Rape on Philadelphia train was horrific, but experts say we're missing something in our outrage

·6 min read

On a train outside Philadelphia last week, police say a woman was harassed, groped and then raped over the course of two dozen train stops while fellow riders watched and did nothing to intervene. Police are investigating whether some passengers recorded the attack on their phones, which authorities say stopped only when a transit officer got on the train, ripped the attacker off the woman and called 911.

It's a horrific case that has many people outraged, prompting questions about why society is so tolerant of gendered violence and how we've become so inured to people's suffering.

"It is a really heartbreaking story. Based on what we know, it seems like there were a number of folks who had an opportunity to make a difference, to take some form of action to get involved, and that those individuals actively chose not to do so," said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "But what we don't know was if they were scared or if they were confused or if they were hoping someone else would take action, which is likely the case. ... It's true that being an active bystander is often not easy, often not straightforward."

A man was charged with raping a woman on a train outside Philadelphia on Oct. 13 as fellow passengers watched, held up phones and did nothing to intervene, police said. Police believe no one called authorities.
A man was charged with raping a woman on a train outside Philadelphia on Oct. 13 as fellow passengers watched, held up phones and did nothing to intervene, police said. Police believe no one called authorities.

Police are investigating, and there's much about the incident that remains unknown (whether people were actually recording, whether they were doing it for shock value or to deter the assailant, or what subtle ways they may have tried to stop the attack that didn't involve physical restraint). But even absent all the facts, experts in gendered violence say the incident is an opportunity to emphasize the importance of bystander intervention, not just in cases of assault, but in our everyday lives.

Experts say that for most people, intervening won't look like ripping a stranger off a victim in a public setting but rather challenging a culture that repeatedly minimizes and excuses sexual violence. Intervening includes everything from shutting down a sexist joke to insisting a friend not stay at the party alone to believing the person who tells you someone you admire committed harm.

Most rapes aren't committed by strangers but by someone the victim knows. A man publicly assaulting a woman on a train frightens and perplexes us, but experts say it's no less disturbing than a culture of complicity that normalizes sexual violence, frequently blames victims and rarely holds assailants accountable. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free, according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network.

"It is really easy to scrutinize bystanders in this really well-publicized case. What's harder is to look at our own behavior," said Nicole Bedera, an expert in sexual violence at the University of Michigan. "One of the things that we should all be asking ourselves right now is, 'How have I enabled sexual violence?'"

Why 'engaged bystanders' are important

An "engaged bystander," according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, recognizes that preventing sexual violence can include intervening before, during or after someone witnesses or hears about behaviors that encourage abuse.

"We all have a role to play in disrupting and ultimately ending sexual violence," said Indira Henard, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

Behaviors that deserve intervention can include inappropriate sexual comments, seeing someone interacting with a partner in a way that seems disrespectful or demeaning, and catcalling or sexual harassment on public transit. Many behaviors won't require a 911 call, but they are still worth interrupting.

"When we're silent, whether that's out of fear or uncertainty – we are inadvertently condoning the behavior," Palumbo said.

Documenting can help, but it needs to be paired with another intervention

In most cases, Palumbo said, intervention is about responding to harassing comments or mistreatment rather than active violence. When violence is occurring, there are several ways to try to help while also taking into account the bystander's safety.

The organization Hollaback!, which seeks to end harassment, has identified what it calls the "5 Ds of bystander intervention":

  • “Distract”: Create a distraction to deescalate the situation. This can look like dropping a coffee or singing loudly.

  • “Delegate”: Find someone else to help, which can include those in close proximity. Bystanders may be fearful or uncomfortable, and they don't have to act alone.

  • “Document”: Create documentation of the incident and give it to the person who was harassed.

  • “Delay”: Check in on the person who experienced harassment and ask them what they need.

  • “Direct”: Set a boundary with the person doing the harassing, and then turn your attention to the person being harassed.

"When you witness an assault like this, it can be hard to know what to do. While documenting the assault can help the situation long-term by providing evidence and creating increased social awareness, it needs to be paired with another form of intervention," said Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback! "When no one else is intervening, typically something as small as a 'Whoa whoa whoa' or 'What's going on here?" can inspire other bystanders to ban together and take action."

Police said it looked as though some passengers held up their phones in the direction of the assault and may have recorded the attack. On social media, many people said this is what they found most disturbing. Palumbo said documentation can have a place when it's used to interrupt an abusive situation.

"People can say: 'What you're doing is not OK. I'm going to take my camera out and record this. You can't do this. You should not be doing this,'" she said. "We've seen many cases of that footage being so important."

But Henard said that when people are recording while passively looking on, when they are recording for shock value, it suggests the abuse is normal and can be harmful to victims.

"Recording the sexual assault is its own kind of violence," she said. "Now her trauma is on multiple people's cellphones."

The best way to 'intervene' is to stop excusing perpetrators

One of the most common ways people fail to intervene in a culture of sexual violence is by excusing or minimizing the behavior of perpetrators. That can look like saying, "Oh, he didn't know what he was doing," or "He's such a good guy" or "We should give him the benefit of the doubt."

"You're not doing the people in your life a favor if you refuse to intervene on the violence they have committed," Bedera said. "One of the best predictors that a man will commit an act of sexual violence is that he belongs to a community that tolerates sexism. ... A lot of men who've committed acts of sexual violence have never had anyone raise any reservations about their behavior to them before."

Experts say creating spaces that are intolerant of sexual violence is key to preventing it.

"Part of what is so painful about this situation for survivors is that they may not feel shocked or surprised," Palumbo said. "This situation affirms the worst fears of survivors. That others won’t care enough to believe you or to take action on your behalf. That if you’ve experienced harassment or abuse other people think that’s your problem and not something they need to do anything about."

You may also be interested in:

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org).

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Philadelphia train rape shows how normal sexual violence has become

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