Guy Friends, Girl Friends


Photo: Arian Zwegers/flickr

In my previous post I discussed sexual assault and its possible roots in biased gender attitudes. I suggested that one possible way to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault and the acceptance of rape myths is to encourage more interaction and friendship between girls and boys from a young age. Do children need encouragement? In most cultures, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, the current picture of gender relations among children is not great. By age 5, most children already show favoritism for their own gender compared to the other gender. A few studies have shown that five-year-old children, on average, even expressed negative attitudes toward the other gender. These biased attitudes continue through elementary school and have consequences. Children’s biased attitudes have been linked to unfair treatment of the other gender as well as distancing from the other gender.

Most of us can remember ourselves possessing similar attitudes growing up. We can also remember the stark separation of girls and boys, which continues today. One famous study found that preschoolers spent 4 times the amount of their free play time with same-gender versus other-gender peers – a huge difference. In elementary school, every Sunday we would line up to go into the worship hall. The girls would be wearing dresses and big bows, white tights or turned-down lace socks spotted with red punch we would inevitably spill. The boys would look uncomfortable in their black and blue clip-on ties and white shirts. The boys would line up in the front all together. The girls would line up in the back all together. Every week there would be vigorous jostling as everyone attempted to not be the unfortunate link between the girls and the boys. Whichever sucker ended up standing next to the other gender always looked miserable. The other gender had cooties, after all.

It seems kind of funny and most of us would probably feel okay if we observed this today. It seems natural to us, and we know eventually the genders will mix. However, I’d like to challenge us to not shrug and be so tolerant of the status quo. Think about it – most parents don’t blink an eye when throwing a birthday party with only girls or only boys invited. Even school policies may unintentionally encourage single-gender parties. My sister tells me that at some schools, in an effort to promote inclusion, a child is only given two alternatives – invite the entire class to a party (often unwieldy and expensive) or only invite girls or boys. But imagine if parents or schools encouraged only inviting White kids to a party? Racial/ethnic or religious segregation makes most of us uncomfortable, but gender segregation rarely as much. Yet in the same way that racial/ethnic or religious segregation can promote the stereotyping of the “other” and foster prejudice, gender segregation can do the same. Without much interaction, the other gender may seem foreign and mysterious.

Compounded by society’s messages that girls and women are less competent than men, boys may not only see girls as weird, but also as less capable and in some ways inferior. One study I recently came across has haunted me. French ninth graders read about hypothetical girls and boys who had very good grades. When boys succeeded children thought that these boys were naturally smart and would likely continue to succeed in the future. But when girls succeeded children thought that she must have just worked really hard and would not necessarily succeed in the future. Somehow these adolescents are internalizing the message that boys have more natural intelligence than girls.

We may often feel comfortable with girls and boys avoiding each other because we are intermingled in other ways. We may have sisters, brothers, male and female cousins. Eventually, if we are heterosexual, we may marry someone of the other gender. However, we should well know that even if one has a wife or a girlfriend that may not lessen sexism or the devaluation of women. Everyone has a mother, but there are still sexist sons and daughters. Psychologists have separated out two kinds of sexism. One kind is hostile sexism, which are outright attitudes reflecting the view that women are inferior to men – less smart, less capable and the belief that women have already gotten more gains than they deserve, like in career opportunities. Fox news chief, Roger Ailes, is a good example. The second type of sexism psychologists have termed “benevolent” sexism, which is somewhat of a misnomer. It is the belief and actions which reflect thinking that women and girls are helpless. They need to be put on a pedestal and given special treatment. Insidious in this thinking is the belief that women and girls are weak and fragile – that’s why they need special care and protection. Benevolent sexism also includes the belief that men should be the ones rescuing the damsel in distress and protecting her. Both men and women around the world often hold these beliefs. It doesn’t seem so bad, right? Every woman needs a little help putting her luggage in the overhead compartment, right? The dangerous part is that benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are often positively correlated. In countries where benevolent sexist attitudes are high, hostile sexist attitudes tend to be high too. Countries where benevolent sexism is espoused tend to have lower rates of female leaderships, health, work opportunities, and education. So even though we are more intermingled by gender than, say, by race/ethnicity, we can still hold sexist views and still believe in gender stereotypes.

On a more positive note, let’s think about all the positives about having friends who are of the other gender. I didn’t really get to enjoy the benefits of having guy friends (no, I’m not talking about those benefits!) until later in life. Being the youngest of three sisters, I would say my confidence in my ability to interact effectively with boys was pretty low, especially while growing up. I was comfortable around girls and especially around girls with only sisters. I would hang out with boys during elementary school, but only in groups, and usually only in a sports context. Many of my friends were extremely athletic, and were better athletes than the boys. We would play basketball on the pavement, kickball on the fields, tetherball, and handball. But I never had a close friend who was a boy. There was no boy that I shared my secrets with.

One thing I appreciate about adulthood is that I was able to eventually make good guy friends. Guys that I can write emails to, can sometimes talk on the phone with. Guys I can ask for advice about relationships with – who better to tell you when another guy is just plain crazy? Guys to pump up your confidence when you’re feeling low. Guys who are great listeners and are going through their own issues, too. Guys who will tell you like it is when your girlfriends pander to you with what you want to hear. Women with husbands or boyfriends who are their best friends can probably attest to these benefits as well. Sometimes you need a push from your husband or significant other to ask for that raise, to take a risk with your career, or to demand some deserved respect when it is being withheld.

I am so glad I was finally exposed to these wonderful men. I think these friendships lessened my fear of men and increased my confidence in interacting with them, which benefits me at work and in other aspects of my life. They helped me laugh at myself more and try to find humor in tough situations. I hope that being friends with me also benefited the men as well. In some ways, I think I did believe some of the stereotypes – for example, that men are stoic and don’t feel things even though they are human beings! I wonder, though, what might have been if I had made these kinds of friendships earlier in my life. Would I be a different person, have different preferences or interests? Would I be more thick-skinned and funnier? What if many of the sexual assault perpetrators had best girlfriends, strong older sisters and feminist moms early on in life? Would that change their attitudes and actions towards women? Even though the tide of childhood usually gives way to gender segregation, perhaps we can try to push back and foster other-gender friendships from a young age.





Fear of Men


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


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