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Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted sexual conduct deliberately perpetrated by then harasser, resulting in sexual, physical or psychological abuse of the victim regardless of location”(p.15, Shoukry, Komsan, & Hassan, 2008)

“It is not necessary for harassment to declare an explicit sexual message, but may include behaviour such as ogling, gestures, offers to perform sexual acts, questions of a private and sexual nature, displaying sexual photos or pictures, unwanted touching, etc. “ (p.15, Shoukry, Komsan, & Hassan, 2008)

Most literature on sexual harassment in the United States comes from college campuses (Banyard, 2011), where the problem is more prominently focused in that context. However, this paper focuses on the context of Egypt where the problem is much more common and widespread in the various contexts of everyday life for women of all ages and classes (Leiby, 2011). In fact, Leiby (2011) suggests that sexual harassment in Egypt is almost a society norm, as Egyptian women have stated that they grow up expecting it.

In response to numerous complaints reaching the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, the center conducted a study in 2008 on 1010 Egyptian females, 1010 Egyptian males, and 109 foreign women living in or traveling through Egypt (Shoukry et al., 2008). The results showed the following; 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women reported being harassed. While 62% of Egyptian men admitted harassment, and 53% blamed women for bringing it on (Shoukry et al., 2008).

American research on sexual harassment suggests that third parties are passively present in nearly one third of reported sexual assaults (Planty, 2002). This is quite similar to the situation in Egypt. Not only are witnesses present during daily verbal and minor physical street harassments (Shoukry et al., 2008), but also in severe cases of assault such as that of Lara Logan (Replogle, 2011). CBS news reporter, Lara Logan, was attacked by 200 men in Tahrir square on the 11th of February, 2011. Despite the fact that she was surrounded by a crowd of millions in the square, Logan was still violently assaulted for a continuous 30 minutes before anyone had stepped in to save her (Replogle, 2011).

Most research on sexual harassment focuses on the perpetrator and the victim (Banyard, 2011). In this paper, the focus will be on examining the role of the witness or bystander (Latane & Darley, 1970). The main motivation for choosing to focus on the bystander is that in the context of Egypt, and during a harassment scene, the number of bystanders seems to outnumber the number of victims and perpetrators. This is evident from the Lara Logan case (Replogle, 2011), but is also true of everyday street sexual harassment, where the whole community is a silent bystander watching women getting harassed daily (Shoukry et al., 2008). By targeting a larger group that could potentially be a powerful source of both prevention and intervention, the results can be more promising.

Bystander intervention

The term “ByStander Intervention” is a common term in literature referring to actions taken by a witness (bystander) or third party to help a victim going through any type of emergency (Latane & Darley, 1970). Literature on ByStander Intervention was born out of the atrocity of the Genovese case, where 38 Newyorkers passively watched a woman’s cries for help prior to her rape and murder without taking any action (Replogle, 2011). Latane & Darley (1970) developed a Bystander Intervention model. According to this model, for a bystander to intervene he must first notice the situation, interpret it as a problem, take responsibility for action, decide how to act, and then choose to act. It is suggested that any failure in intervening can be traced back to the stated steps.

An Ecological Analysis of ByStander Intervention in Sexual Harassment

Since the 1970s numerous experiments have been conducted on the bystander effect in various contexts and with various types of emergencies (e.g. Dovidio, Piliavin, Schroeder, & Penner, 2006), trying to determine which factors predict intervention or the lack of it. In the previous decade there has been a particular focus on bystander effect with regards to sexual assaults (e.g. Anderson & Whiston, 2005). However, most research on the subject focused on the characteristics of the individual (bystander) and the immediate context, with regards to intervention (Banyard, 2011), ignoring the ecological effects. Similarly, most efforts in preventing sexual harassment ignored the importance of community change (Casey & Lindhorst, 2009).

Recently, Banyard (2011) analysed the ecological effects on bystander intervention in sexual assault using Bronfenbrenner’s Systems Model (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). This model looks at the ecology affecting the individual at different levels; Microsystem level, Exosystem level, Macrosystem level, and Mesosystem level. The factors affecting each level can be seen in figure 1.0. Note that the Mesosystem has been excluded from the analysis for reasons that will be explained later on in this paper.

Figure 1.0 Bronfenbrenner’s Systems Model (2005)

In this paper Banyard’s (2011) findings will be summarized and mapped onto Latane and Darley’s model (Latane & Darley, 1970). This involves matching the different effects to different stages of bystander intervention: Noticing the problem, Interpreting it as a problem, Taking Responsibility, Choosing to act, and Acting. Thus, at the level of every system the effects contributing to bystander intervention will be examined in terms of their disturbance/facilitation to the different stages of intervention.

Using Egyptian literature on the community’s attitude towards sexual harassment (Shoukry et al., 2008), problems in the Egyptian context will then be matched to similar problems found by Banyard (2011), and again interpreted through a combination of Systems Analysis (Bronfenbrenner, 2005), and ByStander Intervention Stage Model (Latane & Darley, 1970).

Despite the fact that Banyard’s (2011) findings also include Mesosystem effects, they will be excluded in this paper. This was done to enable an easier reapplication of her findings to Egyptian literature on sexual harassment which did not contain significant information with regards to Mesosystem effects similar to those found by Banyard (2011).

Banyard’s (2011) systems analysis of bystander intervention in sexual harassment applied to Latane & Darley’s model (Latane & Darley, 1970)

A) Macrosystem

Noticing the problem

Increasing group size was often negatively correlated with bystander intervention (Levine & Crowther, 2008), possibly due to not allowing bystanders to notice problems. This suggests that the size of the larger community/context/population might affect the level of bystander intervention.

Interpreting it as a problem

The individual’s cognitions and attitudes need to define harassment behaviours as problematic in order for him to act (McMahon & Banyard, in press). Personal beliefs trivializing the issue, or belief in the rape myth (that rape is the victim’s fault), makes individuals less likely to label behaviours that would qualify legally as rape, as problematic (Franick, Seefelt, & Vandello, 2008). On a Macrosystem level, culture can be a detrimental factor in defining what qualifies as a problem and what shapes people’s beliefs about sexual violence (Banyard, 2011).

Taking Responsibility & Taking Action

Research shows that witnesses are more willing to report threats of violence on college campuses when they have greater trust in community supports e.g. law enforcement (Sukowski, 2011). In fact, laws and police are a key exosystem affecting bystander intervention in sexual harassment (Banyard, 2011). It seems the existence of a higher order structure that; a) Defines who is the victim is and who the perpetrator is, and b) Validates a bystander’s intervention, would create a greater likelihood that a bystander would feel responsible to intervene, with a confidence of being supported by a system.

B) Exosystem

Taking Responsibility & Taking Action

Victim blame is universally the main reason why people choose not to act even though they define harassment as a problem (Banyard, 2011). This is mainly due to the fact that if they decide the victim is responsible for this problem, then they are not responsible for intervention.

On a Exosystem level media can encourage or discourage rape myths as well as victim blame in community behaviour. Community leaders & media have a huge role in community awareness, beliefs, and responsibility in addressing sexual harassment (Banyard 2011).
On the Exosystem level, a sense of community has also been correlated to engaging in problem solving behaviour with community issues (Mcmillan & Chavis, 1986). Being part of the community increases the likelihood of engagement (Banyard, 2011). College campuses that had community active rape crisis centers encouraged the community as a whole to face the problem of sexual harassment and therefore showed greater witness reports of sexual assault cases.

Interpreting it as a problem

Using the same notion media can also raise people’s awareness and knowledge of sexual assault (Banyard, 2011). People who had greater knowledge of sexual assault were more likely to step in as active bystanders in situations of sexual harassment (Banyard, 2008).

C) Microsystem

1) Interpreting it as a problem

On a Microsystem level interpreting sexual assaults is affected by Peer/family influence, parental attitudes and peer norms in defining sexual violence (Banyard, 2011). Again as mentioned above personal beliefs trivializing the issue, or belief in the rape myth, can generate from family (Banyard, 2011).

Applying Banyard’s analysis to Egypt


In light of the importance of the law shown in Banyard’s analysis (Banyard 2011), it is crucial to note that the Egyptian Penal code does not consider sexual harassment a crime (Shoukry et al., 2008). Therefore most assaults have to be reported as “immoral acts on public highways” or “indecent assault”.

Research also shows bystander passiveness in Egypt is a result of: disinterest in the affair, lack of trust in police, absence of effective law, and worry about reputation (Shoukry et al, 2008).

Furthermore, Egyptian women reported: a) Lack of trust that the police officers would help during harassment, b) Reactions of mocking from police officers when asked to help, and c) Harassment by police officers themselves (Shoukry et al., 2008).
Therefore, in absence of a higher structure denouncing harassment bystanders are more likely to; a) Not interpret sexual harassment as a problem, b) Not feel responsible or confident to act in the absence of a system which both defines the victim and validates the decision of the bystander.

B) Exosystem

Research suggests a lack of awareness of the concept of sexual harassment in the Egyptian society. Part of the reason for this is that women were also afraid to speak about it to avoid being blamed, and to protect society’s reputation (Shoukry et al., 2008). In addition the media and the community have been silent about the issue. This therefore creates a culture of silence, and affects bystander’s awareness of the problem as a problem.

Moreover research shows that both men and women blame victims for harassment, and overestimate the role of a woman’s attire in attracting harassment (Shoukry et al., 2008). Therefore victim blame is promoted in the Egyptian society, creating bystander abstinence from taking the responsibility of helping victims.

C) Microsystem

There was less data regarding the Microsystem level, suggesting that possibly the problem now is mainly a Macro and Exosystem problem (i.e. that its’ roots come from the nation, culture, society, and community at large). More likely however the effect of the Macrosystem level is not yet captured by research. It could possibly be a very powerful effect that is feeding to and from the higher systems.

Awareness, victim blame, and the courage to address the problem of sexual assault, must all be related to the family and peers. If Banyard shows that family and peers do affect these cognitions in an individual (Banyard, 2011), then the lack of data on that in Egypt is probably a reflection on the research limitation in discussing such a taboo issue on a Microlevel.


From the analysis it seems that the two key levels to address are the Macro and Exo system levels. On a Macrosystem level, the most important next step would be to pass a law that actually punishes sexual harassment and clearly defines the criteria for being victim and perpetrator. Once that law has passed, it is of high importance to guarantee its effectiveness through police enforcement. This would allow bystanders in the community to define sexual harassment as a problem, have a higher authority guiding them in pointing it out, and know that there is a system that supports the bystander in reporting harassment by taking legal action.

A long term Macrosystem problem to address would be the overpopulation. This could be targeted either by directly trying to reduce the population, or by using the physical environment to manipulate the maximum number of people that can exist in one space simultaneously. This would enable bystanders to notice assaults when they occur.
On an Exosystem level the “silent media” needs to speak. Shoukry et al. (2008) have noted that the trend is changing and there are campaigns in process. However, the magnitude of such campaigns still does not reflect the magnitude of the problem we are targeting. Community leaders need to also get involved in the process. If both community leaders and media can show the bystander that: 1) The women in this country are suffering from sexual harassment, 2) The harassed is truly a victim, 3) We are responsible as a community to do something about it, this will in turn promote true interpretation of the problem, responsibility, and action on behalf of the bystander. Such an effort would be further facilitated by promoting a sense of community (e.g. Schoggen, 1989), where members feel they belong to a group in which they have both rights and duties.

The involvement of religious community leaders is especially important in light of Shoukry et al.’s shocking revelation of a false negative victim blame bias towards women who are dressed in less religious attire (Shoukry et al., 2008). Religious community leaders need to denounce this publicly in order for potential bystanders to stop blaming the victim.

Moreover neighbourhood centers that specialize in dealing with assault cases might also increase a bystander’s trust and confidence in reporting cases. As Banyard has shown Rape Crisis Centers on college campuses in the United States do achieve that effect (Banyard, 2011).

The Microsystem level is the trickiest. A) It has the least data, therefore its effects cannot be estimated or understood, B) It is the most complicated to tackle, considering how hard it is to penetrate the structure of family and peer life, respectively. However, it is quite probable that all the results produced on Macro and Exosystem levels are both a consequence and determinant of family and peer attitudes towards sexual assault. At this point, it realistically can only be targeted in schools through education and awareness campaigns aimed at potential victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. However, naturally solving the problem on the Macro and Exosystem levels will the Microsystem.


In conclusion, sexual harassment of women is serious problem globally and locally (in Egypt). Locally, the problem has more unique features in terms of its frequency and normalization in the society. Various research has been conducted on the role of bystander intervention in sexual harassment (in Banyard, 2011). Unlike previous research which mostly focused on the individual, modern research examines the effect of the ecological factors in bystander intervention during sexual harassment. Banyard (2011) reviews of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems (Bronfenbrenner, 2005) on bystander intervention in sexual harassment. The most prominent ones, which seem to correspond to the context of Egypt are: effective reinforced law (Exosystem), and media and community campaigns which create an awareness of the problem (Macrosystem). It is crucial to issue a law that punishes sexual harassment, that is effective and enforced by the police. The knowledge of such law and trustable system helps bystanders to define sexual assault as a problem and have the courage to intervene.

Secondly, the media and community leaders need to attack the wide false notion of “victim blame”. This notion directly interferes with a bystander’s sense of responsibility as it allows them to mistakenly attribute the problem to the harassed female, therefore releasing them from any sense of responsibility. This is particularly important in light of the fact that a sense of responsibility in intervening during sexual harassment is the strongest social correlate of taking a decision to intervene (Burn, 2009). The role of the religiousness of the woman’s attire in precipitating victim blame, emphasizes the importance of religious figures promoting bystander responsibility.

Therefore, it seems that what bystanders in Egypt mostly need in order to intervene and stop sexual harassment is, knowledge. They need knowledge of a higher order system that defines sexual harassment as a crime, so that they can correctly interpret it as so. In addition, they need knowledge of the reality of the situation of what harassment is, who gets harassed, and why, that would in turn stop them from blaming the victim, and allow them to take responsibility.

This is not only applicable on the level of the individual. It almost seems as if the whole community is a silent bystander averting its eyes from the problem and refusing to take responsibility. In that sense the community needs to go through the stages of Noticing, Interpreting, Taking Responsibility, and Taking Action. This would suggest that at this stage the role of the media is the most important, since the key now is awareness and knowledge.


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