The Bystander Effect


I recently ran across Shared Hope International’s National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking for 2009. The introduction outlines a list of obstacles to overcoming the child sex trafficking industry in America. The last point in the list is the most important and most pressing, in my opinion: insufficient priority on combating demand. As the report states:

Buyers are not being recognized as a critical component in the sex trafficking of children, yet demand is the primary driver of the commercial sex industry within which children are being exploited for commercial sex activities and performance.

Simply put, if there were no johns, there would be no prostitutes.

So why are there johns? Why can a man openly say that he’s hired a prostitute without fearing recrimination from the other men around him?

We can stop it at any time. Men do not have to let other men get away with this. Starting today, we can make men who use commercial sex services unwelcome among our number. Each of us can hold every one of us accountable.

If you’ve never spoken up and told other men that what they’ve said or done isn’t cool, then I’ve got a secret for you. You’ve been chained by the bystander effect. I’m about to pop that chain off.

The bystander effect is a term given to a social-psychological principle which researchers have studied extensively since the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964. Essentially, the more bystanders there are, the less likely someone will do something to stop a problem. Stick one person in a room and start sending smoke through the vent, and that person will investigate the vent, then report a fire. Put three people in the room and they’ll each see that none of the others seem to care, so they’ll endeavor to not appear to care as well, until they’re stoically gagging and trying to see each other through the smoke. Sounds stupid, but it’s been done in experiment after experiment.

The good thing is that if you know about bystander effect, you’re far more likely to act against it in the future. So I’m giving you a gift now: the freedom to act in the midst of a paralyzed world. Take the time to open it, examine it, and carefully integrate it with your life.

You now speak where others are silent. On message boards, in class, at work, even among your lifelong friends, there’s someone who feels just as wrong as you do about the things others say. Yesterday, you would have gone to your grave never knowing it, because they’re smiling, nodding, adding anecdotes, even as they privately disagree wholeheartedly. You do the same thing. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Today, you will speak out, and possibly be ridiculed, but it will pass within a few quick jibes. But afterward, the person whose hidden concerns you voiced will find a way to show gratitude. And that person will have the strength to speak out like you did someday soon.

You now have the freedom to step through a crowd of ordinary people surrounding a public gang rape. Some have cameras, they’re cheering, and no one’s doing anything about it. Yesterday, you would have walked on, certain that the cops were coming. You think you wouldn’t have, but I know differently. Today, however, you’ve got your phone in hand, and you’re desperately scribbling the attackers’ details while 911 rings.

You now have the power to help a man dying on the street. Yesterday, you would have forgotten by the end of the day, assuming he was merely homeless or drunk, knowing that the police had been called or would see him on their next pass through. Today, you know that no one else will take responsibility. You are the only one.

That’s what we have to do. Take responsibility. Act in front of a passive wall of people. Risk insult to ourselves or misperception of our motives. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, whether we admit or deny it.

Here’s the extra secret: when you act as others stand by, those others will see you as competent, empathic, and sure. They’ll envy your ability to take charge. It’s true whether you’re stopping a few douchebags at a bar from harassing a woman or just reminding your friends that rape jokes suck. And you’ll feel like a god.


  1. #1 by roxanne on May 7, 2010 - 4:51 AM

    Interesting . Finding statistics regarding Americans that are trafficked in nearly impossible.

%d bloggers like this: