Pluralistic Ignorance & The Bystander Effect

In our last post, “The Spectrum of Sexual Violence & the Language We Use to Label It,” we discussed how pluralistic ignorance sets up the bystander effect following community disclosures of sexual violence. When communities fail to see sexual violence as an emergency, they disregard red flags and leave their fellow community members in harm’s way.

Watch the following video. Notice the way bystanders respond to (1) a distressed gentleman in a suit; (2) a distressed woman; (3) a distressed man in regular clothes. Ask yourself whether you would be a “good Samaritan” to all three? Why or why not? What accounts for the differences in treatment? (This seven-minute clip demonstrates the very reason this blog exists. We’re on a mission to change this.)

25 Ways to Reduce the Bystander Effect for Victims of Sexual Violence

1. We educate ourselves and our children about the full spectrum of sexual violence.

2. We expose hidden cultures about sex and gender by talking about the issues.

3. We stop tolerating lower levels of sexual violence. If we hear our friends, spouses, family, and/or co-workers to perpetuate sex-based or gender-based stereotypes, then, we call them out, correct, and redirect.

4. We teach our sons to respect females. We teach our daughters to respect males.

5. We talk about the prevalence of male victims in society. We say male victims also deserve to be heard without judgment.

6. We say, yes, real boys do cry.

7. We teach our daughters that their bodies are beautiful God-created designs, and that they should NOT be ashamed of them.

8. We make sure they understand that the hormone estrogen’s enlargement of their breasts during puberty is natural, not sinful. We make sure they know normal males do not take nonconsensual liberties with others’ bodies.

9. And we tell them, NO, girls are not to blame for the deviant few males who do take such liberties.

10. We make sure boys and girls understand sexual violence is about POWER, not sex.
11. We take ALL accounts of sexual violence seriously.

12. We do not play the dismissive, silencing “at least” game (“well, at least he didn’t rape you”).

13. We do not pretend we can assess “reasonable” trauma when we do not understand or know attendant circumstances surrounding a report of violence. We acknowledge the limits of our own subjective bias in assessing where an allegation falls on the spectrum of sexual violence.

14. We do not homogenize sexual violence.

15. We don’t sanitize reality to make it more palatable.

16. We get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

17. We stop acting disgusted toward victims and redirect disgust toward offenders.

18. NO MATTER WHO THE OFFENDER IS, we allow victims to speak candidly, and we use caution in retelling, taking care NOT to blur the high-definition gritty details.

19. We do not blame victims (a form of sexual violence that re-victimizes).

20. We do not allow others to blame victims.

21. We take action.

22. We put safeguards in place to protect victims, we employ reporting procedures in communities, we speak up for victims, and we offer them real, face-to-face support (not “silent support”).

23. We report to police.

24. We realize we are insufficiently equipped to objectively handle sexual violence allegations by ourselves, but we also realize we must take action AND…

25. We support the victim through the reporting process.

Ending the Bystander Effect: From Apathy to Empathy

Some police departments are adept at handling sexual violence reports, but sadly, many are not. Criminal investigation processes are lengthy (some take years) and draining on victims. Reform is needed in this area, too, but until we change communities, we are unlikely to motivate legislatures. Where we see no emergency, they see no emergency. In the meantime, society is left in danger and victims risk more trauma when they are left without support during drawn-out investigations that may end with solicitor rejection (even where strong direct and circumstantial evidence exists).

If we are tired of hearing media accounts, if we roll our eyes when we read each new breaking headline, then we need to take a long look in the mirror. Our hands aren’t clean.┬áPluralistic ignorance causes the bystander effect, and it creates bystander apathy. Reducing sexual violence requires empathy, not apathy. We must own their part in creating the climate for sexual violence and secrecy.

This is especially important for Christian communities who risk damaging the church’s reputation by charging victims for offender’s debts.

Remember, the threat of Hell is a COST for humans–so it would be pretty absurd for us to preach Heaven and Hell, telling others God holds people accountable, and then not hold each other accountable for crimes against society. What do we show the world when we are more outraged over damage to our cars (calling police, filing accident reports, reporting to insurance) than we are over damage to people?

The bottom line is, until we remove the steep price tags from victim disclosure, we should EXPECT victims to find more safety in silence (even if that silence is transitory). Until the cost to offenders is greater than the benefit an offender receives from his sexual violence, the offender has little reason to stop offending. The odds are in his favor.