I'd Rather Go Along and Be Considered a Man: Masculinity and Bystander Intervention

Author:Carlson, Melanie

This research examines the relationship between masculinity and bystander intervention in crisis situations. Three vignettes were used in vignette-based, semi-structured interviews with 20 college men aged 18 and 19, during which they were asked questions about masculinity and the pressures they feel to appear masculine. Findings indicate these men felt they must not appear weak. This research... (see full summary)


In October of 2002, the gang rape of an unconscious 15-year-old girl took place at an out of control party. The parents, having left their 21-year-old son in charge, were away for the weekend. The semi-conscious girl was led out of one room and directed to lie down on a pool table. After she passed out, she was assaulted by four perpetrators (one adult and three juveniles) in the presence of six bystanders. When interviewed about the crime, the District Attorney said that the reason none of the bystanders intervened was because they did not want to be considered "wusses" or "be made fun of." The idea the bystanders were more afraid of their masculinity being called into question than the violence potentially turning on them is essential to understanding the perplexing dynamics between gender, power, and violence. This research seeks to answer the question: What role does masculinity play in bystander intervention in crisis situations? For the purposes of this research, a crisis situation is defined as one in which violence is being directed toward another individual in the presence of bystanders or onlookers.

The Bystander Studies

Rosenthal's (1964) landmark book detailed the tragic death of Kitty Genovese who was raped and stabbed to death in the presence of 38 witnesses. The book is a descriptive narrative of the killing and its aftermath, and is the most cited work on an actual case of bystander apathy. In response to the Genovese killing and Rosenthal's published account, John Darley and Bibb Latane (1968) conducted several psychological experiments, considered seminal for later research on bystander intervention. Some of the features noted in their research was that the number of bystanders a research subject saw during a crisis had an important effect on whether the research subject would intervene (e.g., the more bystanders the less likely a research participant would intervene). However, contrary to the perception that non-intervention demonstrated a lack of empathy for the victim, they found that the non-interveners were still in a state of indecision and conflict about whether to intervene (Darley & Latane, 1968, emphasis added). In other words, their non-responsiveness was a sign of their moral dilemma. For the subjects who knew there were other bystanders present, the cost of nonintervention was lowered, meaning that if no one acted, then no one specific individual could be blamed for their non-intervention. However, the individual conflict over what to do was far more acute than was previously thought. Darley and Latane termed this bystander conflict the "diffusion of responsibility" (p. 90).

Shotland and Straw (1976) found that if a man attacks a woman, bystanders are less likely to intervene, if they are perceived to be married. Further, when the bystanders were given no information about the attack, they assumed a relationship between the man and the woman and, therefore, were less likely to intervene. In a comparable study with similar results, Borofsky, Stollak, and Messe (1971) asserted that male bystanders receive sexual gratification from seeing a woman being attacked. To test these findings, Harari, Harari, and White (1985) staged a series of simulated rapes on one college campus in areas where real rapes had occurred. They found most males did intervene to assist the women victims. Thus, the researchers argued that not all bystanders behave in the same ways and that this should be considered when conducting field research. One study found that the primary factor influencing men's willingness to intervene to prevent sexual assault was the men's perception of other men's willingness to intervene (Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, Linkenbach, & Stark, 2004).

An important variable affecting bystander intervention is the status of the victim. If the victim is perceived to be of high status or in the "in-group," then they are more likely to receive aid from bystanders (Levine, Cassidy, & Brazier, 2002; Ridgeway & Diekema, 1989; Tisak & Tisak, 1996). Piliavin, Rodin, and Piliavin (1969) found that an apparently drunk person will not receive help even after collapsing because they might be "dirty or disgusting" (p. 290). Further, Piliavin, Rodin, and Piliavin found that bystanders are less likely to directly intervene, if intervention appears to have an unwanted physical or psychological consequence such as exposing oneself to danger or verbal harassment.


The study was based on qualitative interviews during which participants had three scenarios read to them. Each was based on real-life occurrences. The scenarios were:

On a typical Friday night, you are out walking around on Main St. here in Chico. A fight has broken out between three guys. Two of the guys have ganged up on the third one, and he is definitely losing. Other people are standing around paying some attention, but they are not intervening in the situation. You think the fight is unfair because it is two against one.

On a typical Friday night you are out walking around on Main St. here in Chico. You happen to see a guy shoving a girl around. The girl is crying and asking him to stop. He does not. Other people are standing around paying some attention, but they are not intervening in the situation.

You are at a party. You go upstairs to just sort of look around in the rooms. You decide to walk into one room. When you step into the room you see several guys standing around a table. One guy is having sex with a naked and unconscious woman on top of the table. Other guys are standing around watching and saying nothing. Still others are cheering him on and appear as if they are waiting to take their turn to have sex with her.

After reading each scenario individually, I asked the participants a series of open-ended questions based on their reactions to the hypothetical situation. The starting question was always what the participants thought about the male bystanders in each situation. I usually followed up with what they thought about the female bystanders in each situation, with the intention of discovering if they held different gender expectations of male and female bystanders. Subsequent questions were generated by the answers that each participant gave. I also asked them some open-ended questions about masculinity, i.e., how they defined masculinity and what pressures they feel they are under from their peers and society to act in a manly or masculine way. The interviews lasted between 20 and 90 minutes. The average interview lasted approximately 45 minutes, though I always endeavored to elicit longer interviews in order to generate as much of their experiences and viewpoints as possible.

I judged the participants' answers to be truthful because many of them struggled with the answers they gave. The majority of participants took time to formulate their answers and asked for clarification if they did not understand what I was asking. Although some of them could readily answer certain questions, such as what they thought society and peers thought of their behavior, other questions were more difficult. The questions that the participants found most challenging to answer were those that asked about their own personal definitions of masculinity and what they think society's messages about masculinity mean to them in their personal lives.


The participants were all men ages 18 or 19 who were college freshman or sophomores at California State University, Chico (CSUC).1 Seventeen of them were Caucasian, one Philippino, one Southeast Asian, and one participant described himself as half-Asian. None were African-American or Latino. All except one is from California. Three come from inner cities, nine come from...

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