When the #MeToo hashtag began surfacing on social media in mid-October, I had two immediate reactions: 1) I applauded the women who so bravely came forward to tell their personal stories of being sexually harassed and/or assaulted, or even acknowledge it, and 2) I felt resentful that women needed to re-traumatize themselves in order for men to finally believe them or take them seriously.
The fact that so many women — and even young girls — in my news feed have been the victims of sexual harassment and abuse was sadly not shocking to me. What struck me when I was listening to one of Harvey Weinstein’s victims was the psychological damage being done. I wondered about the cumulative effect of these experiences on women’s lives. How did they affect our sense of self and self-worth, our relationships, our career choices, and our physical and mental health? What does it mean when so many women walk around with the heavy burden of shame, guilt, and rage?
In my case, I can say without question that my decision to become a journalist was spawned by my experience of being sexually abused as a child. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to help others — plants, animals, inanimate objects — because I imagined they were suffering and helpless and needed me to survive. On hot days, I would water the plants and hear them thanking me. I was, of course, projecting my own needs. I wanted so badly for someone to have come to my rescue, but no one came. I had to become my own savior.
At times, I thought about killing myself. The shame that victims of sexual assault carry is unimaginable, especially when that victim is a child. The mind does not comprehend why these things are happening and that it’s not your fault, and adults are not always equipped to help children navigate these emotions. Too often we try to ignore these things or pretend they were less harmful or damaging than they were. They are more harmful than I can possibly describe.
I now understand why several of my long-term relationships were with men who were controlling and emotionally abusive. It took a long time — and years of therapy — to break the pattern and identify what a healthy, loving relationship looks like.
I became a journalist in order to highlight injustices and amplify the stories of those who have been historically marginalized or silenced. But I haven’t been immune to sexual harassment and gender bias in my profession. As an Asian-American woman, I am often assumed to be submissive and weak. No one ever suspects that I am an editor — even though I have been one for a decade. Once, a prominent white female journalism professor questioned how I would assert my authority considering the way I looked. Another male professor said I should go into television journalism instead of print also because of my physical appearance. Occasionally, gender bias crossed the line of physical contact. At one point I had to tell a former boss to stop touching me. A city council candidate touched my leg during an interview. (I debated whether to write about the incident but ultimately decided not to.) But even these experiences were nothing compared to more egregious abuses of power, such as when a professor during my undergrad years made sexual remarks about me and my fellow classmates during an off-campus event, touched us inappropriately, and tried to get us to return to his motel room. We hadn’t yet taken our final exam and were scared of the repercussions of reporting him. He is still teaching.
As the allegations against powerful men continue to stack up, the media coverage tends to focus on the demise of their successful careers. We concentrate less on the impact of their actions on the women. Perhaps it’s because their fallout seems less tangible. (After all, many women are taught to swallow their pain and to apologize for having feelings.) Or, more likely, it’s because women aren’t valued in society.[pullquote-1]
So, I wanted to hear from local women and community leaders — not necessarily about what happened to them, but about how these experiences have impacted their lives. I don’t want to minimize their trauma. My hope is that their voices will encourage other women to tell their stories and find strength in shared experiences, while also helping to illuminate a path forward. Collectively, as a society, we need to place greater value on women’s voices and experiences — especially those who have been historically marginalized. As Holly Joshi, formerly of the Oakland Police Department and currently a senior advisor at MISSSEY notes, we must understand how systems are set up to oppress women and girls — especially those who are lower-income and of color — and then actively work to dismantle them. It also means examining some of the toxic patriarchal culture within our own communities, although author Carolina De Robertis notes that women have been doing this work for decades. As Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf points out, women who have power in our society have a responsibility to use their positions to do good and to lift others up. Now is the time.
But we also can’t ignore the men here. It’s clear that even seemingly well-meaning men are capable of abusing us, even as they’re calling out others who’ve done the same. And I’ve heard several men question the allegations of the women who’ve come forward and the severity of the men’s actions. The tendency to not believe women runs deep. Men — and women — will have to actively counteract this. If we are to heal from this individual and collective trauma, we must talk about our experiences (although I agree with Deborah Son that no one should be forced to tell their story) and report instances of sexual harassment and assault. I am heartened to hear from UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, who was hired in part because her predecessor failed to deal with sexual harassment on campus, that the university has several offices “where survivors can go at any time, immediately or long after an incident.”
It’s time for everyone to not only listen to women and girls, but to actually hear.