A Woman Was Allegedly Raped on a Train. People Nearby Did Nothing.

“The larger a group is, the less likely people are to step in and take action,” said one expert on the bystander effect.
October 18, 2021, 6:44pm
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority trains are seen parked in the vicinity of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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Spectators did nothing as a stranger raped a woman on a train near Philadelphia last week, police say.

Fiston Ngoy, 35, was charged with rape, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, and a litany of other charges after a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority employee noticed “something wasn't right” with a woman on the train and called the police, according to the Associated Press. But people on the train “witnessed this horrific act” and did not call 911, a transportation authority said.

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Surveillance video in the train case depicts Ngoy attempting to touch the victim while she tries to push him away, according to investigators. Ngoy then pushed her down, ripped off her clothes, and assaulted her. The assault lasted for eight minutes, according to the authorities.

“I’m appalled by those who did nothing to help this woman,” Timothy Bernhardt, the superintendent of the Upper Darby Township Police Department, said this weekend, according to the New York Times. “Anybody that was on that train has to look in the mirror and ask why they didn’t intervene or why they didn’t do something.”

But the “bystander effect” is far from uncommon. 

“The larger a group is, the less likely people are to step in and take action,” said Heather Hensman Kettrey, an assistant professor at Clemson University who has studied the bystander effect and ways to train people about countering it. “People tend to think somebody else is gonna do something.”

“The problem is, when everybody’s thinking that, then nobody does anything,” she said.

Ana Bridges, a University of Arkansas psychology professor who has studied the bystander effect, said that four conditions must be met in order for a bystander to intervene. People have to notice that something is wrong, confirm that what’s going on is dangerous, decide that they have a responsibility to stop it, and finally recognize that they have the necessary tools to do so.

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“That’s a lot of things that can go wrong,” Bridges said. If just one of those conditions are missing, people tend not to intervene. 

The very concept of the effect has its roots in another story of sexual assault—that of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender who was raped and robbed in front of her Queens, New York City apartment building in 1964. Her neighbors, the lore went, did nothing to stop it, though recent research has uncovered that parts of the Genovese story are apocryphal. 

“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens,” blared a New York Times article written two weeks after Genovese’s death. A cop told the Times that he was bewildered that so many “good people” had, apparently, ignored Genovese’s cries for help.

However, researchers found, only a few people could have “watched” the attack. At least two people also said they called the cops, and one came out to help Genovese, holding her as she died. But the bystander effect remains real and particularly hard to demolish in cases of sexual assault. 

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“We live in what’s been called a ‘rape culture,’ where we ascribe to a lot of cultural narratives that essentially exonerate perpetrators, blame victims, make the environment hostile to victims,” Kettrey said. “We don’t always recognize sexual assault. We’re not always sympathetic to victims of sexual assault.”

While the police account of the train attack is clearly egregious, sexual assaults aren’t often so obvious. They are frequently perpetrated by people who are known to the victim, not violent strangers.

“Although the precursors tend to happen around other people, the actual assaults themselves tend not to. The more common situation is that the victim is isolated at some point by the perpetrator,” Bridges said. “A lot of our work actually focuses on trying to recognize pre-assaultive cues, when there still may be opportunities for bystanders to intervene.”

Plus, in situations that seem like they may be edging towards sexual assault, women are often taught to be demure, rather than be combative, Bridges said. 

“It’s changing, I think, with generations,” she said. “But historically, this has been, ‘Just try to not rile the beast, and get out as fast as you can. Don’t make a scene.’ That’s a great survival strategy, but it makes it very hard to intervene.”

Court documents show that Ngoy is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing next Monday.  The victim, Bernhardt told a local CNN affiliate, is “an unbelievably strong woman.”

“She came forward, she provided a lot of information, and she's on the mend," he said.