more complex. They’re products of a culture where women are stripped of their humanity and where violence is supposed to be a hilarious group sport, where going against these norms can endanger you. Are these reactions pleasure in brutality, or are they rooted in terror, shame, and confusion?

In cases like Steubenville, where there are a lot of bystanders and there’s a collective effort on the part of the community to pretend nothing happened, there’s clearly a critical mass effect happening. No one wants to look anyone else in the eye and admit that something has gone horribly wrong and out of control, that the community as a whole bears responsibility for something awful. Rather than confronting it, dragging it out into the open and dealing with it, the response is to suppress it.

And the more bystanders who flock to a crime, the more complicit they all become together. More and more people at the scene create pressure to at least act like everyone’s having fun, and like the victim is an object, not a human being. More and more people also create the sense that “we must hang together... or we shall all hang separately.”

As the masses grow, there is a sense that the crowd is too big to be held accountable, and there is safety in numbers as people look on for vicarious thrills, or struggle with social pressure to be one of the gang, or are horrified but feel frozen in the face of so many people. Suddenly bystanders become larger than themselves, part of a faceless mass.


The bystander effect is real, and it needs to be explored and confronted. But more than that, the culture that leads people to gather around the site of a violent crime and watch without acting needs to be explored and confronted. This, right here, is what we talk about when we talk about “rape culture,” that a group of men should be struck senseless in the face of rape, rather than being moved to step in or get to safety and call the police.

We must not only teach boys not to rape, but also teach boys their ethical responsibilities as witnesses. “If you see something, say something” is a saying for a reason, but it's a surprisingly difficult one to put into action for many of us, because there are so many obstacles in the way of saying something. Fear of being mocked or attacked, worries that you won't be believed, the threat of punishment or being viewed as complicit in a crime.

Should bystanders be prosecuted? No. Should we as a society be asking why it is that bystanders continue to be such a huge problem? Hell. Yes.