The Gray Area: A conversation on sexual assault in America through the lens of foreigners

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From left to right: Samanta Sharmin Laskar (Bangladesh), Paula Álvarez-Couceiro (Spain), Sol Ahn (South Korea), Andreea Grigorescu (Romania), Khun Nyan Min (Myanmar), Guillermo García Montenegro (Venezuela), Dougal Robinson (Australia), Chris Van Eden (Netherlands)

By Rebecca Rashid

WASHINGTON In one of the most polarized times in the nation’s history, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has led to a further schism in American society. Justice Kavanaugh took the bench for the first time this past Tuesday on the highest court of honor while 51 percent of Americans still disapprove of his appointment.

Following the extremely public testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accusing Justice Kavanaugh of sexual assault, the public remains divided on the credibility of her claims, debating conspiracies of political bias and the shortcomings of the Senate Judiciary Committee in conducting a thorough investigation into the allegations.

Whether during the campaign and election of President Donald Trump or the backlash against sexual assault through the #MeToo movement, sexual violence has ignited debates about American values at home and abroad. In the unpredictable ups and downs of American politics, we’ve witnessed the capacity of divisive rhetoric to split the public and challenge these values. Thus, common sense to one group might sound like a foreign language to another.

As Professor John E. McLaughlin of the SAIS Strategic Studies department stated, “It is not always a question of right and wrong, but a question of right and right.” In the present era, when these debates of right and wrong have created a great fault line in the institutional order, we must strive to acknowledge the unique mindset that every individual brings to the table, to see everything as a question of “right and right.” In our increasingly polarized world, the right-wrong dichotomy is becoming more subjective, often so heavily influenced by our domestic political bias that we forgo all ethical introspection.

These conversations seek to illuminate the differences in public opinions that so often get drowned out in the rigid prose of political rhetoric. This week at SAIS, I surveyed international students on sexual assault to understand how a duality of cultural experience shapes their ideas on these complex socio-cultural issues. Through these interviews, I sought to understand the culture of sexual assault in other regions and how American sexual assault scandals have been viewed from a non-American perspective.

What are the differences in culture surrounding sexual assault in the United States vs. your home country?

“Many people don’t talk about it in public. A lot of people are still not comfortable talking about these things. But when they do talk about it, they usually blame the victims.” – Khun Nyan Min (Myanmar)

“Title 9 and sexual assault are far more on the forefront in American student life than they are in Dutch student life. We would never have a seminar where students are instructed on how to behave and what to do and what the rules are, etc. We would reckon that it is already common sense and does not need reiteration.” – Chris (Netherlands)

“I feel like back home or in Europe, sexual assault is something that happens quite rarely and it’s a very, very serious crime.” – Andreea (Romania)

“What happens in the U.S. across the political landscape is very closely reflected in Australia  because Australians pay very close attention to U.S. politics and news. The #MeToo movement had a huge resonance in Australia.”  – Dougal (Australia)

Considering your foreign perspective, what is the underlying cause of the widespread culture and acceptance of sexual assault in the States?

“I feel like the U.S. is a bit of a paradox. You’re so politically correct, for example, but then, when it comes to really serious stuff, you let it happen. It’s really important the way you address someone, like their pronoun, but then no one really talks about college rape when it’s so much more important, right?” – Andreea (Romania)

“It starts early and it is learned behavior. The frat culture and the way that private schools work are clear examples of that. I don’t think it becomes a problem at age 45, I think it becomes a problem at age 16. By the time you’re 45, you can’t distinguish between what’s okay and what’s not okay, so the line becomes blurrier.” – Paula (Spain)

What is the culture surrounding sexual assault in your home country?

“Women don’t have freedom in a lot of things, so there is a lot more physical and sexual assault. Political parties have immense power and control over people. Bangladeshi political power is huge, so people who are a part of it can do whatever they want. Sexual assault is reported more infrequently than has actually happened because everyone is concerned about their family’s reputation.” – Samanta (Bangladesh)

“On the one hand, thank God I’m not American, but on the other hand, a Supreme Court judge in Korea may have a similar experience, but we wouldn’t know.” – Sol Ahn (South Korea)

“The main problem in Spain is corruption and it’s been similarly ridiculous. There are far more legal processes to formally try [perpetrators of sexual assault]. They almost immediately resign and if they don’t resign, they’re removed from the party. If you’re breaching said values that everyone is supposed to stand for, you can’t represent a group of people.” – Paula (Spain)

Do you think sexual assault is a more serious problem in the States, or in your home country?

“We don’t really go into situations where things might happen. We don’t party and we don’t have sex easily unless you’re dating someone, so these kinds of situations do not really happen. But at the same time, we don’t really talk about it. I think it’s both.” – Sol Ahn (South Korea)

“I think it’s perceived as a very, very serious crime [back home].” – Andreea (Romania)

“I think it’s better in the States, but I also have a lot of friends who are educated so it gives me a different perspective. I do think people from SAIS and the boarding school I went to are more aware of how to interpret sexual assault accusations in terms of not blaming the woman.” – Guillermo (Venezuela)

Do you feel uncomfortable discussing sexual assault as a male?

“Not me personally. I am constantly aware that I need to give space for women to speak and that I have to wait and hear their opinion.” – Guillermo (Venezuela)

“As a man, I’m not uncomfortable talking about these issues, it just depends whom I am talking to. For example, here in America I’m comfortable as long as the other party I’m with is too. But back home, since most people don’t want to talk, it’s hard to know if people are willing to talk about it. There is a culture of not talking about these things. But personally, I don’t have an issue talking about these things. Especially in this country, free speech!” – Khun Nyan Min (Myanmar)

“In the Netherlands, we have a very racist holiday called Black Peets, but it’s not something I can complain about because I am not black. If people who are black feel very offended by this, then I have to accept that. This is not something I can change just because I’m not affected. There are certain things that I’m not sure I’m entitled to have an opinion about because I’m not part of the equation.” – Chris (Netherlands)

What cultural realities back home fuel sexual assault?

“In Myanmar, there’s this concept of harmony in the family, and in order to keep that, you keep balance and respect for family members. You see a certain level of respect for women in the family – sisters, mothers, grandmothers – whereas in the U.S., you don’t differentiate between female members of the family and male members of the family.” – Khun Nyan Min (Myanmar)

“It’s just a cultural thing. Confucianism is really big and under that culture, we value men more than women in society. So guys would hate girls and that is shown. Guys think they’re better and smarter than the women. Now there’s the concept of feminism and men aren’t really happy with that, so they express their anger, but they don’t do it openly.” – Sol Ahn (South Korea)

From conversations with international members of the SAIS community, I felt a concern for American values as visceral as that of American citizens. Some strived to make sense of their romanticized views of American society with the disheartening realities of America today, while others have long been accustomed to environments of injustice. Through discussion and the open exchange of ideas, these unique perspectives are what will shape our understanding of truth, accountability and effective negotiation as we strive to reconstruct the values of American society.

Through these brief dialogues with members of the SAIS community, we can understand the complexity of sexual assault culture domestically and around the world. As Americans, we are limited to understanding and resolving our issues with a strictly America-centric perspective. Perhaps for once, we can learn from the world around us.