The “bystander effect” keeps catcalling alive. Let’s train ourselves to take action

When women get catcalled, why don’t more people help?
When women get catcalled, why don’t more people help?
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Earlier this week, I was walking in my New York City neighborhood, talking to a potential employer on the phone. Suddenly two men appeared on the sidewalk in front of me, blocking my way. When I refused to stop and talk to them, they began to follow me, screaming curses at me for blocks—words like “cunt” and “bitch.” It was 1pm on a busy street. I was surrounded by witnesses. Yet no one intervened or tried to get help.

Forty-three percent of cases of verbal harassment in the United States occur when a woman is around a large group of people, according to a 2014 study conducted by Cornell University and anti-street harassment nonprofit Hollaback!. But most onlookers fail to take action, acting instead as passive bystanders.

“A passive bystander notices a woman being catcalled, and while they may internally be upset, disgusted, or angry, they take no action to stop the harassment or aid the victim,” says Kimberly Fairchild, an associate professor of psychology at Manhattan College who studies street harassment. Among the women she’s surveyed and students she’s spoken with, she hasn’t heard of one person who was helped by an onlooker.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Research suggests that the bystander effect—in which the presence of others discourages onlookers from offering help—can be overcome.

A 2011 meta-analysis on bystander intervention, published by the American Psychological Association, identified several factors that can reduce passivity and make people more likely to step in. Unsurprisingly, people tend to take action more often when they feel they’ve got backup—when their fellow bystanders are men, for example, or when the other bystanders are acquaintances rather than strangers. One study found that two men walking together down a street will help a woman who appears to be in immediate danger of rape 85% of the time. On the other hand, if one man witnesses the same situation, he is likely to help only 65% of the time.

Interestingly, the meta-analysis also found that bystanders are more likely to intervene when they understand the situation they are witnessing is a dangerous emergency.

“Dangerous emergencies are recognized faster and more clearly as real emergencies, thereby inducing higher levels of arousal and hence more helping,” the study’s authors explain. By this logic, it stands to reason that bystanders don’t intervene in catcalling scenarios because they don’t perceive the event to be dangerous. So if we help the public understand that situations in which women are being verbally harassed are truly threatening to the targets of abuse, more bystanders may well realize that it’s important to step in.

Moreover, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the bystander effect can be reversed by “accountability cues” that remind people they’re being observed. When subjects knew that they were being watched by a webcam, or that their presence was more noticeable in an online forum, they were more likely to help others in distress. The study’s authors surmise that bystanders were more likely to act when they were made aware of “the possible reputational benefits of their behaviors.”

Education about an issue can also help people become more prepared to intervene in an unsafe situation. One study, conducted by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané, observed participants’ reactions when smoke was pumped into a room. In one trial, a Navy SEAL who had been involved in a ship fire reacted immediately—not a surprising outcome given that he’d been trained to recognize the potential danger posed by smoke. This effect can be applied to catcalling as well. It’s safe to assume that, if someone is aware of the psychological damage that catcalling does to men and women, they will be more likely to react.

Once people are prepared to intervene, there are a few guidelines to follow. Behavior intervention experts agree that onlookers should first assess their safety before stepping in. According to Colby College’s Sexual Violence Response and Prevention Center website, you should immediately call the police if the person poses an immediate physical threat to you or the other person involved, or if sexual violence is occurring.

If it appears safe to step in, the anti-street harassment website iHollaback offers advice on how to engage directly, delegate help, and create distractions to put an end to bad situations. For example, bystanders can check in with the target of the harassment to see how they’re feeling. Simply saying “Are you okay?” can make the victim feel less alone. Asking for the time can be a quick way to distract the harasser—they’ll have to stop catcalling in order to answer you. Finally, if you feel the situation is safe, try confronting the catcaller directly.

“Even questioning the harasser or asking ‘How would you like it if someone said that to your mom/sister/girlfriend/daughter’ might get the harasser to reconsider his actions,’” Fairchild says.

Any of these methods can put a quick end to dangerous situations, as is evident from the experience of one New York City woman named Leigh. One evening, she was in an elevator in a Washington Heights subway station along with two other men—one of them a train conductor.

“The other man, who I’d never seen before, kept talking to me, and even went so far as to touch my face and my body,” she recalls. “The train conductor asked me if I knew him. I said no. The conductor yelled at the man to stop and told him that you don’t just go touching people you don’t know without permission.” After that, the harasser left Leigh alone.

If it’s too late to intervene while the harassment is taking place, it can also be helpful for bystanders to approach the victim afterward. After experiencing harassment, victims can feel isolated and unsafe, and their self-esteem can take a serious hit.

“Bystanders can be active by gently approaching the victim and letting her know they don’t condone or support that behavior,” Fairchild says. “Even a casual, ‘Hey, that dude is a jerk. Don’t let the cat calls get you down’ might go a long way to elevate the negative emotions common after harassment.”

Intervention can also prove beneficial to the mental health of the bystander. “Bystanders who witness a woman being catcalled and don’t react will probably have a negative emotional experience” such as guilt, according to Fairchild. But those who come to the defense of people being harassed will feel better about themselves afterward.

In sum, research suggests that bystander intervention is one of the most promising ways to combat street harassment and the sense of powerlessness that it cultivates in communities.

“When street harassment is common, all women will be on edge, worried, and wondering if they’ll be next,” Fairchild says. “The mental energy spent on vigilantly looking out for possible harassment and steeling oneself to ignore it takes away from our creativity and drive. Active bystanders can be wonderful allies to help make the streets more welcoming.”