By Natalie Doan-Dunnum

When Brock Turner was on trial for raping an unconscious woman in an alley in 2015, his father commented that his son should not have to go to prison for 20 minutes of action.” 

For “20 minutes of action”, this woman has gone through: waking up in an unfamiliar place with no recollection of what happened, nurses poking and probing her when she didn’t understand what was going on, losing her clothes, having a rape kit done, being explained that she was raped through multiple sources, not understanding a single thing that was happening to her body, unfamiliar bruises and scars, having to explain the personal incident to her friends and family constantly, having to defend herself in front of a defendant that relentlessly attacked her whereabouts, being asked inane invasive questions that attempted to push the blame on her, loss of sleep, loss of health, loss of appetite, loss of trust, loss of her own body, and then loss of power. 

“20 minutes of action” can define a lifetime.

Turner’s comment is what people refer to as rape culture. According to the Oxford Dictionary, rape culture is formally defined as “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.” It is perpetuated through seemingly innocent instances of warning women to dress in a way that won’t get them attacked, or in a manner where it won’t distract men. It is normalized on college campuses where the higher administration encourages girls not to go out at night or venture out alone because they might invite attackers. They walk throughout their lives having to be constantly prepared and alert. 

School dress codes force girls to cover their shoulders so their male classmates won’t be distracted from their studies, and legal trials often ask questions about the victim’s wardrobe, as if clothes act as an invitation for consensual sex. In the research article, “Tank Tops are OK But I Don’t Want to See Her Thong” Rebecca Raby writes, “[Dress codes] normalize certain forms of girlhood, problematize others, and suggest girls’ responsibility for the school’s moral climate.” 

In many ways, we construct rape as an assault that is almost entirely the victim’s fault. We come up with excuses for their assault, and ask: Why were they there? Were they drinking? What did they drink? Why did they let themselves get into that situation?

Rape culture is maintained through questions like these because they ultimately place the blame on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Most victims have the cards stacked against them when the crime is framed as “why did you put yourself in this situation?” rather than “why was this crime committed?” thus shifting the victim on the defensive. This commonly relieves the perpetrator of any fault or guilt. This problematic culture is the reason why many rape victims oftentimes do not report their assaults and if they do report their assaults, these victims are not always met with fair judgement. In the famous Steubenville High School Rape case in 2012, many community members were upset that the victim had casted such a negative light on the town. Poppy Harlow, a CNN anchor, openly sympathized with the rapists by commenting, “[It was] Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart…when that sentence came down.” 

Rape isn’t just sexual violence; it’s also a way to exert power and dominance over another individual. It plays into power dynamics that stem from institutionalized gender roles where men are seen and celebrated as dominant sexual beings while women are sexless and submissive. It is becoming more and more clear that sexual harassment stems from the existence of inequality. Instead of creating a culture that places the blame on the victims, we should be working towards a culture that emphasizes consent and equality. Healthy sexual behaviors mean no blurred lines, or gray areas — it is about active consent. Consent is the permission for something to happen or an agreement for something to happen.

The issues pertaining to rape culture and inequality requires deep insight and and a willingness to change behaviors that are long standing in society. Often times, people find it a hard topic to relate to or a topic uncomfortable to breech. Without a proper conversation of why these instances of sexual assault happen, rape culture and assault will continue threatening the well being of society. Last year UNAVSA released a Me Too thought piece where we state statistics that show sexual assault happening more often than people think. UNAVSA and the greater Vietnamese community, though supportive and family like in nature, is not immune to these issues. Many members have experienced unwanted sexual advances that have led to violence.

The Civic Engagement Committee reached out to three community members who were willing to share their stories about their own experiences. Below is an interview that had all three women present discussing their experiences. Beyond these stories, UNAVSA hopes that members advocate for safer environments by being vigilant and speaking against toxic behaviors. Our organization has officially made a stance against any form of harassment and violence, incorporated practices where victims have an outlet to report, and is committed to maintaining a due process and zero tolerance policy. The Civic Engagement Committee has created this infographic with the intent of educating more members with what consent means. Change for a positive future starts with individuals and we believe there is so much that will change with your investment for a brighter tomorrow.

UNAVSA Civic Engagement Committee reached out to three community members who were willing to share their stories about their own experiences. These three brave women have carried an invisible weight on their backs, but they are choosing to share their stories to raise awareness and to push the conversation forward.  

What were some common instances of rape culture that you’ve witnessed in your day-to-day life? From university to adulthood, has it changed? Can you recall any specific instances? Did your friends make rape jokes? Did coworkers ever watch the news and blame the victim?

My-Phuong: Women not supporting other women. It all comes from not us respecting another human being, and all of that stuff leads to rape culture. We are reminded of who we are every single day in these society predominately made up by men.

Thoa: [My male friend] made the really bold statement that “I don’t believe in rape culture” believing that people who do think its ok to rape. It’s not just the act of violating somebody in such a violent way. Whether you are male or female or however you identify as, it’s a power imbalance over everyone else. It’s not just rape, it’s everything before rape.. before that incident happens. I’ve witnessed that my whole life. It wasn’t clear or predominant until I went to university and started interacting with the opposite sex in such a free-like environment. My experiences have varied throughout, but friends and co-workers have made fun of women.

Has your view on rape culture changed throughout the years? Was it always the same? Why? 

Thoa: For me it wasn’t always the same, when I was younger, I had lots of ignorance. I use to make fun of women thinking its harmless. I didn’t have the capacity to understand the ramification of what those jokes would do to women over time. As I was growing up and being exposed to different people and industries, I saw many actions and behaviors of people joking about sexual assault and rape. It happens at every stage in life. Recently I’ve pulled people aside to speak about how joke like that aren’t funny. You should just respect people in general, and not need a personal connection to do that.  

Jenni: I don’t think my view of rape culture has changed… I simply I notice it more. It’s more prominent. Before I went to undergrad, I did martial arts. I was an instructor for five years. I remember at that time I was treated differently than any instructor that was a male. I taught “softer” classes, focusing on forms or weapons and not sparring or board breaking. I always thought that was frustrating because I was just as capable. When I stepped into VSA, and leadership, it was less prominent in VSA because you’re dealing with less people internally and externally. So the ratio might be the same since you’re having less interaction. But UNAVSA…It’s very frustrating and you give so much into UNAVSA and people still treat you differently. I see differences in how people treat and respect e-board, people in leadership within UNAVSA. It might not be that apparent because people like to think that they are not racist or sexist but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Being aware that you can be ignorant to anything is a great first step. Rape culture has evolved.   

My-Phuong: It makes me think about that attitude shift… whether I have a boy or girl… whether they grow up to be a good person. Rape culture is still there. It’s never gone away. It hasn’t changed.  

[My-Phuong discusses how her vision for starting a family can be stressful because she’s wondering how to raise her children to be “good people” as well as battling the rape culture so her children aren’t exposed to that.]

Do you feel like you got the sufficient medical treatment mentally and physically? Why or why not? 

Thoa: I would say that I was one of the lucky ones that I did. I know a lot of females have not. Each year, since my teenage age self, I’ve had more confidence in myself. In the last few years I felt so at peace myself and saw myself in a positive light. I’m a leader, which is strange to me, because I never thought of myself in that way. I had a lot of self love for myself, I felt like I’m much more decisive, direct, and strong. I have all these capabilities that make me an independent woman, a modern woman of my time. To witness myself deteriorate after my assault was tough and disheartening, but I know I did [get sufficient treatment]. I don’t think I would’ve recovered as quickly, and I want to emphasized that I’m not fully healed but stable.

My-Phuong: I did not receive medical treatment physically or mentally. I was totally sober. I was in denial. I was taught at a very young age that your virginity was to be .. it’s very something sacred to you. I didn’t know I was raped. I knew I was in pain. I do remember feeling worthless.

Jenni: I did not want to seek medical treatment – I was in denial. I was definitely blacked out the night of the assault. I had woken up to being assaulted. I did get everything checked out, though I remember not wanting to have a rape kit done on me because it would make the experience real. I had been previous friends with my perpetrator – if you are friends with someone as a perpetrator, people are still too scared to speak up. The bystander effect is very real in this sense because you then have to face that you are associated with someone like this. For the second incident, I am sure many people are going through it… this happened virtually… I was on a phone call with someone, and they had started masturbating on the phone and I didn’t know how to react. I definitely did not give consent to have what we call nowadays “phone sex.” It was odd because I almost felt more ashamed in this incident because I stayed on the line, when I didn’t want to be there. That one I felt… it was just different. I am not sure why that was the case.. it is exponentially scary because it can happen more often than physical assault since it is virtual. You’re often raped by someone you know. It’s kind of coming back to the first thought: if you are nice to someone, you’ve given them misguidance or that you led them on. Until you give full consent, it’s always going to be assault. We need to break that norm or that gray area… And again not being talked to by your parents about sex education… we are not equipped if we are not educated. We might not what to do when something like that happens. If we aren’t educated on the context of sex and being ready for that, then what are we going to do when we are assaulted? 

How has the assault seeped into your day-to-day life? Do you feel more cautious around new male friends? Do you feel anxious around your significant other at times? 

Thoa:  For the most part, I’ve been a cautious person. I’ve always been hypersensitive in an environment I am not comfortable with. When that assault happen, I felt extremely violated. I have never been so caught off guard in my life. Now a days, I am definitely overly cautious. I wouldn’t say that it’s hard to be friends with males, but there’s definitely a period of time where I question their intention. Day to day, like walking through the metro can cause my palms sweat. My sense of adventure is just met with a lot of wall with: Is this safe to do? I feel like I have to strategize my day. If I’m working late or the sun is setting I make sure go through well-lit streets and check every so often to see if there’s anyone behind me. I don’t have the luxury of walking in peace at night or take shortcuts that aren’t lit. It’s just too much of a risk. I think males don’t realize that, but females walk through their lives like that. don’t always have this type of anxiety, it’s mostly just in new environments since I am very routined person. The assault does make me second guess my interactions with people.

Jenni: The era following the incidents…I felt a sense of numbness but you’re trying to process everything and you’re also in denial. Makes you unfocused on everything else in general. I felt very unfocused for awhile. I guess I am very much like Person B. I have no mercy from here on out pertaining to sexual assault. It makes me want to teach self defense classes or do prevention education. In terms of being anxious around by significant other, I would say no.. that’s not the case now. I was in relationships where things weren’t very sexual at all, and I just wasn’t mentally ready for that. I focused on being supportive, so I would deflect attention off that matter. Creating spaces like this is very key. I try not being anxious because it’s like letting perpetrators win. They are despicable human beings.. they don’t get to make that much of an imprint on my life. It empowers me to keep fighting the good fight. 

Thoa: After my assault, I did not have ownership over my mind and body in general. You often hear of people desexualizing themselves after traumatic sexually violent events. I found myself wearing baggy clothing, I had no desire to look my best self. I pride myself in having a skill set for hair and my makeup and even started a business. However, during my recovery period, I just didn’t care, I didn’t want any attention, and I wanted to disappear from the world. It took a long time to be comfortable with physical affection like  kissing my boyfriend, or even holding his hand because physical contact was really tough to stomach.

My-Phuong: I think I was very confused for a very long time. I think my sexual libido was very low for a long time. I think being able to mature, being more educated, and more aware… I was able to identify these emotions that came with it. I can do something about these emotions. I’ve been gifted with anger. I feel like the anger to motivate me to do other stuff. When you go like on the women’s march, and when you go in protest, and you connect with people through emotion. Anger is such a powerful tool. You have to dig inside of yourself, this is the emotion that powers me through. My future offspring will not have to deal with this. I am that angry Asian.

Jenni: I definitely share the same sentiments as My-Phuong. We definitely have a platform to work for…. Because we can talk a lot about a lot of things…let’s talk about happenings that matter and affect our community. It definitely empowers me more. That’s where I am right now. We have to do something now. 

Do you have an update on how you’re doing? Are you doing anything for self-care? Do you have any rituals that help you feel better? 

Thoa: I’m doing a lot better, in fact,  way better. It’s been a full year since the incident, and  the fact that I’m communicating with people and not being reclusive is a positive sign. I can talk about it without my nerves going haywire.. Do I have bouts of anger? Not unwarranted. There are certain things that will set me off, but I haven’t been belligerent for quite some time. What I’m capable of doing is being able to express it in a healthier way.  It was very important for me to be open and use my platform to speak,  because people were silent for so long.. and that’s why we have a rape culture, inequality and all this oppression.

Speaking on the UNAVSA community, I think our social circle is a very progressive. However, I’ve also made observations:  Many members don’t talk about these types of topics. I understand It’s uncomfortable topic to breech, but because there’s this false sense of “everything is right in the world”, some have expressed that the concern wasn’t there because no one spoke about it. If you don’t discuss it, it doesn’t exist, which may be true for you, but not for others – that cycle continues.  Ive witnessed many members say they are not racist, or that they believe in equality for females and think because what they say will automatically happen. There’s a lot of action that goes with that, and there’s not a lot of congruence with what people say and what they’re actually doing. People need to be even more proactive whether it is the UNAVSA community or event, or a personal incident. I think that should just be an everyday thing to be a better person.  

My-Phuong: It wasn’t your fault. Most of the time. Majority of the time. And that the people who love you will still be there. I think that’s as long as you think you have… or that your support network is still there, give yourself some time. Try not to like… self-blame. I guess self-care.. just love yourself and each person does it in their own way. I think talking about it helped me a lot. It made me more aware of it.  

Jenni: I think it’s catching yourself to stopping yourself from saying something negative to yourselfIt’s being able to catch instances where you are self deprecating You do need to take care of yourself first. Now we are using our platform to raise awareness on it, and hopefully positively affect others. 

Thoa: For myself, finding a routine helps. Finding something as small as making tea to get yourself out of bed is a step in the right direction. My best advice is: Take responsibility for yourself. Take care of yourself. You can only control yourself. I’ve been very prideful in being independent person living in DC by myself, to depend on somebody else for little and big things, was extremely hard to do. This last year knocked my pride down a few notches, and brought more humility in needing help. Letting people in and opening up to people was a barrier, I don’t do those things naturally. You just have to take it one day at a time, you can’t have it all, you can’t do it all, what you can do is take control of yourself and take that power back. Those that love you will stay. I let go of a lot of toxic relationships, I let go of people who fought against the narrative that I was fighting for, and I let myself feel and go through a painful process because that’s necessary for healing. Another thing I would like to tell others going through traumatic issues is: Feel whatever  you feel through its entirety. If it’s extreme anger, extreme sadness, or depression, just go through that process. Because the more you avoid it, the longer it’s gonna take to heal. Just let yourself go through that process. It’s gonna be like hell and back, but it makes you a much better person.

What do you think the VSA community can do to move away from creating a rape culture? What can the average person do to be more engaged or active?

Thoa: It’s very hard for people to see themselves as contributors to the issue. Throughout what has almost been a decade of experiences, I had to ask myself:  Do I really practice anti-racism in life, or am I just riding the bandwagon in a community that says has an official stance? I really had to look at myself, and practice what I preached. I would like for each member to look at themselves in the mirror: are you doing the best that you can? Not just for all these people, but for yourself. What are you doing to better yourselves in that practice? It’s a long journey to self actualization, but start with yourself and ask if you’re actually embodying what you are saying and doing. If you are not, you can change that. IF you are, then the world is that much closer to being better. The goal is to be a better person than you were yesterday. It starts with you, it always has.

My-Phuong: I think that “don’t rape” is a good way to start. Understand consent. Understand what consent really is. It starts with you as an individual to contribute. It starts with us as a collective to make change.

Jenni: It starts with keeping ourselves and other people accountable. I think you should be unapologetically FOR equality. We are a safe space.

Do you have something to say to any specific person? 

Thoa: To anyone and everyone going through sexual violence,  there are others that have or going through what you’re experiencing. You are not alone. Take one day at a time and open your heart and soul when you are ready. You are enough and will always be enough. To my younger self:  I am closer to becoming the person my younger self wish they hadI am unapologetically myself and I will continue to fight and care for the things and people I love. I am forever evolving. To everybody else that has helped me: thank you, I hope to make you all proud.

Jenni: Definitely a huge thank you to my best friend who stood for making sure I was safe no matter what she had to do to ensure that outcome. I am letting myself become prouder and prouder for the person I am becoming each day. If it had to be me, so that I would be the change… then it was completely worth it.

My-Phuong: I think for every person that has been like assaulted, over and over in their head… I think in the beginning: Go fuck yourself. But over time, I’ve learned to forgive. I hope it will never happen to his children, or to anybody he cares for. I thank my parents.. To my partner, huge thank you for being so patient with me. To everybody out there, it’s really important to be educated. To be aware, and civically engaged. Just be careful, don’t lose hope. There is good in humanity. There’s people like us… there’s people who are better than us .. just do whatever you can to be part of that story.