#MeToo — A Letter to My Father
If I haven’t said so before, thank you for raising me on your own for the four years that our family’s immigrant story separated us from mom. Being a dad raising two girls on his own — and during our formative years at that (sis from ages 6–10, and me from ages 8–12) — is hard enough. It was you who helped me buy my first stick of deodorant, my first training bra, my first maxi pad, my first bottle of Noxema acne wash. And it must have been an even greater challenge to keep my head and yours up when we together marched into the pharmacy amid the din of gossiping Filipino men and women.
I feel I have to give some context to my American readers about what it was like to grow up as a girl in what was essentially a single-parent home in the Philippines in the late ’80s and ’90s … You raised me in an environment where most men wore it as a badge of honor when their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, daughters were described as “sexy” by other men who were family members, friends, and even strangers on the street. Yet, god forbid those mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, and daughters chose to wear jewelry deemed too flashy, or skirts that were too short, or painted their faces and nails, those very same men would shame and compare them to “bomba stars” who took their clothes off in blockbuster local films (which, in hypocritical fashion, they watched — mostly at home in the presence of women). Each time one of those men tried to pay you a “compliment” about one of us, you’d tell them in no uncertain terms NEVER to use the word SEXY when talking about the girls and women in your life.
You never brought those men or watched those movies at home. Instead, when my friends wanted to come over almost every weekend because we were the first people in Baguio City to own a Macintosh and dot-matrix printer, you said sure and spent hours teaching us DOS command prompts and touch-typing so that we could “publish” our own literary ‘zine. You took us on hikes around Camp John Hay and taught us how to spot trail blazes and markers. You let me keep the frogs and toads I found (except poisonous ones of course) and taught me how to feed and care for them as pets. When I discovered the spice clove, and obsessively added it for three months straight to soups, omelettes, and other “meals” I experimented making, you’d humor me as you ate them, saying I put in just the right amount this time, or too much, or not enough. And, when we got older, you made sis and me practice Aikido and Jiu Jitsu moves and drilled into our heads that hitting in self-defense was perfectly acceptable. In retrospect, it makes me deeply sad to think that you were simply anticipating that sexual harassment and assault were inevitable realities for my sister and me, and for girls and women generally in that cultural environment. And of course it did happen to #MeToo. On multiple occasions.
Thank you, dad, for ALWAYS STANDING UP FOR ME WHEN I HAD TO REPORT BEING SEXUALLY ASSAULTED. I know that what I’m about to recount will be hard to read, and I’m sure it makes you feel sick to your stomach as it does me as I sit here typing, re-living these experiences. But then again, you always encouraged me to trust my gut and use my voice. If something looked, sounded, or felt wrong, it was always the better choice to say something — no matter how embarrassing — than to stay silent.
- I remember being in 6TH GRADE, sitting at around a table with a group of my classmates working on a group assignment, when the boy next to me put his hand down my pants. Another boy sitting next to him saw it happen. He looked me in the eye, and while I could see how mortified he was for me, he didn’t say anything. I turned to my assaulter, yelled in my loudest voice to take his hand off my bare ass, and punched him as hard and for as long as I could and had to be dragged away by the teacher. I was suspended, and my dad was asked to meet with the school’s guidance counselor, who told him that she and the boy’s parents were shocked about MY VIOLENT BEHAVIOR, and reported that because I “broke his back” (imagine, a 12 year-old girl that strong!), my classmate couldn’t return to school. DAD, YOU WERE THE ONLY ONE WHO STOOD UP FOR ME THAT FIRST TIME I WAS ASSAULTED. Even when the counselor tried to demean you by suggesting that you find some female role models for me (in the absence of my mother, who I only got to see to once a year at Christmas) to show me how proper girls should behave.
- I remember being of COLLEGE AGE in New York. I was in Duane Reade pharmacy on Amsterdam Avenue at 59th Street (around the corner from your apartment) looking for something in one of the aisles, when an employee in his forties or fifties came over to ask me if I needed help with anything. Even though I said “No, thanks, I’m fine,” he kept trying to engage in conversation. At one point, he was too close for comfort, so I started walking away. He had the nerve to tell me that I was being rude, but that if I gave him a hug he’d “forgive” me. I told him to leave me alone, but he put his arms around me anyway, and I had to push him off me. I ran out of the store, but instead of feeling angry about what was done to me, I felt mortified that I didn’t have the courage to speak up. Eventually, I called the pharmacy to report the incident to the manager. She was very apologetic and said that of course, they’d look into it. A few weeks later, I saw my assaulter standing outside the pharmacy. I became agitated and told you that I DIDN’T FEEL SAFE FOR AS LONG AS MY ASSAULTER WALKED THE STREETS OF OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. Again, you stood up for me, dad, and spoke to the manager in person, demanding at the very least to review surveillance tapes to confirm my allegation. We even consulted a lawyer friend to see if we had any recourse to threaten to file a suit against the pharmacy for KEEPING A SEXUAL PREDATOR ON STAFF. But then, management claimed they fired the employee, and we never saw him again … At least until I walked into a different Duane Reade on the corner of 57th Street and 7th Avenue (since I would never again walk into our neighborhood Duane Reade) and I saw the sexual predator working there … I never had the heart to tell you that basically, they just transferred the employee to different location three avenues and two streets over, so that he could potentially harass other young women.
Dad, I don’t envy the enormity of the responsibility you have. If I was really honest about the many things I fear about being a parent, it’s that moment when I come to the realization that beyond cushioning their falls, or wiping their tears, it’s impossible for any parent to protect children from the world — which, in spite of it all, I still believe is mostly good. Unfortunately, evil in the world does exist. Predators prey on the weakest, so I’m sure you won’t be surprised that there are MORE INCIDENTS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT THAT HAVE HAPPENED, BUT THAT I NEVER REPORTED. Mostly because they occurred when I was too young to understand what was happening or to defend myself against men more powerful than me in physical and other ways.
- You rarely permitted me to take the subway in 8TH GRADE, but one day it was necessity. As a girl who went to parochial school, I had to wear a skirt as part of the uniform. New York City subways are notoriously crowded; nevertheless, most New Yorkers know to give others “personal space.” I couldn’t get a seat that time, so I held onto a pole. All of a sudden, I FELT AN ADULT MAN PRESS UP ON ME FROM BEHIND. At that age, my only previous “encounters” with penises comprised witnessing my male classmates get bored in class and daring each other to move their penises (inside their pants) when the teacher wasn’t looking, or attending life drawing classes during the summer at the Art Students League. So, when I felt something hard bumping up against my underwear as the man whispered what I imagine were lewd things into my ear (I only remember the whispering, not the specific words), I guessed that it was his erect penis. He got off the train at the next stop, not even 5 minutes away, but his unsolicited humping felt like it went on for an eternity. I JUST REMEMBER FEELING SO MORTIFIED AND “DIRTY” ABOUT THE INCIDENT, AND I COULDN’T STOP A PENT-UP STREAM OF TEARS FROM FLOWING. At least the woman who was sitting in front of me validated that it was MY ASSAULTER WHO WAS WRONG, NOT ME. When the sexual predator left, she held out her hand to squeeze mine, crying with me and saying “I’m sorry” over and over again … I don’t know if she was the only one who saw or understood what was happening to me. New Yorkers are loud and will yell at a person for playing their music too loudly or for blocking the door to the subway car … BUT NO ONE ON THE TRAIN YELLED AT THIS STRANGER TO STOP SEXUALLY ASSAULTING A 14-YR. OLD.
- I was a JR. IN HIGH SCHOOL, when my boyfriend and I were walking north on Amsterdam Avenue on one of our early dates. It was summer, so I was wearing a long navy sleeveless dress (which I would never wear again). I was walking on the sidewalk with the road to my left and my boyfriend to the right. Suddenly, this stranger on a bike careened toward the sidewalk — we thought he was going to run us over. But no, it was worse than that. He purposefully veered over so he could get close enough to squeeze my breast through my dress. It happened so quickly, that even though my boyfriend yelled at my assaulter and called him a pervert for touching me inappropriately, the sexual predator was already speeding away. WHAT’S WORSE WAS THAT HE YELLED BACK AT MY BOYFRIEND, “THANKS, BUDDY,” LAUGHING WHILE GETTING AWAY.
More and more, when I see what people are getting away with in this country and around the world, I am convinced that silence only goads SEXUAL PREDATORS to do more and worse, just to see how much they can get away with for their own sick gains. Yet, while I understand the importance of all girls and women, boys and men, gay and straight and trans persons to collectively amplify the very real problem of sexual harassment, assault and rape by rallying around the angry cry of solidarity “#MeToo,” as a friend pointed out, it’s disheartening that we have to do this. THE END GOAL SHOULDN’T BE TO SIMPLY GET THE CAMPAIGN TO “TREND ON TWITTER,” but rather to create a cultural shift away from excusing this behavior as “locker room banter,” or as “boys being boys,” to instead EXPOSING, VILIFYING AND PUNISHING SEXUAL PREDATORS FOR THEIR REPREHENSIBLE BEHAVIOR. ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO USE THEIR POWER AND PRIVILEGE TO GET AWAY WITH IT.
My friends, relatives, and I have been having conversations on social media about #MeToo, and it saddens and angers me just how prevalent sexual harassment and assault is no matter who you are or where you grew up — in the city or in the suburbs, here in the US or in other countries. I also am surprised about the “backlash” against the #MeToo campaign, the “tamest” of which being the criticism that this is the kind of thing, these are the kinds of confessions, that people shouldn’t share on social media (even though we already share so much with our social networks, from the most mundane to the most intimate details of our lives).
But, as I’ve learned from you, dad, MY PERSONAL TRUTH, MY STORIES ARE WHAT KEEP ME FROM BEING INVISIBLE, FROM BEING SILENCED. So, I’ve decided to share “Too Much Information” if it empowers others — ESPECIALLY OTHER MEN, OTHER DADS— TO STAND UP FOR THE WOMEN IN THEIR LIVES WHEN THEY WITNESS THESE REPULSIVE ACTS HAPPENING. I will tell them what you’ve always told me. Yell to make predators aware that their despicable acts are being seen. Scream profanities at them because they deserve to be called out for the scumbags they are. Beat the living crap out of them if you have to. And if you have daughters, be as supportive of them as my dad has always been of me. Remind them it’s never their fault — the worst body-shaming happens when people tell women that they deserve to be maltreated because of what they’re wearing — and if they are wronged, they are RIGHT TO FIGHT BACK.
Another friend shared a quote she read that was resonant to her in this moment. “STRONG PEOPLE STAND UP FOR THEMSELVES. STRONGER PEOPLE STAND UP FOR EACH OTHER.” DAD(S), YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE STRONGER BECAUSE YOU STAND UP FOR US.
Your eldest daughter