The Guilty Bystander

Nigel Cohen
7 min readNov 21, 2023

How to avoid becoming an “innocent” bystander

Trigger Warning: This article includes references to actions that some people may find triggering, such as rape, murder and descriptions of trauma

Photo Art: G Nigel Cohen

In 2009 ABC News reported a gang rape at a High School in Richmond, USA. The victim was a 16-year-old girl who was walking in front of her school when she bumped into a friend. They walked to the school Courtyard where a group of boys and men were hanging out. Shortly afterwards, she told them she had a headache and was leaving. She remembered nothing between then and waking up in hospital in excruciating pain. Her face was smashed. One of her toenails had been torn off. A layer of skin on her back had come off. She had cuts, bruises and abrasions all over. She felt nauseous and said it felt like someone had taken out her insides, stabbed them and put them back in. Her legs were especially painful.

She did not remember the 20 or so people who watched the attack. She did not remember the 10 men and boys gang-raping and beating her for two-and-a-half hours. Throughout the attack, no one tried to stop the attackers. No one contacted the authorities.

ABC News reported that Jon Darley, a professor of psychology, explained that as one of the boys or men grabbed her, and someone else did something else, it became more sexual in nature. Each act licenced what had gone before, and made it more likely what came next.

The Bystander Effect

Humans are social animals. We have evolved to react when we see people in need. Most of us will stop to see if we can help a child screaming and flailing in a river. Once the first couple of people come to help, others usually look to see if they, too, can help.

The bystander effect describes exactly the opposite. It is an event in which a witness or bystander does not volunteer to help a victim or person in distress. Instead, they just watch what is happening. It is strange because most of us have a natural inclination to help.

Too often, we are held back for any of three reasons. One is that we worry we, too, may become a victim. If we see a young man being beaten by a group of men, or a child being pulled in a violently moving river, we fear stepping in for our own safety. Another…