The Bystander Effect: Jackie Fox, Bill Cosby and How to Help Stop Sexual Violence


It’s taken Jackie Fuchs (whose stage name, as the original bassist of the legendary band the Runaways was Jackie Fox) nearly 40 years to speak out about her rape by Kim Fowley, the band’s notoriously predatory manager. The sexual assault, which took place when Fuchs was 15 years old, is described in a lengthy Huffington Post piece that provides a deeply disturbing, painstaking account of the attack. It is a difficult but necessary read that is strikingly, sickeningly similar to so many harrowing recent accounts of sexual violation against women, including the Steubenville case and Bill Cosby’s 40-plus alleged victims.

Fuchs, physically immobilized by the drugs she’d essentially been force-fed, dips in and out of consciousness throughout an ordeal that, in many ways, has never fully ended for her, or for those who witnessed it. The most unsettling — and initially baffling — detail of Fuchs’ story is that she was never alone with her attacker. A roomful of bystanders watched, without intervening, as the horrifying scene unfolded in front of them.

The bystander effect, as it’s often called, is most often traced to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a Queens, New York woman who was stabbed to death on the street while imploring her neighbors for help. (It was later determined that most of the neighbors were unaware of the attack or could not hear her cries.) According to Wikipedia, “the probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders,” and, “the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.” There was some element of this in Fuchs' case. But the reality, as Fuchs came to learn, was ultimately far more complex.  

As the Huffington Post discovered speaking with witnesses to Fuchs' rape, many were deeply impacted by what they’d seen. They’d spent decades wrestling with their remembrances from that night, the trauma of witnessing sexual violence and the guilt of inaction turning them into victims as well. Dorothy Edwards, formerly the head of the University of Kentucky’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center, told the Huffington Post she had come across similar stories with surprising frequency in her work. In fact, the most unexpected aspect of her early experiences involved repeated encounters with people who confessed to witnessing rape and other forms of sexual violence without acting.

Edwards’ anecdotal observances were recently bolstered by a 2013 study conducted by researcher Sarah Nicksa, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Widener University. Nicksa compared witness intervention and report rates for crimes that included sexual assault, physical assault and theft. She found that of the three types of crime, bystanders were least likely either to act or report cases of sexual assault. To understand why respondents behaved differently in cases of sexual violence, Nicksa offered the following insight, via the Huffington Post:

"Sexual assaults in college settings often occur in alcohol-infused situations, such as parties or get-togethers. Sexual assaults and rapes are often not considered 'real rapes' by victims, friends, family, or the criminal justice system unless they involved force, violence, and were committed by a stranger with a weapon. So when a bystander is aware of a sexual assault, they may not see it as a problem or an emergency, due to the social norms of their group and setting. They may look around for cues to see if others define it as an emergency, and seeing none, do nothing."

Dorothy Edwards, in an effort to educate bystanders in various dangerous situations to react and intervene, founded the nonprofit Green Dot, Etc. The organization essentially trains students to effectively, and safely, stop situations in which one person is under threat of some sort of abuse or maltreatment.

Rape culture, which proliferates despite the spread of anti-rape strategies (which too often teach women how not to be raped, instead of effectively instructing men not to rape), is a primary target of Green Dot’s efforts. As the organization’s website states, it breaks with traditional anti-rape notions which “have focused on victims and perpetrators,” instead investing in the “belief that individual safety is a community responsibility.” Green Dot's ultimate mission is to “mobilize a force of engaged and proactive bystanders.”

A Guardian article from earlier this year describes some of the methods Green Dot employs:

“Trained facilitators start dialogues with students about steps they can take if they see an attack. A variety of techniques are taught – from confronting an attacker directly, to attempting to distract them. Students are taught how to form a physical barrier between attacker and victim so the latter can escape. While not all attacks can be stopped, the Green Dot programme believes that intervening in a safe way can still be a powerful show of support to the victim. They believe that every intervention is a strong statement against violence, fear and victimisation. Victims also need to be reassured that the attack wasn’t their fault.”

The article goes on to cite a five-year study by the Center for Research on Violence Against Women, which found a 50 percent decline in sexual assaults after the program was implemented in Kentucky-area high schools. It’s worth noting that researchers “also found a 40 percent reduction in self-reported frequency of total violence perpetration — including sexual violence, sexual harassment, stalking and dating violence — at the Green Dot schools.”

That’s promising information in the effort to involve bystanders directly in stopping sexual violence, which is taking place on multiple fronts. The Huffington Post notes that similar programs include “Bringing In the Bystander and Coaching Boys Into Men,” and that the White House partnered in a campaign called “It’s On Us.”

Jackie Fuchs, whose trauma ultimately forced her to leave the Runaways, returned home, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA, and earned her JD at Harvard Law, working early on under the tutelage of Barack Obama. Though she has made huge strides as a survivor, she’s still reckoning with her rape, both for herself and those who watched it happen. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Fuchs said, “One of the things I've tried to do with every bystander is let them know it's not their fault. I also have to not blame myself for what happened to them. We are all victims of what Kim [Fowley] did."

(h/t Huffington Post)

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