Growing up, Farah Tanis was told she could expect two things once she decided to settle down: either her husband would cheat on her, or he would physically, sexually, or financially abuse her.
It was a message she said she received from women in her family who themselves had experienced abuse in their lifetime. She had relatives who were raped at 12 years old; others were as young as 5.
Tanis grew up in a home where she lived under sexual and physical terrorism, she said, and when she was a child, she became among the generations of women in her family who were victims of sexual violence.
Her experience in an abusive household drove Tanis, 45, into anti-violence work, a space she has been active in for the last 25 years. She previously ran a women's shelter, and about a decade ago, she and other women began opening up their homes to provide safe spaces for women who were dealing with the pain and trauma of sexual violence. Two years later, she helped co-found a non-profit called Black Women's Blueprint (BWB), an organization that seeks to empower black women and erase gender, race, and other disparities.
"I think in order to evolve, there's got to be a period of reflection and way more work done."
The issue of sexual violence is one that advocates like Tanis, who currently serves as executive director of BWB, have been vigilantly fighting to address and eradicate in communities of color for decades. Yet despite the work they've been engaged in for years, it was only in recent months that the issue of sexual violence and its pervasiveness began inundating mainstream media headlines as dozens of female celebrities came forward to speak about the harassment and assault they have experienced in Hollywood at the hands of some of the industry's most powerful men.
"I think we’ve been dealing with this for a very long time, and although I appreciate that these celebrities are the ones who brought this out, the celebrities are not our god and we can’t place them on a pedestal where they are our gods," Tanis said. "We have to push to speak on sexual assault, and what’s happening now is that it takes a celebrity to get the word out about our very issues and about the life we experience."
As an increasing number of women brought forth allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano on Oct. 15 posted a tweet calling on people who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply with the words “me too.” The hashtag #MeToo went viral on social media and was widely used on Twitter and across other social platforms; on Facebook, there were more than 12 million posts, comments, and reactions pertaining to 'me too' in the first 24 hours, according to The Associated Press.
The following day, Milano acknowledged on Twitter a previous "me too" movement. Established in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, "me too." was created for sexual violence survivors, particularly those who are women of color.
When #MeToo began going viral, Burke said there was initially some trepidation and uncertainty in what direction it would take and how people would understand how the phrase was used around sexual violence.
"And then it took very little time for us to realize that this is something that's good because it is expanding our platform," she said. "It is allowing a space to talk about this issue from the framework that we operate."
The increased public dialogue about sexual assault, harassment, and violence as a result of women in Hollywood sharing their stories has empowered some survivors to come forward and discuss their own experiences. But some advocates have also expressed concern that the issue of sexual violence only became important because it affected prominent white women.
“Sexual violence has been something that has been around forever and it took something like this where women of privilege and Caucasian women were victimized, and it’s sort of like, 'Now it’s a problem.' We’re sort of like, 'No, this has always been a problem,' but it just affected women of a lower class, women who are undocumented, women of color,” said Maritza Reyes, director of the sexual assault program at Mujeres Latinas en Acción (MLA), a Chicago-based agency that serves the Latina community.
Reyes added that MLA has never received the amount of attention that is has in recent months, despite the fact its sexual assault services — which include counseling, legal and medical advocacy, and community education — have existed since the early 1990s.
One of the ways organizations like MLA and BWB have worked to continue to address sexual violence is through conducting workshops in their communities to inform people about what that violence looks like and to offer presentations about their experiences with sexual assault.
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Late last year, MLA held a workshop at a Chicago elementary school about how to identify child sexual abuse and where to seek help if necessary; among spaces BWB has gone into to discuss sexual assault are churches, senior centers, and shelters.
Instances of sexual violence can be intimidating for women of color to discuss publicly, but by reaching out to the community and talking about these experiences, Tanis said that advocates hope to create a safe environment and opportunity for others to come forward as well.
Brittany Morey, a fourth-generation Chinese American, said she was motivated to share her story on social media after seeing women come forward publicly about their own experiences. As a teenager, Morey said she was raped by her boyfriend and stalked by one of her teachers.
“For me, I would never wish what I experienced to happen to anybody,” the 32-year-old said. “But I do believe that because I’m a survivor and because I have come out on the other side … I feel like it's almost my responsibility or duty to contribute back in some way to make sure that future generations don’t have to face the same struggles as I did with not having anyone to talk to about their sexual assault or domestic violence experiences.”
According to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010-2012 State Report published in 2017, in the United States, about one in three women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence — which includes rape, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact — in their lifetime. For non-Hispanic black women, 35.5 percent experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime; for Hispanic women, that number was 26.9 percent; for Asian Pacific Islander (API) women, it was 22.9 percent.
Despite these figures, however, a 2016 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 22.9 percent of rape or sexual assault were reported to police; between 1994 and 2010, more than half of rape and sexual assault against females were not reported to the police; and from 2005 to 2010, the most common reason victims did not report the crime was fear of retaliation.
But within the context of what is supposed to be a loving relationship, it becomes more challenging for women to admit that they have been sexually assaulted, said Ellen Hong, community program director at the Center for the Pacific Asian Family (CPAF). For some Asian-American women, she added, the definition of sexual assault may not be entirely clear within a marriage, particularly if sex is demanded.
"I think one of the main contributors to the culture of rape is steeped in patriarchy. And within the framework of patriarchy are the rules and expectations of how Asian Pacific Islander women and girls should and should not behave," she said.
Among black survivors, reporting sexual violence when the perpetrator is a black man equates to a betrayal of multiple social spheres, including families and churches, Tanis said.
“It’s not just the social circumstances, but it’s also those codes of loyalty, it’s also those expectations around what it means to be a black woman and to keep our mouth shut around sexual assault when it’s our very own brothers, it’s our very own fathers and grandfathers.
"For us, they’re relationships that are extremely intimate ... because we know our job is to protect our black brothers," she added.
“What has happened, what racism has done, is it has made it impossible for us to report.”
Neusa Gaytan, an advocate at MLA, said that many Latina survivors have experienced marital rape or childhood sexual abuse. Sexual matters such as these, however, are not discussed in the open. Revelations of such incidents typically bring shame to the family and do not necessarily guarantee familial support for the victims, Gaytan said.
“There is that view that they may not even know this was a crime that was committed against them, the perception that God wanted it that way, especially if they have a lot of traditional values and the fear of, if I bring this up to my family, I’m going to cause a tragedy. I’m going to break up my family and the ... fear of that could be much larger than my need to get support for whatever happened to me,” she said.
Harassment in the workplace is also a challenging situation for women of color to report, particularly for those who are undocumented.
Isabel Pascual, 46, a strawberry picker in California, said she is being stalked by a former coworker who previously harassed her and threatened to harm her children. Pascual, who requested to go by an alternate name out of safety concerns, said although she confronted the man and told him to stop, because she is undocumented and lives in a small community, he is aware of her vulnerability and has said he would continue following her.
Despite her situation, Pascual has not told her siblings about her former coworker and feels that she won't receive support from them because such an experience is shameful. However, she has been more willing to speak up about her experience to encourage other women not to allow men to treat them the way her stalker has behaved toward her: if they don't talk, then they'll endure the harassment that she has, she said.
Another concern across communities of color is whether or not they will be believed if they come forward.
“There are different layers of racism and the ways in which it has shaped our culture, it has shaped our priorities for who gets listened to, who gets sacrificed at the expense of another,” Tanis said. “And what has happened, what racism has done, is it has made it impossible for us to report.”
Amid advocates' continued fight against sexual violence in communities of color, women in Hollywood on Jan. 1 announced a new initiative, “Time's Up,” to combat sexual harassment not only in the entertainment industry, but across various industries in the United States. As part of the initiative, a legal defense fund was launched to help subsidize costs for women and men who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or abuse in the workplace and are seeking legal remedies.
But some say a legal fund is not necessarily enough, and that what's most helpful to many women of color survivors are pathways to healing.
At CPAF, advocates are expanding beyond mainstream ways of addressing sexual assault and designing programs and services in ways that resonate with the API community, Hong said. Rather than sitting down with a therapist to talk about their experiences, certain ethnic groups have expressed various preferences in dealing with their trauma.
Among a group of Cambodian refugees, for instance, women requested to engage in community gardening, Hong said. Through weekly meetings, women began feeling comfortable enough to open up about their fears, such as that of their children getting into intimate relationships as teenagers.
Through a partner organization, CPAF has also worked with women who work at Thai massage parlors, who preferred learning self defense as a form of healing.
"I think what's really key for us is people in this movement who are particularly serving the API population is that we don't go in with answers.... It's really stepping back from the assumptions about what somebody needs and really asking, 'What do you need and how can we co-design something that works for you to really help you through your healing, or to help you face what you face every day on the job?" Hong said.
While Oprah, during her speech at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, talked about heading to a place where nobody will have to say “me too” again, Tanis said she feels that simply identifying and acknowledging the women who have said “me too” does not mean society is prepared to move forward.
“I think in order to evolve, there's got to be a period of reflection and way more work done,” Tanis said. “We are in full support of Tarana Burke and we will continue to encourage black women to say 'me too' and create the safe spaces for them to be able to do so. Safe economically, safe physically, safe spiritually.”