It’s late. You’re a woman, alone, on your way home. Even though you’ve done nothing wrong, you’re worried for your safety. At least, you tell yourself, there are people around. It’s a thought many of us have used to comfort ourselves when walking as a woman at night—nothing too bad can happen with so many witnesses. Someone will help me.
That wasn’t the case last week in Philadelphia, police say, when a woman was raped on a train in front of a group of strangers who did not intervene or call 911. Reports say there were “several” passengers in the car who observed as a man, Fiston Ngoy, assaulted and then raped an unnamed woman. Ngoy was not armed. Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt told The New York Times that investigations have turned up reports—so far unconfirmed—that some passengers filmed the rape on their phones.
A transportation worker eventually boarded the train and called 911, a spokesperson for the Transit Authority told the Times. Shortly after, a police officer entered the car and arrested Ngoy. Bernhardt said footage from the train shows that the passengers could have intervened, but did not.
It’s a story that seems to illustrates two distinct, extreme evils—direct violence, and passive acceptance of that violence by regular people. The story has captured national attention, twinning horribly with the recent Gabby Petito homicide story. Under these conditions of violence against women from strangers and partners, in public and in private, how can any woman or gender minority person feel safe?
The horrific reports have inspired comparisons to the famous case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was murdered in New York City in 1964 on her way home from work. The front page New York Times report of the event bore the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police; Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector.” The story provoked an uproar and led psychologists to coin the term “bystander effect.”
But decades later, subsequent investigations of the case led the Times to acknowledge “errors” in its own investigations. “The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived,” a 2016 piece in the Times reported. “None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help.” In fact, two neighbors called the police after the event.
The news about the rape on the Philadelphia train is still emerging. So far, reports have only been released by law enforcement officials and by the Transportation Authority. Increasingly, journalists have pointed out that it’s inappropriate to take police accounts as the final word on crime reporting—think of the way Minneapolis police first shared the news of George Floyd’s murder: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”
But even as we get more clarity on this story—how many people looked on and did not help, whether or not it’s true that strangers decided to turn the worst moment of a woman’s life into entertainment—the horror is undeniable. We know that people are capable of sexual violence as individuals and in groups, in public and in private. One of the many things that makes this story is so troubling is the way it illustrates, in an extreme way, how much rape culture is simply…culture.
If a woman cannot get help while she is being raped by a stranger in public, what is the hope for people who are, at much higher rates, raped or assaulted behind closed closed doors, usually by a person they know? In courthouses and in the court of public opinion, rape survivors are pressed to provide “evidence” of the crime committed against them, even though by its nature, sexual assault is often impossible to prove. The events on the Philadelphia train are a stark example of the how evidence can be dismissed—even when it appears, live, in front of people’s eyes.
Why don’t survivors instantly report their assaults? In a culture where violence against women is so normalized that it can happen like it did in Philadelphia, it’s a wonder that anyone reports assault at all.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.