The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was 11. It was on a train, and nearly every member of my immediate and extended family was there when it happened. In particular, every male figure in my family. It didn’t make a difference.
On that train ride most of my family was standing, and I sat next to a man who was the only person in the cart who wasn’t related to us. He was a stranger, though he was coincidentally Vietnamese as well. I had a large box on my lap that covered my legs and within a few short minutes, felt fingers rubbing the sides of my left leg. It was gentle, subtle enough to make me even wonder if it was really happening. It was definitely happening. This man was rubbing the leg of an 11-year-old child, right in front of her family. I said nothing. I did nothing. I was frozen.
When the train got to the man’s stop, he stood up, said goodbye in Vietnamese with a tip of his hat to my family, and went on with his day. My guess is he never thought of me again. I, of course, have never ever forgotten him.
One of the men in my family looked over to me and asked if the man had been touching me. My face flushed and I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I nodded silently. I didn’t know anyone had seen it, and I wondered why, if someone had, they didn’t stop it. The person who asked me if I was touched said they weren’t sure if it was actually happening, so they didn’t say anything. My uncles and cousins went berserk. They said to me, “Why didn’t you say something?! We would have beaten the shit out of him ― he wouldn’t be walking right now!”
Everyone other than me talked heatedly about what happened until the end of ride: What they would and could have done, what I should have done... a bunch of hypotheticals that wouldn’t have stopped the incident or made it any better. I remained silent. My mother came over to me, grabbed my face and said, “Don’t you ever let anyone touch you like that. And if anyone ever does, TELL ME. I’ll kill them.” I nodded, still not saying a word. Even the steadfast strength of my mother couldn’t make me feel at ease.
We got back home and I retreated to a room alone, where I burst into unstoppable tears. And the worst part about my tears was that even today, I’m not sure if I was crying over the assault itself or the feeling of embarrassment and shame I felt when I was chastised for not saying anything. I was mortified, scared, confused, and blamed myself for it all. After all, I was the one who didn’t even know if I was being touched, and I was the one who let it happen without a peep. It was my fault.
There was a number of things wrong with this scenario. You could take your pick of any part of the story and you’d end up in the same place: It’s entirely fucked up. I do not know if what happened and my reaction as a child was the result of an inherently quiet Vietnamese culture or an American culture of silence on sexual abuse, but I know the combination of the two led to a worst-case scenario: A child was abused and she said nothing. So both cultures cannot continue as they are. Not if other children are to be protected.
I wish I could continue this story to say that from then on I never stayed silent. But to do so would be a brazen lie. Instead, I have gone on to experience numerous sexual assaults and countless scenarios of sexual harassment, all worse as I got older, and all about which I have said and done nothing. Until now. I’m changing the story as a write this. I’m saying something.
I speak up today to stand with all women who have been sexually harassed, abused, exploited, and denigrated. I speak up to stand with all the women who are part of the #MeToo movement right now and always, who will no longer accept silence as the norm. I speak up for the women who don’t have the privilege of a platform, like I do. I speak up for the men who want to be allies but who have been complicit in the silent assaults and harassment of girls and women. It’s time for you to speak up with us, too. It’s time for you to condemn the inappropriate, inexcusable, non-consensual sexual acts of abuse committed by your fellow men. It’s time to start believing women when they speak up. It’s time for the benefit of the doubt and empathy to belong to the victim, and never again to the perpetrator. It never should have taken multiple women to come forward until someone believed them about Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and any other man in power who exploits and abuses their position.
The only way to enact change is to do it together as allies who say, “This is not, nor will it ever be, okay.” It’s our responsibility to speak for the women who will still stay silent for whatever their reasons and we owe it to the young girls who should feel safely empowered enough to come forward when it happens to them. They should never be warned of the repercussions of speaking truth to power. They should only be encouraged to speak, even if it takes them a long time to do it. We can’t wonder why women take so long to come forward if doing so will mean they’ll have to face as much scrutiny as their abuser. We can’t ever tell them that their time to speak is limited, so that when they find the strength to, they can tell their story with impunity.
Women who are stepping out of the shadows to tell their stories are starting a brave, bold movement. It’s a movement of sisterhood, and it’s a request for help from male allies, because the truth is, we absolutely cannot do it alone, nor do we deserve to. It’s a movement for future generations of girls who we hope won’t ever feel the need to retreat and cry their tears alone in shame. It’s a movement to stop the silence surrounding sexual abuse and to take it even one step further, which is even to halt abuse entirely. The tides are shifting, and we won’t drown in our stories anymore. Instead our stories will be our buoys, and we will all survive by speaking them out loud. #MeToo, women... I am with you.