It was a Friday night, and we were playing Codenames in the lounge — it was our first week back, and goofing off isn’t the same when it’s not facilitated by an RA. Everyone was avoiding some p-set or reading or essay, but we all agreed: For a few hours, we deserved to not worry. We deserved a few hours to just relax, to forget real responsibilities.
I first saw it on somebody else’s phone — the phone was on the table face up when the alert popped up. I was slow to reach for my own phone, though, because even from that distance, I could tell what it was: It was an SUAlert about a sexual battery.
A lot has been said about what is being done and what should be done about sexual assault. And I thought about discussing that here: weighing due process against the realities of how we see victims, about campus culture or greek life, about resources Stanford has and those that it needs. But that isn’t what has been on my mind for the past week, what my friends and I always circle back to when we talk late at night.
What’s been on my mind is the fact that when my friend was walking back from her car last week — it was parked just down the courtyard and across the street — she called me so she could have someone on the phone while she walked by herself. It was late, but it was Escondido Road. We live here — but it was also where the alert said the attack had been. What’s been on my mind is that when I was walking back to my room from a friend’s dinner — quite literally a five-minute walk — I realized that I was alone and it was dark and my shortcut was too secluded, so I took out my phone so my friends could track me while I walked.
What I’m talking about has a technical name: It’s rape anxiety. It’s the anxiety, the mundane, common anxiety — when you’re walking, when you’re going somewhere new, whatever — that there is a danger you could get raped. But more simply, what it feels like is fear. It feels like not being comfortable walking back to your own dorm, your home, and it feels like looking over your shoulder because it’s after 8 p.m. I keep telling myself that I’m overreacting, that really, the chances are so slim — but then I’m alone and walking to Toyon to do a p-set, and everything looks sinister in the orange street lights. It’s almost comical, except it’s not at all.
A lot has been said about the system, the culture, the beliefs that allow sexual assault to continue, and a lot has been written about the details about the assault itself. But this is smaller, and it’s less particular. It’s a general feeling of fear — it’s having to weigh the chance that you won’t be safe when deciding if you want to go to a meeting across campus at 9:30 p.m. And the more I talk about it with my friends, that more we kept coming back to the same ideas: It is so real to us, this fear. Whether you knew the term or not, we all knew the feeling — all feel it more often than would seem rational. And it’s not fair.
I know that there are so many tropes here — why are we surprised by sexual assault on campus, why do we feel unsafe at night? We know that rape happens here — we know that rape happens in the daylight. We even know that most rapes are committed by people you know, not by strangers you see when you’re walking on the street. I come from India — I hate saying this, but the fact is, I know that I am much safer here than I am at home. And yet this isn’t a fear that can be explained away, and no matter how many words I use, it’s a fear I can’t fully explain.
The point of all this, of course, is obvious. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that we need to be afraid, that we have to always be so anxious. That this is just another thing that is a part of being a woman or someone who can see themselves as the target of sexual assault. That the thought that I could get raped should be as common as what assignments I have due, or what clothes I should wear today. But of course, rape isn’t fair, and if we’re talking about problems, that is obviously the bigger one. But I want to talk about rape anxiety for the same reason that talking about it is so hard: Despite the statistics and news articles, the feeling is an emotive truth. It’s hard to capture and even harder to explain if the listener hasn’t experienced it.
In my class, “Politics of Algorithms,” we talked, predictably, about filter bubbles. But our professor posed a question that I’ve never considered before: Could filter bubbles be good? She talked about Nancy Fraser and the idea of counter publics: How these smaller groups, away from the mainstream public, can talk about and discuss ideas that can’t yet stand in the mainstream, because we don’t yet have the words to really grapple with this novel idea that was never really considered important before. And in that counter public, it can be discussed and strengthened so that someday, it can enter the mainstream.
But my question was this: In a counter public where people share an attribute — say gender — what is usually a private experience could become a public truth. And when that happens, an emotive truth like rape anxiety can be discussed with ease, because it is something many, if not all, in this smaller counter public experience. But how do you take that discussion to the mainstream — when that emotive truth, which seems so obvious to someone who has experienced it, suddenly can’t be taken for granted because it doesn’t translate?
I’m an optimist — I doesn’t subscribe to the idea that if you haven’t lived something, you can never understand it. Maybe you can never understand it in the same way, but I’ve read enough of those beautiful essays about the importance of literature and empathy (written by literature majors) to really and completely unironically believe that we can make people feel our emotive truths — if we tell our stories, if we can just talk about it.
One of my favorite articles after this past election — and I read a lot of really good ones — was by Linda West in the New York Times. It was titled, simply, “Her Loss.” In it, West describes what she feels about Hillary Clinton’s loss, and a larger feeling of watching a woman — this particular woman — run against the man who won.
She writes, “I cried because it’s not fair, and I’m so tired, and every woman I know is so tired.” And I still remember that sentence because it felt so true, but also because it felt so brave that she was writing in this newspaper — and it was going out to a whole nation, and she was standing firm in her truth, even if it came from emotion. And she acknowledges that this kind of emotive truth is risky, that it will not always work, but what struck me, and why I bring it up here, is that she doesn’t care.
She writes, “I understand that many men cannot see it, and plenty more do not care. I know that many men will read this and laugh, or become defensive, or call me hysterical, or worse, and that’s fine. I am used to it. It doesn’t make me wrong.”
And she’s right — some things are invisible, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be shared, or that they’re any less serious than statistics or hard evidence. In fact, they have to be shared because they can only be made visible by those who experience it.
So yes, rape anxiety isn’t the biggest problem we have — but it is a problem, and it’s not okay. It’s not fair. And yes, the world may not be fair, but that is a cowards’ argument — if we’re going to pretend we care about justice at all, then every time we come across something that isn’t fair, we need to say so. We need to say it for others, and we need to say it for ourselves.
And we need to say it’s not fair, and it needs to change, even when what we’re talking about is harder to define and talk about. And we need to say it outside our rooms, outside our friend groups and outside our bubbles where people intuitively understand, because we need to believe that this is worth struggling to explain.
We need to say it because it cannot be — we cannot let it be — true that simply being in a public space could be a risk to a woman.
We need to say it loud and we need to keep saying it — at least, until it’s not true anymore.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.