Words by Kaylynne Glover.
I had just given a presentation at the University of Kentucky where I am earning my PhD in Biology. My research focuses on understanding the biology behind our sexual behavior, and in my presentation, I addressed sexually coercive behavior.
A colleague asked, “Are you aware that someone in your audience might be a sexual assault survivor?”
Yes. Yes, I am aware.
I am aware that every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.
I am aware that one woman in six is a victim of sexual assault.
I am a sexual assault survivor, and I am dedicated to fighting sexual assault.
My history with sexual trauma is long and painful, but I have only recently begun this work to understand sexual coercion. Growing up, I fully intended to be a stay-at-home mom with a half a dozen kids, and I went to college to be a high school biology teacher, thinking it an optimum choice for a mom. After graduating, I found I didn’t enjoy teaching in the public school system, and as for being a stay at home mom – well, infertility had its own plans.
I went back to school to earn my masters, thinking to study sea lion social structure. At this point, I already had a history of sexual trauma, and the idea that female sea lions formed large breeding harems to decrease the chance of actually interacting with a male – interactions that often injured or killed them – spoke to me on a visceral level. I became fascinated with the intersection of sexual behavior and social structure, and I began to learn about sexually coercive behavior both in humans and other animals.
When I graduated, I was hired at Arkansas State University as an advisor for pre-professional students. I loved my work, my colleagues, and my students, but as time passed, I realized that I was missing something. I was haunted by the work I had started but never finished, and after so many years of telling my students to follow what they loved, I realized that I had to take my own advice.
There are many critics to my work. The idea that biological factors influence human behavior is distasteful to many, thinking that this must mean that some behaviors are “predetermined” or “out of our control.” If rape has a sexual component, doesn’t that mean that victims are somewhat responsible? If rapists are just acting out their biology, doesn’t that excuse them?
Individuals are legally and morally responsible for their own actions, and no biological explanation excuses them. Biology does not mean “predetermined,” thereby giving license to commit atrocities. Instead, biology creates a flexible framework for behavior, allowing individuals to adjust their behavior to suit their environment. It helps explain why a specific behavior might appear more often in certain circumstances, and an understanding of both the framework and the environment – a merging of biology and culture – is necessary to completely understand and change human behavior. Only then can our methods at prevention truly be effective.
I believe the research I’m doing is important, but I don’t intend to work as a researcher for the rest of my life. Social acceptance of science is at a dangerously low level in America, and the disconnect between scientists and the public is at the root of the problem. Misunderstandings between religion and science as well as conflicts between ideology and policy has resulted in a great divide that will lead to disaster if we do not take measures to head it off. Scientific discoveries have led to rapid social progress, but this progress cannot continue without social support of science. If the public distrusts scientists, then policies and programs are not developed in response to what we learn. Scientists may very well discover an effective method at preventing rape, but without social support, then these discoveries will mean little because we won’t be able to implement them.
This is my great love – bridging the gaps between scientists and the public. While at A-State, I co-hosted a radio program on science, religion, and politics with a local pastor; I’ve given guest lectures on evolution for religious populations; I manage a blog on science, religion, and politics. I ultimately want to help mold policy, devise effective educational procedures, and work directly with the public to increase scientific literacy and affect positive change, be it through effective methods of teaching evolution to religious populations or designing effective rape prevention programs. When scientific knowledge moves beyond the walls of academia and into the lives of those who benefit from scientific advancement, we create an atmosphere that fosters growth, trust, and new possibilities for the future.
An understanding of both biology and culture is necessary to fight sexual assault. I am studying the biology, but more must be done on the cultural level to end this. The battle ground against sexual assault is all around us. It is in our schools where girls are slut-shamed for showing knees and shoulders. It is in our churches where women are told to submit to their husbands in all things. It is in advertisements that condition us to believe that women’s bodies are objects. It is in the words that ask, “What were you wearing?” and “Had you been flirting with him?” and “What were you drinking?” It is the attitude that men cannot be sexually assaulted because they always want it. Every one of us can fight this fight by standing up against the social environment that contributes to sexual assault.
Will you join me?
-Kaylynne Glover, A Believing Scientist
Check out Kaylynne’s blog for her wonderful series Fallacy Friday.