Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The story of a woman raped on a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Authority (SEPTA) train in Philadelphia while onlookers reportedly recorded video with their cellphones but did not intervene or call 911 is mind-bogglingly horrific. It suggests not only a total disregard for women’s safety and wellbeing, but social disintegration; a disturbing impulse to filter terrible events through the lens of entertainment and shock value, and the disturbing ability to dehumanize suffering by mediating it through a screen.
That is, if the events happened as they are being reported. So far, the factual universe of this case has come from the police, who are not necessarily always reliable sources.
Before condemning those aboard the train as devoid of humanity – though even police say at least one person called SEPTA’s police line – it is important to pause and ask ourselves what else, besides outrage, we should take away from this now-viral story.
This is also the lesson of the infamous Kitty Genovese story. Genovese was murdered in Queens, New York in 1964 in a brutal knife attack. Two weeks after her murder, the New York Times ran a story titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call The Police,” relying on police statements that of 38 witnesses, only one eventually called the cops. The Genovese murder wound up being the prime example of what psychologists call the Bystander Effect, which essentially says the more witnesses there are to a crime, the less likely any single one of them is to call the police. The Genovese case outraged a city, moving from real-life crime to allegory of the moral decay wrought by urban living.
It also was not an accurately reported story. As the Times noted decades later, it is unlikely most of the alleged witnesses saw anything at all; others weren’t sure what was happening. Some 38 people were almost certainly not, as one LIFE magazine journalist put it at the time, “crouching in darkened windows like watchers of a Late Show, look[ing] on until the play had passed from their view.”
So there are good reasons to ask questions, especially until reporters and other watchdogs are fully able to view the train’s surveillance footage themselves.
The following organizations provide confidential support to victims of rape and sexual assault:
In the US:
But there is also good reason to believe the public does often respond with apathy when women are assaulted. I’ve reported on this myself: In 2012, a young woman was sexually assaulted on the New York City subway; no one intervened, and one bystander took cellphone footage of the attack, which was later uploaded – he says not by him – to porn and gossip sites.
Other journalists have documented similar cases of women harassed or assaulted while bystanders either looked on or turned away; in other cases, the victims were racial minorities targeted in bias crimes. Researchers have found women harassed on the street rarely receive assistance or intervention from witnesses. And women, interestingly, are more likely to intervene than men, despite stereotypes of female weakness and male chivalry.
Other research, though, indicates people do usually help, and lack of intervention is social; indicating the bystander effect is, in part, a real thing. While a greater number of bystanders increases the chances a person will get help, individuals also look to each other in emergencies, and group passivity may lead to individuals who do not act.
The Philadelphia story comes, as the Genovese story did, at a time when urban crime is big news, and this time around, it comes as the police are facing greater scrutiny from researchers, journalists and activists who point to high rates of police killings, especially of Black men and women. Some criminal justice advocates want to defund the police; the police say if they are defunded, crime will rise (so far, no city in America has entirely pulled funding for policing; some decreased or pledged to decrease police spending, and many of those cities later increased police budgets).
This is a moment of great tension over policing, crime and safety, and also over the potentially deleterious role of social media and our always-connected lives. The Philadelphia assault hits right in the center of this fraught intersection.
If the police accounts are true and no one intervened in the Philadelphia train assault, then it is time to ask why. Were people afraid? After all, a man brazen enough to rape a woman on a train may not hesitate to also use violence against anyone who tries to stop him, and past Good Samaritans have been assaulted or killed for trying to intervene in violent attacks.
Was the woman not recognized as a victim because of the biases of the bystanders? American society often treats some groups of women as less important, less worthy of notice than others, even and perhaps especially as they face very high rates of sexual violence; Black and brown women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, homeless women and those struggling with substance abuse issues.
None of this is to speculate about the victim in this case. It is simply to say many women find their assaults ignored by bystanders and law enforcement alike because of who they are. That information is important to know if we want to fully understand what happened here.
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What does seem clear is modern technology can be a great connective force or a great dehumanizer. Many of us hoped (and some continue to hope) social media would foster greater understanding among us. Instead, it may have decreased empathy and driven us into ideological and identity-based corners. All of it merits our concern.
Here, technology may have played an even more sinister role: Allowing people to separate themselves from a violent crime they were witnessing and could have stopped, turning it from an attack on a human being to a story on a screen. And at the very least, this is one more on a long list of stories of women being raped and otherwise sexually assaulted, not safe in our own homes or on the streets, on the subway or in a taxi cab, or even with the police officers tasked with protecting us.
No matter what else becomes known about this case, it is indeed an important story about the violence in which men routinely engage, and the women who are so often on the receiving end. But before we turn it into a broader morality tale about technology, policing and a public desensitized to violence, we owe it to everyone involved, including ourselves, to wait for – and keep demanding – the full story.