Kitty Genovese: March 13, 1964

Today, 45 years ago, a beautiful young woman was sexually assaulted and stabbed  in New York. The assault lasted half an hour, and occurred outside of an apartment building where  38 witnesses either heard or saw the attack and did nothing to stop it.

They did nothing.

It was not reported at the time, but Kitty was also a lesbian, and left behind a bereaved partner.

Her story has come into the media again because of Watchmen–Many people think it is part of the fiction of the book.
It isn’t.  Alan Moore has a reprint of a newspaper story of the time on his website.

Wired has a very nice discussion of all the various social science theories that grew out of this event. Two examples:

  • Pluralistic ignorance
    Collective inaction by a large group encourages individuals within the group to accept that nothing is seriously amiss (“nobody else thinks it’s serious”), even when his gut tells him otherwise.
  • Diffusion of responsibility
    People have a tendency to avoid taking responsibility in critical situations, instead relying on another person to step up (“someone else is in charge” or “someone else is better able to deal with this”). The assumption that someone will do so becomes more pronounced in larger groups.

I have chosen to be open about my status as a rape survivor because I don’t think it’s something I should be ashamed of. I didn’t make it happen–it just happened.  Also, as someone who has the benefit of 20+ years of time and healing, I can say things that more recent survivors may not be able to.

What I want to know is: What are YOU doing to prevent this from happening again? Or about any violence against women?

Think it won’t happen now? What about the cop that stood by while his partner raped a drunk women last month? What about all the discussion that Rhianna “caused” the attack by her partner?

Don’t deny the little feeling in your gut that says “uh oh.”
Don’t place all the responsibility for preventing rape on women, by restricting our movements and making us live in fear.
Challenge the Rape Culture.

Just as the brilliant Ill*Doctrine says we need to call people out when they say things that sound racist, please make sure you speak up when anyone is making light of violence against women, or joking about “raping” someone or anyone.

You can make a difference.


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I remember first reading about Kitty in watchmen many years ago, and I remember how I felt when I learned it was a real thing that happened to a real women. It felt like a sharp jab to the guts.

  2. Psych Files once did an episode on Kitty Genovese, linking to this resource. It seems the case is not as popular myth would have it.

    However, that does not mean one shouldn’t act on the issues you presented. I’ve known at least two rape victims personally (i.e. two who were open about it). It’s abhorrent.

  3. In one his comics a few months ago, Jeffrey Rowland had some very important things to say about the disgusting proliferation of the word rape on the internet:

    “Let’s talk about rape for a moment. Rape is not what George Lucas did to your childhood. Rape is not what happens when a sports team beats another sports team by a wide margin. Rape is not what happens when your electric bill is higher this month than it was last month. Rape is when a person violates another person in the most despicable, degrading way imaginable and among the myriad of terrible things humans can do to one another, rape is among the worst. I think the casual misappropriation of the concept of rape extending all the way to its widespread comical usage is disgusting even by Internet standards.”

  4. Edmund Burke said it best: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

  5. The Kitty Genovese story is also referenced at the start of the movie “Boondock Saints,” which was the first time I had ever heard of it. I didn’t know until now that it was an actual occurrence. Thank’s for spreading the world, bug girl.

  6. Thank you for this post Bug Girl.

    @Imrryr: Exactly! I used to play WoW and I could not accept the casual use of the word “rape” while playing… “We totally raped that group of Ally!” It sickened me. Eventually my guild made it illegal to use such language in guild chat but the general chat was overrun with it.

    And I think it matters. When we allow something like that to become part of “normal speak” it become “normal’ in a way in our culture. “Oh, it’s just rape…”


    What are we doing? Well I think a lot of people are trying to make a difference… some of us participate in events, some of us call BS on people around us…. And apparently the skepchick community supports Walkathon people like myself (4 sponsors from this site!!! You guys rock!)

    But we have a long way to go.

  7. As a rape survivor myself I applaud your post.

    I’ve been told I should just shut up about it, I’ve been harassed for being open about having been raped. I have a separate livejournal where I do a lot of blogging about the myths that surround rape (that it’s usually violent and committed by strangers, that women falsely accuse men all the time), and the thing that makes me not delete it after a hail of troll comments is the sheer weight of other survivors thanking me for letting them know they aren’t alone.

    No one should feel alone dealing with this.

  8. I had a “friend” once, well more like a business colleague. He was a long-time and pretty serious practicing Buddhist. We were playing golf with a couple of his buddies. I thought I knew this guy. I could NOT believe the misogynistic bull-pucky which came out of his mouth and he seemed utterly clueless about the whole affair. Looking back, I wish I would have called him out on in on the spot. My Bad for not doing that then. Were it to happen again, no doubt I would call him out. For me it is “little” things like that, attitudes, which lead to the bigger issues like rape not being properly dealt with. Ah, the errs of my youth.

    Thanks for posting and shining another light! We always need more light!

  9. This always makes me angry. How could they have done nothing. They couldn’t have called the police? They couldn’t have stuck their heads out the window and screamed for it to stop? The couldn’t have turned on the lights? I know most people aren’t big tough guys but there wasn’t at least one person there with acess to a baseball bat and the courage to do what they knew was right?

    I have told my children over and over again that sex must always be consented to by all parties involved. I am trying to raise my sons to respect women and my daughter to respect herself. I am trying to give them the tools to live in the world.

    I also don’t let the attitudes that someone deserved it go unchallenged.

  10. I worked for some time on a crisis hotline, and the training we received helped us deal with calls from women who had been raped. What stuck with me the most was how many women called and said things like “I think I might have been raped.”

    Our culture is so confused about rape that these poor women were afraid that they were wrong. And it usually boiled down to something like “we were making out before it happened, so it’s my fault.” It’s sad. It makes me angry.

    As a man, what I can do is this: I can speak out. I can make sure my elected representatives know that rape culture is a problem we need to address. I can do my part to make sure there’s adequate funding and attention paid to helping rape victims and pursuing their attackers. I can contribute money to shelters and other assistance programs. I can work to make women perceived as equals, and I can call out when I see people behaving as sexists.

    And, I can work with shelter programs that look to provide rape victims and battered women positive experiences with men (e.g. the see that you’re helping to repaint their rooms, fix up their cars, get them a computer, etc.).

    These are things I do, and all men should try to support at least some of these.

    While we’re on the topic, let’s not forget that while the vast majority of sexual assault is committed by men against women, men can be raped too. Not only by other men, but by women as well. It’s important that we address sexual violence in all its forms.

  11. @GeekGirlsRule:

    that women falsely accuse men all the time

    That’s a myth I hate, and it’s so pernicious.

    Unfortunately, there are cases where consenting women have later accused men of raping them. These should be taken seriously, and anti-rape activists should loudly and roundly condemn them.

    Because there are a few cases of this, the public tends to think that a “not guilty” verdict in court means the victim made it up. In fact, of course, it only means that a jury was unable to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Legally, “rape” is a lot about intent, and usually occurs in private, where witnesses and non-circumstantial evidence are in short supply.

    Add the few actual instances to the perception, and you have a self-sustaining myth: juries acquit in part because they believe women often lie about being raped, and that belief owes in part to such acquittals.

  12. @autotroph: Honestly, my rape fits the “I think I might have been raped” description. Although earlier you talk about how no one who heard the Kitty Genovese incident did anything. When I was raped the people in the next room who heard me scream, “No!” didn’t do anything either.

    Yeah, the FBI statistics say that 8% of rape charges are “unfounded.” Not false, unfounded. But it’s amazing how many people automatically assume that they are synonyms.

  13. You know what’s really insidious? I have discussed this case in many psych classes and read a detailed discussion of it in The Lucifer Effect and this is literally the first I have heard it described as a rape. Every other description I have ever read says she was brutally “attacked” or “assaulted”. I think that omission profoundly affects how we respond to this crime and the apathy of people around her. I now wonder if the fact that it was a rape and not a simple assault affected witnesses reactions, since at the time victim blaming would have been worse than now (I hope), and people are more hesitant to get involved in sexual assaults then other crimes.

  14. Thank you, bug_girl. And thank you to the other posters.

    What I do:
    I talk about it when I teach (the great thing about anthropology is that pretty much anything is relevant). I talk about it with people I know, and I will call people out if necessary. I volunteer by working with survivors (hospital advocate).

  15. “What are YOU doing to prevent this from happening again? Or about any violence against women?”

    First, I hope that bug_girl and GeekGirlsRule don’t blame all men for what happened to them. Some women do, and it’s understandable. I just hope that you haven’t added that stone to the load you carry. It’s heavy enough as it is. :-(

    I have a cell phone and I know how to use it. 911 is a very easy number to dial, especially if you say loudly “I’m on 911 with the police!” very loudly.

    That being said, I’m not as young and limber as some on this board, so I would have to think twice about intervening physically. Making everyone in earshot aware of my presence by shouting “Fire!” at the top of my lungs would be a good second strategy, though. (Everyone will show up to see where the fire is – thus creating a group of spectators and potential witnesses/help.)

  16. Reporting rape is an interesting thing. I don’t know how I would react to being in a position to report someone else being raped, but probably way differently than I did to being raped myself.

    For years I felt guilty for “ruining his life” by reporting being raped… and there were people that made sure I knew that I should feel bad. No matter how many friends and professionals told me I shouldn’t, their words seemed trite, rehearsed. “It’s not your fault” or “but look what he did to you.” While the people who thought that I had a lot of nerve accusing their “good guy” friend certainly didn’t sound like they were taking their cues from a brochure.

    And the police were no help. The detective’s exact words to me when they closed the case were, “There was no semen found. Evidently nothing happened. Tell that to your parents.”

    That was 1996. Until then I thought that the whole blaming the rape victim thing was a mindset shamefully abandoned some time in the 50’s.

    I’d like to think that a lot has changed in 1964, but I have a feeling that most people would still choose not to get involved.

    I mean, just watching prime time TV, roofies are portrayed as a way for the hard-up and desperate to get some action… a way to point out how hilariously desperate or kinky a character is. Maybe I’m just overly-sensitive, having personal experience with drugged and raped, but I fail to see the humor.

  17. The thing that always amazes me when I talk about what happened to me is how many women (and some men) say “Yeah. Me too.”

    It is a huge epidemic that we never talk about. And that’s part of the problem.

  18. @QuestionAuthority:

    Simply saying to the men around you “What you are talking about is actually rape” or “Rape is not a joking matter” is a really good start.

    I would not encourage people to confront someone violently attacking a person–but you can yell and call cops.
    And, in Kitty’s case, had someone gone to check on her after the first part of the attack, she might have survived.

  19. I remember when I first read the story long after it happend I just can’t imagine how so many people can stand by and do nothing. I would hope that people now realize the consequences of inaction even years later

  20. All of this piques my curiosity as why more women aren’t carrying concealed???

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d rather be equipped to defend myself than have to rely on strangers.

  21. @mxracer652: I can’t speak for every woman but that isn’t going to stop me. Maybe it is because we’d rather survive than add a weapon to the struggle and end up dead?

    It’s not like the movies. You don’t always see the monster that grabs you from behind and drags you into the ally. And sometimes it’s 3am and having just finished the night shift at the restaurant you’re back at your dorm showering, and your fine, fine floormates were too drunk to walk their asshole friends down to the men’s room. So in they come, use the sinks as urinals and then notice the shower is on… and you and by “you” I mean “I” totally forgot to stick the gun in the bath caddy with the shampoo.

    This is a new take on blaming the victim I’ve not encountered before. We should’ve been more prepared for rape? Maybe we should also wear tear resistant industrial strength undergear that requires access codes for removal and produces electric shocks when mis-entered? Or better yet have rows of biomechanical shark teeth installed in our vaginas. That one would be much safer than guns at least.

  22. From what I gather about crime in general, most criminals fear being seen. If I saw a man holding or grabbing a woman who was resisting and/or shouting, “No,” dialing 911 while shouting “Fire” might be a good alternative. If nothing else, it might distract the perpetrator enough for the victim to free herself or injure her attacker. If someone had gone to look or called the cops, maybe Kitty would be alive today. Those here that have been raped are more than welcome to suggest to me alternative strategies that a witness may use to prevent or stop an attack.

    For what it’s worth, no one I associate with takes rape as a joking matter. I work in a mixed group of people aged from their 30’s through their 60’s. Maybe some of the anti-rape education is having an effect.

    @mxracer: In many areas, carrying concealed is not an option. In addition, not all people are willing or even able to use a firearm effectively.

    I was taught that I should never point a gun at anyone or anything that I did not intend to kill. Many people, even in mortal danger, cannot make a credible threat with a gun. There is a big perceptual difference between me (51 years old, 6′, 225lb and a good shot) pointing a gun at a violent perpetrator and (just as an example, folks) a 20 year old, 5′, 100lb woman that is shaking and can’t look the perpetrator in the eye.

    Without getting into details, let’s just say that I know that I can kill if I have to and I have no mercy or patience for a human predator. That’s exactly what a rapist or murderer is. If (fortune forbid) I ever am confronted with that situation, I will ensure for my own safety and that of the victim that the attacker will no longer be able to offer any threat. If I happen to kill him, I won’t lose any sleep over it.

    @Elyse: The way I look at it is that if you are accusing a man of committing or attempting to commit rape and he actually did it, you have nothing to feel ashamed of. You didn’t “ruin his life.” He did that to himself when he chose that path.

  23. @mxracer652:

    I was drugged. Someone put something in my drink… then raped me. What good would a gun have done me? More likely than doing me any good, would be having it used against me. Am I supposed to shoot anyone that stands within arm’s reach of my cup?

    I can’t help but feel incredibly insulted at the idea that women are “rely[ing] on strangers” to get them out of being raped.

    Why isn’t everyone carrying concealed weapons so they don’t have to rely on strangers to stop their pockets from being picked or being held up at the ATM or having their money taken in a Ponzi scheme instead of relying on strangers to do the right thing?

  24. I hope I’m taking the comments above the wrong way. I’m not insinuating that anyone should expect or rely on help from strangers in a situation like this. What I AM trying to say is that we are all responsible for reporting crimes if we witness or suspect one is being committted. It may also be possible to prevent the crime from being committed, depending on the situation. I would much rather be embarrassed and apologize to someone if I am wrong in my report to the police than ignore an actual crime.

    I would hope that no adult would totally rely on strangers to help them in an emergency. In Eliza and Elyse’s cases above, there was no one there to hear them resist, report the attack, or assist them. Especially in the example of Elyse, having a weapon or even holding a Black Belt in martial arts would have been no help whatsoever.

  25. @Eliza: How do you know you’re not going to be raped then murdered? We can play the what if game all day, but when it comes down to it, I/mewould at least like to level the playing field.

    And that is NOT an example of “blame the victim”, you’re reading into something that I never wrote.

  26. @Elyse: You’re right, a gun wouldn’t have helped you at all, but not all rapes involve drugged women. I know the stats, I would play the favorited odds.

    IMHO, most people don’t carry, b/c they’re either too scared of weapons or have such retarded fundamentalist political opinions that they will not be around weaponry period.

    They would rather be completely defenseless instead of take responsibility for their life, and here in America that is the name of the game. No matter what happens, it is ALWAYS someone else’s 100% fault.

  27. I remember the Kitty Genovese story from childhood. I was 12 and my mother read about it a few months after and told me about it (my mother always treated me as someone who could understand complex issues, bless her). This became the first time I remember the culture becoming aware of the phenomena of ‘not wanting to get involved’, which in the decades since became a fixture of the culture. I was only 12 then and I thought all those people who did NOTHING were screwed up. Now I am 56, older, wiser, more experienced and I know they were screwed up.
    I agree with ‘Question Authority’ that saying a person should be armed is not blaming the victim.
    Anybody faced with a terrible threat would hope to find help from the authorities, other citizens and themselves. My wife and I both have concealed carry permits and both usually do. I will never stand by and witness a woman being bodily harmed without intervening. I am not Dirty Harry nor the hero type, but I will help someone in danger of violence.
    Notice I have not focused just about rape but all violence to women and anybody. Rape is just one of the violent crimes people are victim to. It is never the victims fault. If I remember right in the Kitty Genovese case it was worse than rape, she was stabbed to death.
    No, carrying a gun would not prevent all violent crime. But how much you want to bet if it were common knowledge that almost all women carried guns the crime of rape would go way down?

  28. Concealed carry, or open carry, is total bullshit.
    This is again putting the onus on the woman to defend herself by limiting her movements. It also assumes, as people here have mentioned, that you can get to and use the gun.

    The vast majority of rapes are not strangers. There are people known by the victim. (Which would make you even less likely to shoot them)

    A gun is not a cure all.

    Making men know that rape is completely unacceptable under any circumstance would do a lot more than everyone being armed.

  29. From the DOJ:

    ” During 2005 —
    * About seven in ten female rape or sexual assault victims stated the offender was an intimate, other relative, a friend or an acquaintance.

    *Two-thirds of victims who suffered violence by an intimate (a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend) reported that alcohol had been a factor. Among spouse victims, 3 out of 4 incidents were reported to have involved an offender who had been drinking. ”

    Guns + Violence + Booze. Yeah, that will help.

  30. “Good lord!” as grandpa would say. Are there really delusional nitwits walking the streets who think the answer to rape and violent crime is MORE handguns?! WTFU! You are living an adolescent comic book fantasy with absolutely no empiric evidence that supports your juvenile delusion. Where is the utopian heavily armed paradise that proves your theory of guns as the key to a rape and crime free society? Texas? Somalia? If you equate firearms with “taking responsibility for your life” you are a tragic news story waiting to happen. Seek help. Really.

  31. @mxracer652:

    um, America or not, rape IS 100% someone else’s fault.

    There is no “Oops sorry, I didn’t mean to accidentally stick my penis into you without your permission. Guess you shouldn’t have had your vag all lying out there and stuff. Guess it’s just a case of both of us being in the wrong place at the right time . Thanks for not shooting me, BTW!”

  32. I’d like to thank you and the other ladies for speaking out about this so strongly. The couple of rape victims that I’ve known (of) would mention it, but not report it or seek any counseling, and ended up picking up guys after drinking heavily, and other self-detructive behavours. Looking back, I think they were trying to drink away the pain, but of course it just lead to poor decision making, and more pain.

    I’d also like to thank you for making it clear that men and their behavior are an important part of the solution. In my encounters with pro-womens groups in college, I was always told men were the problem, and were irredeemable.

  33. And here is a classic example of failure to call rape rape–and a guy that got 6 months for 2 rapes.


    “Philbin had sex with one girl after she passed out and was placed on his parent’s bed. He then joined another 17-year-old boy in the basement and forced a second girl to perform oral sex, according to the criminal complaint filed last month.”

    He RAPED them. Why is that so hard to say? It isn’t sex.

  34. The concealed-carry subthread is fascinating to me. @mxracer652, why did you suggest that potential victims should carry?

    It seems to me that if you’re going to promote firearm carrying, it should be that people who *aren’t* likely to be attacked should carry. Most assaults (and I mean combined stats for all types of assaults) are carried out too quickly for a victim to even respond, else they are carried out when a victim is *unable* to respond.

    A *bystander* with a weapon could successfully intervene, but for that to work, you’d have to change the root behavior that the article is about — you have to get people to care enough to intervene.

    When I worked in a sketchy part of town, I carried a sambjok (sp?) – it’s like a very sturdy, longish riding crop, the end of which can be made to break the sound barrier, much like a bullwhip. Carrying this allowed me to intervene in several attempted muggings and at least one situation that might have escalated into a sexual assault. It did nothing to stop me from being mugged.

    Anecdotal, yes, but it’s a good example of a solid security principle.

  35. @GeekGirlsRule:

    Thank you for sharing, I know how difficult it can be. (That extends to every other victim here who is being open; that openness is brave, important, and extremely valuable.)

    The interesting thing about the 8% statistic is this: even if you presume that those accusations are actually false, that means that 92% of reported rape cases are founded. You’d think that people would realize this means they should start by giving the victim the benefit of the doubt. Of course, debating the bringers of woo has taught me not to expect much from the public when it comes to thinking about statistics.

  36. I was sexually abused for several years starting about the age of 10. Many years later I tried to talk to one of my sisters about it. Her answer was that she had known a lot of women as friends and colleagues who had opened up to her and she had come to the conclusion that more women were sexually abused in some way than were not.

    I wonder if that’s true for men as well?

  37. As for the weapons issue. Won’t carry a gun or have one in the house. I’m prone to depression and my mom blew her head off in the basement. Beyond that I’m a big fan of Marlena Dietrich (see Destry Rides Again).

  38. @autotroph:

    I agree with you there, autotroph, a bystander would likely be in a better position to intervene in such a situation. I have a concealed carry permit, and am an excellent shot. Rest assured that if I happened upon something like a rape, I wouldn’t hesitate to put an end to it. And if I were to witness someone in the act of raping another person? Well, lets just say that there would only be myself and the rapists former victim left to tell the story.

    Having said all that, I agree that the problem is one that both sexes must address in order to make it stop.

    Thank you to all the skepchicks and commenters brave enough to share their experiences here.

  39. Many years ago, somewhere in the region of 35 or 40 I would say, my Dad and an old friend of his were talking and drinking beer. The subject of rape came up and my Dad’s friend started down the same old line. “They ask for it. Look how they dress.” My Dad asked, “How would you like to be raped?” His friend grinned and smacked his lips and said “Sounds great. Bring it on!” Then my Dad said, “No. Not by a woman. By another man.” My Dad’s friend sputtered a moment but really said nothing. “Yeah,” my Dad said after a second. “That’s what I thought.” Considering how and when my Dad was raised, I thought this was pretty forward thinking on his part.

  40. The last time the subject of rape was discussed here, bug_girl made a statement that ended up shattering one of my deeply held beliefs. I’ve always believed that, intellectually and emotionally, men and women were pretty much identical, and that percieved differences were just cultural.

    Then bug_girl pointed out that men commit rape, women don’t. My first thought was simply that of course they don’t, because the physical advantage is on the male side, but if women could they’d be just as likely too as men.

    But later it occured to me that the opportunities are open to women. Many women could certainly overpower younger teen boys, especially in a group, but the fact is, they don’t.

    So clearly, at least in this area, men and women are not the same. So one of my core beliefs has to be totally restructured, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

  41. Um, can you please point me to *where*, exactly, I said that?

    Women have historically been less than human. Property. Objects.

    That creates the climate for a rape culture right there, since they aren’t real people.

    Here’s a nice definition of rape culture:
    A rape culture is one in which:

    1. rape and other forms of violence against women are common;

    2. rape and other forms of violence against women are tolerated (in
    that prevalence is high while arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates
    for the crime are low);
    3. victim-blaming and racist myths of rape and other forms of violence
    against women are commonplace;
    4. images of rape and other forms of violence against women abound;
    5. images of sex and violence are intertwined; and
    6. women do not enjoy full legal, economic, and social equality with

    That’s a pretty good description of the US.

    (from )

  42. I’m sorry, but I was probably thinking of TheWireMonkey at, comment 62

    I don’t know how I got your name attached to it. My sincere apologies.

    I don’t like to believe we’re (the US) as much of a rape culture as you’re implying, at least overall. But I’m finding I can’t dispute any of your points, either. As much as the situation has improved, we still have a long way to go.

  43. If it’s a culture, then we can change it. That’s the good part.

    While there will always be crazy psychos that rape and murder, the vast majority of rapes are between acquaintances. Changing the the culture of rape could make a huge difference.

    I also don’t think it’s only a US problem–we are just one of the more clear manifestations of it. All you have to do is look at how common rape is now as a weapon of warfare to see it’s not just us :(

  44. The problem is unfortunately very clear in South Africa these days. With a population of 47 million there were 55,000 rapes reported in 2005, and only 1 in 9 women actually report their rape to the police. For those who do, only 8% of the cases that go to trial actually find the defendant guilty. And then there is a “macho” culture there that supports acts like this… which is really so horrible that it leaves me at a complete loss for words.

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