Rowena Chiu, a former assistant of Harvey Weinstein who accused him of sexual assault last year, said that her cultural upbringing played a part in making it difficult for her to deal with the alleged abuse.
Chiu told NBC News on Monday that the colliding dynamics of her family’s Chinese cultural background and her conservative Christian upbringing proved to be a “double whammy” in processing the alleged assault, in which she says the film mogul attacked her during the 1998 Venice Film Festival in Italy.
“Being Chinese, you are conventional in your beliefs and attitudes towards sexuality and you might not discuss that,” she said. “Then also being Christian, you are also conventional on your beliefs about sexuality and so on, so forth.”
Chiu, who did not reveal any details surrounding the alleged abuse to her loved ones for decades, explained she had grown up outside London in a predominantly white area and joined a Chinese Christian youth group in her teen years.
It was there she felt a sense of cultural identity she hadn’t necessarily experienced before, she said. While the church became a welcome space for her to express her heritage, the community didn’t necessarily prove a comfortable area to talk about sex, let alone assault. It stood in stark contrast to the film industry, where sexual assault was rampant and sex wasn’t a taboo topic, she said.
“Certainly, if you were dating someone, you definitely would not be talking about your sex life. You would be either not having one, or at least pretending that you didn't have one,” she said. “It's a big jump to talk about sexual assault and being forced, sexual interaction being forced upon you. There's levels of taboo, if you're not even talking about sex between married people.”
Helen Jin Kim, an assistant professor of American religious history at Emory University, echoed many of Chiu’s sentiments.
“These churches, Asian immigrant spaces, can function like a double-edged sword and they can be used to empower their community, and they can also be used to disempower their community,” Kim told NBC News. “It's actually pretty complex.”
Oftentimes, Asian Christian churches in the West serve not only as places of worship, but also crucial social networks for immigrants who feel racially marginalized or may have difficulty finding a welcoming community in “a white-dominant country,” she said. They can also act as civic spaces for immigrants to organize. For women, the churches can serve as more intimate settings to go to for advice or share stories among other women with a similar cultural background.
As important as they are for many immigrant women, and immigrants more generally, many of these Asian churches are led by predominantly male clergy. Oftentimes the kind of theology that is preached is around sexual purity.
“They're very much tied to these ideals about sex being reserved for the heterosexual, heterosexual marriage, heterosexual relationships,” Kim said. “So anything that deviates from that, whether that's queer sexuality, or sexual violence, sexual assault, it is very difficult to talk about it because the theologies themselves don't really uphold a space to talk about the varieties of ways that people practice sex.”
Kim, who underscored that there are churches that are exceptions to this, adds that much of the preaching assumes that sexual encounters will be positive, avoiding the “underside of the male-female dynamic” like domestic violence, marital rape, and sexual violence more generally. When women do attempt to seek help, they may try to look to clergy first but because many of these churches’ clergy members are male, they often feel barriers to reporting incidents.
She said that in some of the worst cases, clergy members will cite scripture, like the Bible’s opposition to divorce, to prevent women from leaving dangerous relationships. Many immigrant churches also preach the idea of gender complementarianism, the idea that God sees men and women as equals; however the two genders occupy different roles, in turn reinforcing the concept of “a submissive love and not just love,” Kim said.
In addition, because of the ethnic immigrant makeup of these churches, many of members might struggle with “airing their dirty laundry” while they’re already marginalized in white communities. Kim says it can be hard to acknowledge or call out that there is a hierarchy that lends itself to women being silenced.
“To air that dirty laundry is seen as this kind of ethnic betrayal. ‘Don’t share these things about our community. We’re all trying so hard to make it in American society. Don’t create or enforce any types of stereotypes about us,’” she said. “I think that does further silence women’s voices at the cost of saving face for the ethnic community.”
Ultimately, as Chiu says, “climbing through those layers of taboo as a young person seems insurmountable.”
If immigrant churches and second-generation churches could teach gender equality in sexual relationships and sexual encounters, “our world would be a different place,” Kim believes.
“If they could center the idea that sin includes patriarchy and for them to embrace the ideas of feminism into their Christian theology, I think we would be living in a different world,” she said.