The Bystander Effect

I was just so livid with “my side” this morning that I couldn’t stand to wait to reach out to you until I got to a computer. I just wanted you to know that I do NOT approve of the violent, sexually-charged threats that were made against you. I am so sorry that you have to go through this – no matter how much we disagree, nobody, not a single person, should have to suffer that. I read those messages and my stomach churned. I felt even more sick when I realized that, while folks were celebrating your removal from Tumblr, not one. single. person. spoke out to condemn the actions of the person that threatened you like that. I could rant about your tactics until I’m blue in the face, but I would still turn right back around and defend you in this case. I know you would do (and have done) the same for others whose views don’t line up with your own. Because, no matter our differences, we’re both women who are pissed off and fed up with this kind of bullshit. The only reason I haven’t said anything publicly yet is because I want to give someone, ANYONE, the chance to join me in speaking up. If not, i have a whole new blog post to write. I hope you are holding up okay, i can’t imagine how you must feel. We’re both women, regardless of our views, and I hate to see a fellow woman hurting like that. I hope you understand that I mean this genuinely, I wouldn’t have contacted you otherwise. – a private message I received from a Women who is a third-wave feminist after a Man threatened to rape me on Tumblr. I am pretty sure she never said anything publicly.


In 1964, Winston Mosely murdered Kitty Genovese, a lesbian, in Brooklyn, New York.  Mosley killed Genovese over the course of a half-hour.  Numerous people heard Genovese’s cries for help, and did nothing.  Psychological studies of this phenomenon demonstrates that the greater the number of bystanders who view an emergency, the smaller the chance that any will intervene.

This is The Bystander Effect.

Seeing this play out in The Real World is frightening. A few summers ago, as I was hanging out at a bar with an ex-girlfriend to see a show, we wandered outside at intermission with many other Baltimore hipsters to smoke. On the street were two large gangs, clearly in a fight. One of the men in one of the groups was wielding a 2 by 4. In the other group, a “woman” (she was *maybe* 15) pushed a baby carriage, with a baby in it.

I called 911. One other guy also did. My ex-girlfriend chided me for calling the cops. And the rest of the crowd – over 30 people – filmed the brawl with their cell phone cameras. And one particularly disgusting person (ashamed to say, a Lesbian) riled up the fighters by yelling “Kick some ass, dawg.” (BTW, this is ANOTHER reason to dislike Hampden).

The Bystander Effect. Seeing something clearly wrong, looking around to see who else sees the wrong, and acting according to what everyone else is doing.

How does The Bystander Effect happen? According to researchers, the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility (so in my example about, all those hipsters in the street outside of Golden West). Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is assumed shared among all of those present.


Additionally, people have an intense need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways.  When other observers of an event fail to react, individuals take this as a signal that no response is needed, or that your response is inappropriate (my ex telling me I was overreacting to the sight of a man wielding a 2×4 with the intent to hit someone with it). Other researchers have found that onlookers are less likely to intervene if the situation is ambiguous (you probably have experienced this; think about the times you’ve come upon a couple in the heat of an “intense argument” – is it an intense argument, or is he about to beat the shit out of her?).

The GLBT Community is currently in the midst of its own Ambiguous Situation/Abusive Event (or, perhaps, a series of them). What we have in the GLBT Community is a failure to consider the concerns, needs, wants, and desires of Lesbians, the L in the GLBT, vis-a-vis the T. The T’s encroachment into L space has gone virtually unchecked over the last 20 years, with Lesbians who have challenged gender identity ideology marginalized as man-hating kooks (BTW, they aren’t). This has happened in full view of all members of the Community. And I have had dozens of conversations with Community members who have expressed discomfort with some of the agenda items pushed by GLBT organizations, including gender identity, but still have not spoken out. Over the last few years, more and more individuals – mostly Women – have spoken out. These people have made space for this conversation to happen.

But we still haven’t overcome The Bystander Effect. There is still a collective inability by the GLBT Community to recognize that we have traveled down a path that places the needs of Women below those of Men, that subsumes the rights of Females to those of Male-born people, that denies Lesbians the ability to define our sexuality and control our spaces, and that cannot even condemn violent behavior and threats against those of us who are Trans Critical because, apparently, things would be easier/better if we just fell in line. Indeed, it seems that death threats and rape threats and threats of other physical violence are acceptable; that is, if you disagree with the pack, you SHOULD be threatened (because this is what Community members see when they look around).


The following statements bear repeating, because they are true.

Women are not bigots for wanting space away from Men. 

Girlhood is significant. 

Men cannot become Women.

Lesbians don’t want to have sex with Males.

Women have a 100% right to set a boundary based on sex and have it be respected.

Violent threats against people for expressing an opinion you don’t like are always wrong. Always. No exceptions. 

Will you look away and pretend you don’t see what’s happening? Is that because it hasn’t affected you (yet)? Is that because you think Women are wrong to establish a boundary?

I recently read Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, and she said something with regard to Porn Culture that applies equally to gender identity.

“It’s time to stop nodding and smiling uncomfortably as we ignore the crazy feeling in our heads and admit that the emperor has no clothes.”

Bystanders, do you think Lesbians are bigots for not wanting sex with Males?

Do you think Women – an oppressed class – are bigots when we claim space away from Males?

Stop looking around to see what “your peers” are doing/saying/thinking/feeling.

“Your peers” have lost their collective minds.

Your peers say things like this:


and this:


and this:

“Feminism is about empowering all women, even those who may still have their penises intact.” – Jordan Gwendolyn Davis

and this:

“she probably masturbates while she writes all this bullshit.  too bad that when she comes to terms with the fact that trans women are so much more awesome than her, she will have burned all the bridges and there will not be a single trans woman who would even come close enough to her to take a shit on her face, let alone have sex with her.” – Jackson Benjamin Robinson

(We could do this all day. See )

Here’s a thought – your peers are wrong and misguided. Stop looking to them for guidance on how to act or think.

Better yet, think for yourself.

Because you don’t have to be a Bystander.


  1. I am not a bystander and have always been amazed that whenever I took action, others did not join or support me. Especially on one occasion when it was one man against half a dozen women standing behind me. I had intervened when I saw him groping each one. I was not aware of ‘the Bystander Effect’. It certainly explains a lot…

  2. Simon Rogers · ·

    Hi, this might not be directly relevant – by all means can it if it isn’t – but one of the key things about the bystander effect is the dilution of responsibilty, and there is a way around this. If you are in trouble, or you want to help someone in trouble, pick the most likely ally, look them in the eye and say “Let’s do something about this.” I’ve done this on the Tube, and it worked well. Pretty quickly other people joined in.

    The internet equivalent, I suppose, would be people across the culture wars agreeing to call out such violent threats, in public, when they happen. In your case, that might be emailing your third wave correspondent (privately) and mentioning that she hasn’t posted yet.

    I suppose there are some indirect benefits to annoying people so much that they use the most vile threats they can think of, but it shows a window to their repressed views. If they call you a bitch, threaten to rape you, or issue other misogynistic threats, you know what they really are. It’s a pretty meagre benefit though.

    Incidentally, I couldn’t find a restriction on men posting on your blog. I apologise in advance if I’ve inadvertantly missed it.

    1. Thanks. Also, men are welcome to comment here.

  3. Excellent post! I would also add this to the list: It is not “phobic” or “hateful” to fight back against those who are oppressing you. I’m a radical feminist who is not a Lesbian, but I stand with my Lesbian sisters 100%! I have permanently sworn off sex with men because the penis danger of unwanted and medically risky pregnancy among other risks and problems is just not worth it. This is not because I “hate men”, it’s because I have a right to defend myself against an activity that poses risk of great harm to me. Bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, the foundation of the Universal Human Rights Declaration and the first two pillars of bioethics, includes not only my right to prevent or terminate an unwanted pregnancy that imperils my health, life, liberty and well-being, it also includes my right to NOT have sex with men (either through physical force, emotional blackmail, or economic coercion). End of.

    1. Thanks, sister.

    2. Yisheng Qingwa · ·

      Jacqueline, I’m with you there. I am DONE with PIV forever, and stand with all women… forever.

      1. Sisterhood is powerful. xo

  4. doublevez · ·

    I hope you know that I always speak out, online against this, for you and the issue, and in real for anything I see that upsets me. I think even if I can’t what I’m targeting, people will see and hear me, and maybe…think. I always command an audience. :O

    This month, I’ve been warned at a nursing home,one more strike and you’re out, where my civil but persuasive and persistent requests got my former neighbour THREE diapers in a 24 hr. period if she needs it (errrmmm…) instead of two, and, secured an assessment of her medications with cessation of two, one that causes hip fractures (but prescribed to prevent osteoporosis) and one that treats depression, because women dumped into care ina 4 person ward with a bathroom that has no door have lost all their selves, and are righteously sad, not clinically depressed.

    Sorry for the tangent… I take every opportunity.

      1. doublevez · ·

        Oh RELATED! This is the second in as many days. Being Black or First Nations or any other race of distinction doesn’t get you a free pass, as far as I’m concerned the people who let that go by are racist.

      2. doublevez · ·

        I find Tumblr difficult to follow but I did find that last link. Yes, they just want to scare you. I know you know what to do but that doesn’t make it any easier.

  5. Ah, I lived in NYC as a kid at the time the Kitty Genovese thing happened….I read this year there were some different takes on the story, but it so horrified me as a kid, it frightened me on a very deep level. While I don’t bother with what men do to men, ANY victimization of a woman gets my attention, and no matter who it is, I don’t hesitate to call cops when violence ensues. I live in a complex with many different kinds of people. Some choose to act out. If I feel that’s happening, I have no hesitancy to call cops. Others do, and allow the perpetrators to keep perpetrating. As a DykeAmazon I am COMMITTED to not allowing that to happen. And also perhaps because I am of the Jewish ‘never again’ generation, to not sit idly by while others or myself or my loved ones, or those I care about are being victimized or threatened. Should I be in such an episode again, I’ll strike the ipads and phones out of peoples’ hands and challenge them from being observers to being actors in stopping bullies’ perpetrations!


  6. Thanks for keeping up the struggle Cathy, despite the great costs to doing so, and I will ALWAYS support Michfest and the WBW policy! And have for close to 15 years!

  7. loveangellove · ·

    Hi Cathy,
    I’ve been reading many of your posts (and those of cherryblossomlife, gallus mag @ gendertrender, and smash) and felt I needed to tell you how important I think your voice is.
    I see the attacks that you have had to endure in the name of protecting the rights of females everywhere (i just watched the Dyke March video and was appalled) and I want you to know that although you will never meet me (I live in Australia), not only does your courage and strength inspire me, but your words and actions are having ripple effects that reach far beyond what you will ever see.
    I sincerely respect your unfailing commitment to females, in the face of unspeakable adversity, and I stand with you in solidarity. Every. Single. Day. Your tireless efforts make me believe in a world without oppression.
    Love, Angel Love

    1. Thank you, thank you for reading, and thank you for your work.

      1. loveangellove · ·

        I’ve found the courage to meet with like-minded women around my age and discuss, not only feminism, but what action we’re going to take. You have inspired me, it’s definitely me who needs to thank you! I dig your feisty and your spirit.

      2. That’s very kind. Thank you. And THANK YOU.

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