Would you intervene if you saw a woman being assaulted on public transport?

When misogynoir meets the bystander effect

by Guilaine Kinouani

Would you intervene if you saw a woman being assaulted on public transport?

What if she was a Black woman being assaulted by a Black man?

The ‘bystander effect’ is often used as an explanation for the absence of intervention or helping behaviours when people are victimised in crowds. The theory posits that in emergency situations the number of bystanders diffuses responsibility and renders individuals less likely to get involved because they expect someone else to step in. As is the case for many women like me, I imagine, I experienced these dynamics first hand when I was assaulted on a train.

It was a few years ago. I was approached by a Black man on one of the circle line platforms at Baker Street station. He asked whether I was lost. I told him that I was not, smiled cursorily and walked away from him. He followed me and asked where I was from. This time, I said that that I had no interest in having this conversation with him. I walked away, again. As I prepared to board the tube, I realised he was behind me once more. As we got on the train he continued to try to engage me. I ignored him. He started to shout obscenities at me and made degrading comments. I said nothing.

Then, he threatened to hurt me and gave a sickening and graphic description of the acts of sexual and physical acts ‘he could’ inflict to me, if he wanted to, using language I would not dare repeat here. As he delivered threat after threat, he recurrently brought his head so close to my face that I could smell his breath and my skin got damp from the spit flying from his mouth. His aggression, agitated insults and disturbingly detailed menaces were witnessed by a train carriage full of red-faced passengers. Though he did not touch me, never had I felt so violated, terrified, humiliated. No one came to assist.

I remained silent and still throughout it all. In part because I instinctively knew anything I said or did might increase that man’s volatility and lead him to carry out his threats. In part too, because in that moment, I wished nothing more than to fade into invisibility. He finally got off. Within seconds, some passengers asked whether I was in a relationship with him or knew him. Their questions helped bring me back to the reality of the situation: I was a Black body in a train carriage full of white faces. I remember shaking and feeling disorientated as I left the train carriage. Unaccompanied.

This piece is not written to seek sympathy or empathy. I moved on from this incident long ago. And, beyond the distress and fear it caused during and immediately after, it had no lasting effect. I have nonetheless, occasionally wondered what went on in that train carriage and why it was deemed to matter whether I was in a relationship with my assailant. Those questions led me to consider the racialised misogyny that only affects Black women, that is misogynoir, in bystander effects.

Myths abound about the prevalence and acceptability of intimate partner violence within Black and other marginalised groups. Of course, I will never know whether I would have been offered help if those passengers had not believed they were witnessing such violence. However, evidence suggests that victims of domestic violence are less likely to be supported when assaulted as people feel more reluctant to ‘interfere’ when violence occurs in the domestic arena. Similarly, one may ask whether the questions I was asked would have featured if I was a white woman or indeed if both, me and my assailant, were white. This too must be relegated to the uncertain.

One thing is for sure though, passengers’ responses to me, felt off. It was clearly unsafe for me to catch trains alone whilst still in a state of shock and daze but this was not seen. The imagined relationship rationalised the assault and was reminiscent of racist discursive notions of Black sexuality as violent and bestial. Critically, beyond this, the situation reproduced classic misogynoir tropes: Black women as hypersexual (or kinky) objects, Black women as people who cannot be trusted with their choice of sexual partners, Black women as unbreakably ‘strong’, Black women as unworthy victims, Black women as deserving of sexualised violence.

Little research, if any, has focused on the effects of racialised sexism as a variable in bystander effect thus much of the above must be treated with caution. Nevertheless, we do know that bystander intervention is not merely a function of the number of other people around but is also determined by a host of other factors. These include the view we take of the victim; whether we believe the victim is deserving of our help; whether we can identify with the victim: if we perceive her to be similar to us or if we have a shared identity and of course, how we interpret the situation. These variables invite us to consider misogynoir when Black women’s suffering falls victim to indifference. Indeed without taking these features into account it’s unlikely we will ever understand why so many women like me are assaulted, raped and murdered, by both individuals and systems without it ever triggering dissonance in onlookers. Why, we are so often deemed to be the agents of our own oppression. Only by knowing this can we encourage more intervention.

For information on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women go here

In this series: No, Mrs Mugabe, I am not responsible for my rape.

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Guilaine is a French woman of African descent, an amateur writer, an independent trainer and a race, culture & equality consultant currently working toward a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and accreditation as an integrative psychotherapist. Before this, she completed a degree in Cultural Studies and studied Counseling Psychology after obtaining a Masters in Transcultural Mental Health. She blogs at racereflections on the interface of psychology, mental health, social justice, inequalities and difference. Tweet her @KGuilaine

This article was edited by Henna Butt

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Categories: Feminism, Guilaine Kinouani, VAWG

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5 replies

  1. A long time ago I was travelling on a packed train from Leeds to Birmingham on new years eve and a rather drunk man on an adjacent seat started making racist comments and pontificating about the merits of Mein Kamfe. I was the only non white face in the carriage and everyone knew the comments were directed at me. I was shocked no one tackled him and my unease and anger got worse with each sentence he uttered. I was barely 22 but I couldn’t let him get away with it. I quietly got up and walked through the packed train to the guards carriage and complained that as a public transport passenger my safety was in peril. Luckily the guard was a sympathetic middle aged white man who asked for my seat number and whether I wished to press charges. I said I did otherwise what was the point of complaining. He rang British transport police and then followed me to my seat, carried my luggage to a neighbouring carriage and waited until the next station where the police boarded and removed both the foul mouth and I. The officer attending tge scene was not particularly sympathetic on account of the busy period but she took me seriously and adked if an apology would suffice. By man by now had lost his bravado and was being rather apologetic.i accepted his apology but I spoke back. I told him I believed in free speech but I also believe in my right to travel on public transport without the fear which he had inflicted. I told him he had right to believe what he wanted but not express it as an assault. The train was consequently heavily delayed whilst this convo took place on the platform for over half an hour. Eventually he was removed from the train altogether but I hope it served as a lesson to him. No one came to the rescue and I understand people are scared. It still bothers me.

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  2. This is a very interesting article. There is definitely an indifference towards black women experiencing sexual harassment. Not enough is said. Particularly about sexual violence towards mixed-raced black women as an even smaller minority. There may sometimes be a feeling of entitlement from the assailant, exoticness or racial violence that justifies harassment. Often racial parties may feel that they don’t care enough if you are not like them which makes the victim’s minority group feel even more vulnerable.

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  3. You definitely may be aware of it that today was international day for eliminating of violence against women. All we need open minded about care of others. Your article potrays how people’s fail in public places..but in India we having saying that a real men is who helps the women in danger.but I truly felt guilty today . how women’s are assaulted in public, acid attacks.. Are becomes familiar now a days. But for the record these cause the opinion of women about men. She perplexed on rely who. I wish a better society for womes empowerment, I believe in one day women’s future embodiment..

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