Letter to the Editor
Submitted by: Samantha L. Phipps, executive director, FVC of Yancey County, Inc.

On the evening of Tuesday, August 18, 2009 my 13 year old daughter and I were on our way home from a leisurely walk about town. While walking on a sidewalk near a building which is a combination of commercial use and apartment units I heard the distinctive sound of hands slapping against bare skin and raised voices. Stopping in my tracks I observed a young man and woman to the rear of the property near the exterior entrance to one of the apartments. At first I thought they might be a brother and sister involved in a joking mock struggle, but as I continued to observe their behaviors I realized that they were not playing, but were physically fighting with each other. I observed the shirtless young man to continuously hold the young woman apparently against her will and observed her to yell, “Let me go; just let me go!” She would slap or shove against his bare chest in an attempt to free herself, but she could not. She tried to reach for her cell phone, but the young man would not let her make a call. It was obvious that she was crying. I noticed an older adult male nearby and in much closer proximity to the couple, obviously observing the two young people, but he did not intervene. He looked over at me standing on the sidewalk, also observing, then he walked into his apartment. Also nearby were several other young couples, but none of the young men or women reacted. Knowing about the Bystander Effect (to be explained later), and also due to the nature of my job, and due to me being a survivor of both domestic violence and rape, I reacted. I yelled at the shirtless young man something to the effect of, “Stop! Let her go! When a woman says let me go, you let her go!” He ignored me. I then identified myself as the Executive Director of the local domestic violence and sexual assault program and again yelled for him to let her go. I must have diverted his attention, because the young woman was able to break free and ran towards a parked car and other young people. The shirtless young man started advancing towards my daughter and I yelling that they had been arguing and that she had struck him too and then added, “And you need to mind your own business!” I noted that I was minding my own business as I was paid to be concerned about violence. Someone finally said to him, “That lady is going to call the law on you.” He then no longer was walking towards us, so I moved further down the sidewalk and did call dispatch and explained what I had observed and waited until I observed a policeman arrive on the scene.

I walked home without further incident, but thinking a great deal about a phenomenon known as The Bystander Effect. I had heard about it for years, but in May 2009 was attended a sexual assault conference in New Bern, N.C. sponsored by the N.C. Council Against Sexual Assault where this Bystander Effect was discussed in depth. Bystander Effect refers to the phenomenon in which the greater number of people present observing an assault or some other incident in which someone needs to react, the less likely an individual in the crowd is to react. Therefore, often a crowd will observe someone being beaten or raped and do nothing. If you being victimized it is much safer to have one or two people nearby as opposed to a crowd, because someone is more likely to react to help you – especially if you can make eye contact with someone. The other night that is what was happening. People hearing and observing the young woman struggling and screaming stood by and did nothing. I finally had to do something.

For the past two days our shelter staff and I were in Hayesville, N.C. for Sexual Assault 101 training. We discussed how rape and sexual assault numbers are still too high – one in every five women will be sexually assaulted/raped in her lifetime. That is a statistic and statistics can be cold hard numbers. But, the one in five victim is somebody’s daughter, mother, sister, wife, girlfriend, grandmother, aunt, friend…..and she deserves to have someone help her if at all possible. The same holds true for victims of domestic violence. I know people are afraid to become involved. There are two major explanations for the Bystander Effect. One, is the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility in which each individual assumes that someone else will react/take responsibility to intervene. The second explanation is that most of us need and want to behave in a correct and socially acceptable manner. We observe others doing nothing and assume that we do not need to respond either – that we must have misunderstood what we were observing since the others are not reacting. We then do nothing.

We can change our community’s response to violence – by changing one attitude at a time.

FVC Business Line: 678-3436 Crisis Line: 682-0056 Thrift Store: 682-1186