Photo: Kat Northern Lights Man/flickr
The Stanford rape victim’s open letter to her rapist made me angry. It made me cry. It hit closer to home than most sexual assault headlines do. I am a Stanford alum. Every time I read or heard the headline about the “Stanford rape case” my ears would perk up, my eyes would be drawn. It felt more relevant to me. I felt shame.
Having completed my undergrad at Stanford, I could easily imagine what this privileged jock, Brock Turner, might be like. My freshmen dorm, Donner, was notorious for housing athletes. People said we had the best-looking men on campus. They were indeed handsome, self-assured, often cocky, and could be found roaming the hallway in packs ready to go party on a Thursday night. It was easy to see that with their athletic prowess they had likely been lauded their whole lives and felt on top of the world at one of the best universities in the world. I mean, look at how we are praising them now, winning medals at the Olympics. They are kings and queens, America’s darlings.
Reading about the case, I could also easily imagine the location of this frat house late at night where the crime took place. Kappa Alpha has a cushy location, right around Lake Lagunita. I imagined during that terrible night it was quiet and dark, paths lit by hazy yellow street lamps meant to save energy, crickets singing, dry grass, the occasional night biker whizzing by. I cry with this victim, her sister, and her family. Like Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote a response to the rape victim’s open letter, I am awed by her strength and bravery.
The sad thing is that these kinds of headlines keep reemerging. As Vice President Biden noted in his letter, rates of sexual assault are epidemic especially on our college campuses. Statisticians estimate that between 20-25% of women will experience attempted or completed rape during their college careers. In college I volunteered as an intern for the National Asian Women’s Health Organization. I knew the numbers back then – I even taught them to others in workshops. However, even though I taught these numbers to others, I found myself doubting their veracity because they are so disturbing. Sexual assault also happens off college campuses. Other incidents haunt me from the news – the mass sexual assault on a number of German women during New Year’s Eve in Cologne, the horrific gang rape of a young girl on a bus in India. Violence against women can hit close to home too. On the July 4 weekend, two women were violently attacked and raped in my neighborhood, in a normally safe area in Los Angeles. One was walking by a busy park at 5pm on the holiday and another was walking home at 2am the Saturday before that. The police has taped flyers with the man’s blurry photograph on street posts. When I lived alone in Harlem, a woman was attacked and raped on her way to work on an early Tuesday morning, 5am, waiting for the train. She waited in the exact spot that I would usually stand at for the blue line. That stuck with me for a long time. I kept imagining this woman, waking up in the morning as usual, probably cursing her alarm clock, but trudging through the sleepiness to get to work on time for a normal day, not knowing what awaited her. It is sickening.
What’s more – experiencing and even just hearing about this violence can make women fear men more. It made me scared. Immediately after the July 4 weekend, I did not walk around by myself in our neighborhood and stayed inside. In Harlem, I began taking expensive cab rides from downtown straight to my brownstone door when I would return after a night out. When I would walk home at night, my heart would beat fast. Fear was thick in my ears, I swear I could feel the cortisol levels rise in my blood. At the same time I would try to not look scared with headphones in my ears, but no music playing as if this was a smart defense strategy. I was afraid of some of the men. I became well-acquainted with fear during that year.
Being aware of sexual violence started from when I was young. Like many other parents, in an attempt to keep me safe, my mother consistently warned me to be vigilant of dangerous men. She urged me to err on the side of mistrust, because Dateline and other evening news magazines showed evidence that perpetrators were often people you knew. Because of these stories my mother would sometimes prohibit me, despite my pleas, from sleeping over at a girlfriend’s house to keep me safe. In my readings, I found that my mother was not unusual. Especially for immigrant mothers in a new land (whether Latina or Asian), safety of their daughters is important, and they often see the world as threatening. Many immigrant adolescent girls report more restrictions on going out and dating because of these fears. It was always startling to me that in our study of New York Mexican-immigrant mothers, several brought up their fears of future sexual violence against their daughters, even by family members. Their daughters were only one-year-old at the time, but that was something they already thought about. Sometimes I was allowed to go to a friend’s birthday party, but I would have to leave before the sleepover part. It was probably one of the earliest ways that I became aware that I was from a different cultural background than my peers. My “American” friends’ parents seemed to let their daughters sleep over at friends’ houses without a thought. Peers can foster fear as well. For my generation during the 80s, there was a grisly news story about an intruder invading a girls’ sleepover and murdering one of the girls. Sometimes my young girlfriends and I would recount this nightmare in whispers to each other at our own slumber parties.
However, as easy as it is to keep and feed this fear it compounds the problem. Hearing about violence against women will likely continue. But the encouragement of our leaders like President Barack Obama and President Francois Hollande, in the face of continuing terrorist attacks comes to mind. We should not let ourselves be ruled by fear or else they have won.
I have also been thinking about these men who afflict these terrible acts upon women. What kind of attitudes do they have towards women? Research has found that men who believed that men and women’s relationships are adversarial in nature were more likely to commit sexual assault in both prospective and concurrent studies. Endorsement in this adversarial relationship between men and women has also been found to be linked to more tolerance of rape, blaming rape victims more, and reporting that one would be more likely to to rape if no one would ever find out. Similar links have been found between endorsing more traditional gender roles and these kinds of attitudes. Factors leading to actually commit these crimes are multiple in nature – we cannot forget factors like impulsivity, antisocial tendencies, alcohol use, and being saturated in a masculine culture that endorses aggression. But one piece of the puzzle are these warped attitudes towards women. Many of these men probably devalue women – they think of them as objects, as separate, as inferior – to be used, abused, hurt for their own sick pleasures. How did these men end up this way?
As a developmental psychologist, I can’t help but think that we need to get at the root of these attitudes towards women at younger ages. If we can teach and encourage little boys and girls to be friends with one another, respect one another, and see each other as more than just an unknown other maybe this would help reduce the devaluation and abuse of women later on in life. I would speculate that adolescence might also be a critical time to encourage respect and friendship between the sexes as well, as scripts about romantic relationships and intimacy are formed.
-May Ling Halim
For the next post I will describe research on the state of gender relations and gender attitudes among children.