Runaways bassist Jackie Fuchs, who played with the band as Jackie Fox from 1975 to 1977, issued her first statement on Monday since sharing the horrific details of her rape by the band’s manager and producer, Kim Fowley, several decades ago.
The sexual assault, which took place when Fuchs was 15 years old, is described in a lengthy Huffington Post piece that provides a deeply disturbing, painstaking account of the attack. It is a difficult but necessary read that is strikingly, sickeningly similar to so many harrowing recent accounts of sexual violation against women, including the Steubenville case and Bill Cosby’s 40-plus alleged victims.
Fuchs, physically immobilized by the drugs she’d essentially been force-fed, dips in and out of consciousness throughout an ordeal that, in many ways, has never fully ended for her, or for those who witnessed it. The most unsettling — and initially baffling — detail of Fuchs’ story is that she was never alone with her attacker. A roomful of bystanders watched, without intervening, as the horrifying scene unfolded in front of them.
Since the Huffington Post article broke last week, two of Fuchs’ former bandmates, Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, have issued statements in which they each denied witnessing the rape. On Monday, Fuchs posted a lengthy comment on Facebook reiterating her initial claims, but also offering compassion for her fellow musicians:
I know some people watching the online drama unfold have been discouraged by the lack of support I’ve received from my former bandmates. To which I can only say that I hope you never have to walk in their shoes. My rape was traumatic for everyone, not just me, and everyone deals with trauma in their own way and time. It took exceptional courage for many of the witnesses to talk frankly about how they felt. Most have apologized to me for their inaction that night — apologies that have been unnecessary, though welcome. […]
All I can say about what was said and done is that my bandmates were children who’d witnessed something criminal and tragic. I’ve no doubt they were dealing with it as best they were able. They had no responsible adults to guide them – only a rapist and his apologists.
But Fuchs also pointed out the potentially troubling implications behind Jett and Currie’s statements:
I only wish that if my bandmates can’t remember what happened that night – or if they just remember it differently –they would stick simply to saying that. By asserting that if they’d witnessed my rape, they’d have done something about it, they perpetuate the very myth I was trying to dispel when I decided to tell my story.
“Being a passive bystander is not a ‘crime,’” Fuchs added. “All of us have been passive bystanders at some point in our lives.”
The Bystander Effect
Fuchs is referring to a social psychological phenomenon known as the ‘Bystander Effect’, or ‘Bystander Apathy’, which refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The concept was first defined by researchers John Darley and Bibb Latane, who were teaching in NYC in the 1960’s when the now infamous Kitty Genovese murder occurred there.
On Friday, March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Genovese was returning home from work. As she approached her apartment entrance, she was attacked and stabbed by a man later identified as Winston Moseley. Despite her repeated calls for help, none of many residents (reports put the number of witnesses anywhere from 12 to 40+ people) in her large apartment complex came to Kitty’s aid or called police to report the incident. The attack first began at 3:20 AM, but it was not until 3:50 AM that someone first contacted police.
When something like this happens, it’s more comfortable to assume that only ‘other people’ behave like this (I’m not talking about the murder – I mean the bystander apathy). Yet research which has been undertaken since this horrific crime has shown that the behavior of the witnesses is actually quite normal in the context in which they found themselves.
Factors affecting bystander behavior
In a series of experiments following the Genovese murder, Latane and Darley discovered that people’s decision not to act was dictated more by the social context than by the moral standards of the witnesses. When confronted with an emergency situation, the probability of intervening — and the amount of time it takes to do so — is inversely related to the number of other witnesses. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help (and the longer it will take to intervene if anyone does decide to help).
So why is this? Why do we fail to help when others are around?
One reason, according to Latane and Darley’s research, is that when a situation is unclear, we look to others for clues to define what is happening and what is the appropriate response. We then make decisions based, sometimes incorrectly, on other people’s actions, reactions or lack of action. So in an ambiguous situation, bystanders may look to each other to determine if they are witnessing a crime, and if no one reacts, then everyone will wrongly conclude that it is not an emergency, and no one will step up and help. This is known as pluralistic ignorance – when the group’s majority privately believes one thing and mistakenly assumes that most others believe the opposite.
According to that same line of research, diffusion of responsibility is the second primary reason for the bystander effect. Through their experiments, Latane and Darley discovered an intriguing paradox: that the greater the number of eyewitnesses, the less each witness felt responsible to help. So if we see someone in need, we all assume that someone else will help; but since we’re all assuming the same thing, no one actually provides help. Furthermore, interviews with participants in the studies showed that they did not think their decision to help (or not) was influenced by other bystanders; so evidence indicates we are unaware of the influence others have on our decision making. In fact, we are unaware of the unwritten social norm that silently emerges in those situations: Do Nothing.
But there’s another issue at play when it comes to incidences of sexual assault: A lot of people don’t actually recognize that crime when they see it. Rape culture — the set of attitudes that contribute to a society in which sexual assault is allowed to flourish — operates in part by obscuring the reality of the crime of rape. Since many Americans don’t really understand what consent is, they don’t realize when they’ve crossed the lines of consent, or when they’re witnessing someone else crossing those lines.
From inaction to action
The important point here — the one that Jackie Fuchs is trying to get across — is that bystander inaction is a learned behavior influenced by a myriad of social factors, rather than a moral failure. We may not act in a potentially violent situation when other people are present because we believe someone else is better equipped to respond. How we perceive ourselves, influences the ability to act. These reasons may include our age, gender, level of skill or experience, relationship to the victim or the perpetrator, personal feelings or attitudes, safety concerns or belief that the personal outcome to the victim of intervening has a greater benefit than doing nothing.
The failure of bystanders to intervene in situations involving sexual assault is rarely a sign of cruel indifference or selfishness on the part of the witnesses. Just the opposite is true, actually: According to Latane and Darley’s research, witnesses who fail to take action appeared to be in a more heightened state of arousal than those who did take action to help. Many were sweating, had trembling hands and looked to be in considerable discomfort.
Indeed, non-helpers appeared to be caught in a double bind that locked them up in a sort of mental paralysis. One part of them felt shame and guilt for not helping. Another part of them didn’t know if it was appropriate to do anything and didn’t want to expose themselves to embarrassment or public shaming. Still others may not have known how to intervene, or may not have believed that their help would actually make a difference. As the Huffington Post discovered speaking with witnesses to Fuchs’ rape, many were deeply impacted by what they’d seen. They’d spent decades wrestling with their remembrances from that night, the trauma of witnessing sexual violence and the guilt of inaction turning them into victims as well.
And so the lesson is that the response to the Bystander Effect is not to blame the moral corruption of those who sat idly by, but to arm people with the tools they need to intervene, and a fundamental belief that their actions matter. The good news? That may not be as difficult as we think. Because bystander inaction is a learned behavior, that means it can also be unlearned. And around the world, individuals and organizations are taking on some of the most horrific and potentially paralyzing issues of our day — including sexual assault — and giving people the tools they need to make a profound difference.