What happens when we #ChangeTheCulture? Lessons from a nation leading on gender equality

By Rebecca Benoff, JWI

Sexual assault. We hear about it all the time in the news. As a college student, it’s always being discussed on my campus. I know all the statistics because I’ve heard them so frequently and, like most girls around my age, I am a bit overprotective of my drink at parties, fearful of large groups of unfamiliar men and sometimes worried about walking home alone late at night. But beyond all of these things, I never personally felt a visible problem.

It wasn’t until I went to one of the top five gender equal countries in the world that I finally realized the problem. I spent four months studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and yes, I did many of the typical study abroad things: traveled on the weekends, ate customary foods, drank the local beers, went to bars and tried making friends with locals, spent time discussing in classes and with friends the many cultural difference we felt. Once we got past the amount of bikes on the road and dull colors of clothing, the discussion always returned to the safeness we felt as young women.

Unlike at home, when a group of girls would walk into a bar or party, no one received any “unwanted touching.” Walking down the street: no one was catcalled. Other Danish students we’d meet at a bar wanted to actually talk, not just immediately try to take one of us home for the night. Beyond that, I learned that in Denmark, women tend to be the aggressors in a relationship. That means that girls often will buy the guy a drink. On dating apps and in real life, girls are expected to talk first, which means we would not have to wait for a ridiculous pickup line.

When we delved into some of these examples in one of my classes, I began to realize the underlying cultural differences. When I went to college, I was taught to be afraid: to protect my drink, not walk alone at night, always have my keys ready, never go home with someone you don’t know, etc. My older brothers never received any such advice.

In Denmark, when they have sex-ed in school, boys and girls are taught about healthy relationships, contraception, and most of all, to have fun. Yes, even our Danish resident advisor told us all (boys and girls) to “be safe and to kiss lots of Danish people.” That’s just the culture.

These are all just the concrete differences that being a college student in both the United States and Denmark revealed to me along with the many other female students in my program. The not-so-concrete difference is that Denmark is highly gender equal, both mothers and fathers receive and take paid maternity and paternity leave, women are paid nearly equal to men and women hold 40% of seats in parliament, rather than the meek 18% of women legislators in the United States Congress.

The fact of it is that we in the United States don’t live in an equal country, and this inequality is a massive contributing factor to the culture of sexual assault. Sexual assault is not just a problem on college campuses – it is a problem ingrained in our culture of inequality.

Our culture can change, and it begins simply with empowering young women, rather than scaring them, educating both women and men about healthy relationships as well as equality and treating people with respect, no matter their gender.

People warned me of reverse culture shock when I returned home, but more than anything I am empowered and more confident from my time in Denmark and disgusted at the culture of inequality that we allow to persist. Sexual assault is a byproduct of an unequal culture, but we have the power to change the culture, from policies such as paid leave, to the way we talk to friends and family about relationships.

Where will this cultural change begin? It can start with the policies but it can also trickle up from our generation. With increased attention on college campuses and sexual assault, our generation can not only change the culture surrounding sexual assault, but also the culture of inequality. What will you do to change the community you’re in? How are you working towards a more gender equal society? It’s time we stop accepting inequality as the norm in the country, in our communities and on our campuses.

Becca headshotRebecca Benoff is a senior at The George Washington University and recently finished a semester abroad at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad in Copenhagen. She is studying Psychology and Judiac Studies. She is a summer 2015 Marketing and Communications intern with JWI.

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