Rape Culture, Pervasive & Harmful

In October of 2010 Laya, a UC Irvine alumna, reported an attempted rape committed by UC Student Regent Jesse Cheng to the Irvine Police Department. Cheng was arrested but, despite written and verbal confessions on police record, was released with no charges pressed. Denied validation by the legal system, Laya came to the UCI Office of Student Conduct with her case in November. It is now February, and Cheng has yet to be called to any trial. The only avenue Laya has left to seek justice is through the students’ power to hold their representative accountable.

The common reaction women receive when reporting sexual assault is disbelief and blame. That is why sexual assaults are hardly ever reported, let alone prosecuted and convicted. Victims are asked questions such as, “What were you wearing?” and “What were you doing with him before the assault happened?” The basic assumption is that the woman did something to provoke the assault. This is unfair, no one ever “asks” or deserves to be raped or assaulted.

Women face even more interrogation when the perpetrator is someone they know, particularly if it is a person with influence or power. She is branded as vindictive or gold-digging. This is based on another dominant assumption that only crazy people and perverts commit sexual crimes. That is not the case.

Rape culture is everywhere in our society, from movies and music to magazine ads. Rape culture is even seen in the belief that, when a woman turns a man down, she is simply “playing hard to get” and “doesn’t really mean it when she says ‘no.’”

This cultural norm teaches men in our society that it is okay to keep pursuing a woman who does not want to or is not sure if she wants to engage in sexual activity. The standards of masculinity that promote aggression and dominance are taught through the media and popular culture, and we are all exposed to these influences.

The question we want to ask when finding out that a friend, colleague and leader is alleged to have attempted to rape a woman is, “Could he really have done this?” However, the issue of violence against women is larger than that. The issue at hand is not just a question of finger-pointing, and there is more at stake than character and reputation. Sexual violence is a problem in our community, and the question we need to ask ourselves is, “How do we address this form of violence?” Do we create an atmosphere where women are intimidated and blamed for coming forward? Do we value a man’s word over a woman’s? Do we scapegoat perpetrators as monsters and ignore the larger social conditions that contribute to an atmosphere that breeds sexual violence? Or do we acknowledge that we live in a culture where sexual violence is more prevalent than we choose to see?

To end sexual violence we must build a culture that validates and respects women and defines masculinity in terms other than aggression and violence.

Given Cheng’s status as a public official, it is easy to see why the university is taking extra time on a case that makes the UC system liable for a representative who may have committed sexual assault. It is also easy to see why Cheng chose to stay quiet about the allegation from the public until it was printed in the New University. But now, after no longer having the option to keep the matter secret, he refuses to allow a serious accusation deter him from his work as Student Regent.

Among many things, Cheng has championed ethnic studies, LGBTQI rights and students’ right to an affordable public education.  He is a student leader with a long history of service on campus and now with the Regents of the University of California. As Student Regent, Cheng is supposed to be an advocate for the students. This is why we have all the more reason to hold him accountable. He has claimed to support women’s rights; if that is still the case then he must take the allegation against him seriously and understand that allowing himself to maintain his position of power is an example of using his male privilege to dismiss the issue of violence against women.

Cheng’s work is larger than Cheng himself. The power of a student movement is in its students, not in one man alone. Students will continue to advocate for their rights after Cheng’s term as Student Regent is over, and they have the ability to continue to advocate for themselves without him now. To truly hold Cheng and ourselves accountable to the values of women’s justice and integrity in leadership, we must urge the UCI Office of Student Conduct to investigate the allegations against him in a thorough and timely manner. We must also ask him to step down from his position as Student Regent as a way for him to honor his word to stand against male privilege and women’s oppression.

Justine Calma is a recent UCI graduate as well as an alumna of Kabbayan, Umbrella Council and ASUCI Legislative Council. She can be reached at jmaycalma@gmail.com.