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Nearly half of Utah women have felt chronically unsafe

Lisa Diamond, University of Utah researcher, courtesy photo
Dave Titensor
The University of Utah
Lisa Diamond says she decided to study social safety because researchers talk a lot more about stress than safety. “The experience of stress doesn't adequately capture all of the things that happen to individuals who are socially marginalized,” she said.

Nearly half of Utah women have experienced chronic unsafety at some point in their lives, and almost 15% currently feel chronically unsafe. That’s according to new research from Lisa Diamond, a distinguished professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah.

Her report, released by the Utah Women in Leadership Project, shows those rates are even higher for women who are unmarried, have low income or identify as LGBTQ+.

Diamond defines “social unsafety” as more than being in a negative environment. It’s also the absence of positive cues from people, cues that tell a person they’re welcome, included and protected.

“We know that the absence of affirmative social signals is treated by the brain as evidence that you're not safe, unless you get a cue that you are,” she said. “If you think about the evolution of our species, it was safer to just assume danger. Better to flee 10 times too often than once too few.”

Diamond recently experienced the very anxiety that she researches when a man came to fix her dishwasher. She is married to a woman, and her home has pictures of the two of them on display. She was already nervous about having a man alone with her in the house, and her feelings were heightened by the photos on the wall.

As he was making repairs, Diamond commented on something her wife said. He responded by saying his wife says the same thing.

“I could feel my shoulders relax. …[I was thinking], ‘He's cool with me being a woman with a wife.’”

Many marginalized people go through their day on high alert, and she said those feelings of hyper-vigilance can have long-term health consequences like depression or issues with immunity.

“Our immune system is exquisitely sensitive to cues of social rejection and disapproval. And that's because in the ancestral period when humans were evolving — humans couldn't survive alone. Being alone was a death sentence.”

Diamond thinks one key to making people feel safe is for individuals and institutions to reinforce feelings of connection. Especially after the pandemic, where everyone retreated to their homes and we “lost that sense of a social fabric, that sense of social protection and connection.”

“I think one of the things we can do is just prioritize the inconvenient experience of being physically present with the people in our lives that remind us that we're part of a larger whole.”

Digital communication is great, but she said it can only go so far. Diamond now goes out of her way to meet with her students in person, to look them in the face and ask how they’re doing.

“We evolved as humans touching and feeling and smelling and holding other humans,” Diamond said. “[We need to make] sure that we make space in our own lives for social connection and that we tell the people who matter to us that they do matter to us.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ciara Hulet: Are there things unique to Utah that drive these unsafe feelings? 

Lisa Diamond: I think there are. One of the things that does make Utah distinct are its demographics in terms of race and ethnicity. Individuals that have very clear distinctions between minority and major majority groups make it more clear to marginalized folks that they aren't the majority, that they are on the outside, that they are different. I also think that religious cultures in general can offer both tremendous safety for those who are within that tradition and unsafety for those who are questioning the tradition or feel themselves on the outside of that tradition.

CH: You also found that just over 30% of women reported suicidal ideation and 13% reported a previous suicide attempt. Are these numbers and the safety numbers related? 

LD: They are related. We use statistical analysis to look at which aspects of people's lives were most predictive of those suicidality reports — what were the features of women's lives who were reporting heightened suicidal ideation and attempts? When we predicted those numbers from women's history of violence exposure, their childhood adversity, their marginalization, their experiences of overt discrimination — social safety predicted far and away above everything else.

CH:  Utah now requires law enforcement to do a lethality assessment when responding to domestic violence calls, and there will also be domestic violence data collection. Do you think these new laws will help? 

LD: It'll help. But one of the tricky things is that we are accustomed to thinking about domestic violence as physical violence, and we are very well able to identify physical violence and physical abuse as harms to citizens. However, a lot of damage happens that is more emotional manipulation, control, chronic unsafety. I hope that the next stage for legislation on things like domestic violence and family violence is greater attention to these psychological forms of coercion and establishing a sense of fear in the home that we now know has direct physical consequences for our immune system.

CH: What kind of legislation do we need to help those who feel unsafe, marginalized or disconnected? 

LD: Certainly one step is to not have legislation that specifically marks out groups of people and excludes them. I think the ban on gender-affirming careis an example of saying the normal standards of health care and access to services will be denied to a certain population. And that's the opposite of social safety. One of the things that we know from other research on the impact of laws and policies on marginalized groups is that the effects of those policies go far beyond the individual. They send cultural messages about who's in and who's out. Our brains respond to that on a very primary level. We need to move in the opposite direction from some of the legislation we're seeing around the country. The “Don't Say Gay” bill that passed in Florida, for example. These are attempts to silence the expression of certain forms of sexual and gender diversity. Those have a chilling effect on the entire culture because they suggest that your inclusion in the social fabric of our state or our community is dependent on you being only a certain type of person.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
Emily Pohlsander is the Morning Edition Producer and graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University. She has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina.
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