Fear of Men

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Photo: Kat Northern Lights Man/flickr

Part I

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

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For the next post I will describe research on the state of gender relations and gender attitudes among children.

Shopping Socialization

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Photo: Travel Aficionado/flickr

When I got engaged, within days friends and family asked me what kind of wedding dress would I want for the big day. And, kindly, they were so excited to take me dress shopping. It did end up being a special event to try on dresses with my mother, sisters, nieces, and best friends. But these interactions made me reflect on the role of shopping in ‘girl’ or feminine culture. For many women shopping is a friendship glue, a time of communion among mothers and daughters, sisters, and girlfriends.

Shopping often feels intimate. With my Southern Californian Orange County upbringing, so much of my childhood was spent in malls. My first memories of shopping were the familiar smell of new clothes in gigantic windowless stores, hiding myself in the racks, giggling, playing games with my older sister. By the time I was eight, I knew where the petite-size section (my mother’s go-to) was located in every major department store. As I got older, I remember frequently gathering inside a cramped dressing room with my mother. It was a time of fun possibilities imagining our future selves dressed in this or that and also a tiring time of taking off clothes and putting them back on under the glow of fluorescent lighting. My mother would give her opinion on a piece of clothing. Usually she thought my choices were too tight. I would give my opinion on my mother’s choices, warning her if a clothing choice was too “mom”-ish.

I think as I’ve moved away and now that I live farther from home, this is the kind of time together that my mother misses with me. It’s a one-on-one time to chat together and share how things are going, to look forward to upcoming events, and a chance to feel prettier.

For many women shopping represents a leisure activity, a treat. A good friend of mine had worked so hard for the past 10 years completing a biology degree during her undergrad, her medical school training, and residency. Her first thought when she got a job and had a few hours of free time was, “Let’s go shopping!”

But I wonder, why is shopping a “girl thing”, and why is shopping such a part of girl culture? In our own studies, when we interview five-year-olds and want to assess their knowledge of gender stereotypes, one of the items that we use is, “Who goes shopping? Mrs. Davis, Mr. Stephens, or both Mrs. Davis and Mr. Stephens?” The majority of young children already think that Mrs. Davis, the woman, goes shopping. Why do so many men abhor shopping?

Last winter break, I went to the mall with my sister and two nieces. It’s something that we always do when they are here. Honestly, there are not that many other choices in the area that are adult- and kid-friendly – a commonplace reflection of consumerist America. There’s air conditioning, a fun carousel for the kids, and frozen yogurt, what more could you ask for? We only had a little time left, so we split up, and I was left with my seven-year-old niece. I had the keen idea of finding something for going out. Lately I had been feeling like I was wearing the same black top over and over again. So we raced to H&M, a Swedish discount store with the latest trends that they copy from designers. I felt a little bad at my feverish scouring of the racks up and down the aisles, but my niece seemed to have no problem occupying herself by browsing the cute little hair clips and knick knacks that they keep near the register. Then I corralled her into the dressing room to help me decide on a skirt I was thinking about purchasing. What did she think?

My niece gamely said it was fine, and then patiently waited as I waited in a long line to buy my skirt. Two things crossed my mind. First, what a change in my niece from age 5 to now. She was so patient! But was she more patient because of her better self-regulation skills and developmental growth, or was it also because her enjoyment of shopping had increased? Was my niece already being inculcated into the girl culture of shopping? One of her current favorite stores is Claire’s, a jewelry and accessories store with thousands of options. Second, my interaction with my niece in the dressing room was perpetuating the female shopping culture. I was contributing to this socialization of shopping.

Some common themes I’ve touched upon before are pertinent here too. Women often shop with the goal of looking attractive and maintaining their appearances. I helped foster this in my niece as well. It normalizes this goal and implicitly underscores that, hey, this is important. We spend time on dressing well and making ourselves look good.

Another theme that arises is finances. I know for myself that sometimes I struggle with not going over my budget. I’m often tempted by the fancy clothing in fashion magazines and blogs that make it seem like beautiful designer clothes are attainable for the middle-class consumer. During my poor graduate school years, I spent $500 on a Marc by Marc Jacobs purse, which was 25% of my monthly income. Given my miniscule budget, I could have probably put that money to use on more useful things, but I was willing to risk not even being able to pay rent to have one. Purses are big in many cities, but were especially prominent in the New York pedestrian scene. Purses and engagement rings are to New York women what cars are like to Angelenos in terms of signaling social status to others. I rationalized my expenditure by saying to myself, well, at least I wasn’t going for the $2,000 purse line! (Yes, what a warped view I had). However, imagine if I had bought a $100 purse instead, which would have sufficed my needs, and saved and invested that leftover $400 five years ago? I wonder if socializing young girls to shop and care about fashion has a cumulative effect on their finances and on the finances of women as a whole. One study on adults conducted in South Korea would support this link. People who were more fashion-oriented exhibited more compulsive buying habits and used credit cards more.

When I think of my own friends and acquaintances, I often see a negative correlation between their need for nice clothing and furnishings and their financial situations. The friends I know who have the biggest nest eggs are the ones who, despite having high-flying jobs, still buy furniture at Ikea and non-name brand leather purses from the local department store.

Just as with the appearance culture, the female shopping culture is situated within a larger context. America’s economy is based on consumerism. We are told to shop, shop, shop in order to keep America’s economy healthy. These days we are even told that shopping is our patriotic duty. However, a large body of psychological research shows that materialism is associated with a lot of negative behaviors and outcomes. For example, people who are more materialistic tend to believe more that their expenditures will change their lives. They are more likely to make purchases for emotional reasons and engage in compulsive buying. They are also more likely to mismanage their credit. Materialism is also associated with lower well-being overall. While not its total converse, financial well-being is associated with better health and well-being. Despite this strong evidence, it is still hard to not get sucked into a consumerist mentality.

I appreciate all the intimate moments I had with my mother bonding over clothing and cinnamon pretzels with caramel dip. The time together when we shop gives us a chance to talk about how we’re doing. But there are other environments that can facilitate female bonding to occur other than one that encourages spending and possibly debt. A few times some students have told me that I never wear the same outfit to class. To clarify – this is wrong, but apparently this was the impression I gave. I admit that I was probably overzealous in putting together my work wardrobe when I first began my professor job. Perhaps the students were trying to give me a compliment, but it honestly made me feel embarrassed because I probably do have too many clothes. Thus, the challenge that I have posed to calm the drive to shop is a challenge I continue to take on for myself.