Airplane, Airport Sex Assaults And The Bystander Effect


Today’s news brings two horrifying examples of sex crimes occurring in the course of air travel. And both raise questions of the role of bystanders in the strange, semi-public space created in the course of flying.

In Denver, a woman was raped Monday in an airline terminal after missing her connection for an interview at a convent. (Yes, a convent.) A man she struck up a conversation with followed her after the restaurant where they met closed. According to the AP,

He asked to kiss her, and she refused, but he moved in anyway and then threw her to the floor. The woman said the man pulled her pants down and assaulted her for about 10 minutes.
During the attack, two airport janitors passed by and said nothing, she said.

She was, however, rescued when two airline employees that were outside on the tarmac spotted them through a window.

Separately, a New Jersey man has admitted he sexually assaulted a woman sleeping beside him on a flight from Hong Kong to Newark.

The man “reached his hand under the Victim’s blanket, and knowingly and intentionally touched the Victim in the area of the Victim’s genitalia, groin and inner thigh,” according to a criminal complaint. He then “inserted one or more of his fingers into, and penetrated, the Victim’s genitalia,” it says.

In that case, two passengers started kicking the chair of the woman when they saw the man use napkins to clean himself under his pants. The perpetrator could serve three years in prison when sentenced in August.

One commenter on the New Jersey site that reported about the airplane crime wrote, “O.K., I have to ask: The people that witnessed the event waited until he finished before kicking her chair?” It’s a fair question, although we don’t know when they first became sure of what was taking place — it was an overnight flight and likely dark, and they’d be peering in the cracks between the seats or along the side. What’s the excuse of the janitors in the Denver airport? Possibly they didn’t look closely and thought consensual sex was taking place. Possibly they feared getting involved for their own reasons. It could have been any aspect of the bystander effect, which didn’t encompass the two tarmac workers.

Airplanes and airport terminals are in-between spaces — ostensibly safe, thanks to our elaborate security apparatus, but only in a very specific sense. We spend extended amounts of time close-up with strangers and are expected to both be vigilant and feel safe enough to sleep. (Of course, most sexual assaults and rapes occur between acquaintances anyway.) It’s interesting to wonder what sorts of responsibilities bystanders feel to stop a crime when it occurs in that transient yet intimate context.

Woman Raped In Deserted DIA Concourse [HP]
Man Admits To Sexually Assaulting Female Seatmate On Flight From Hong Kong To Newark [Cliffview Pilot]

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