Photo credit: Kate Warren

Amanda Nguyen on rising above assault and starting a movement


This interview was originally published in the November 30th, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.

Amanda Nguyen is the leading force behind what is now the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which passed in 2016. The law changes the way survivors’ rape kits are preserved, and enumerates other basic rights within the criminal justice system.

Nguyen is also the CEO of Rise, an organization working to standardize and improve sexual assault survivors’ rights across the U.S. and the world. On top of being a global reckoning force, she is a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, was a former NASA intern, and is currently working towards becoming an astronaut.

We caught up with Nguyen over e-mail.

How can the #MeToo movement be more inclusive for people of color and their stories?

The #MeToo movement helped shine a light on the prevalence of sexual violence in the entertainment industry, but it was largely wealthy Caucasian women with resources to find support. But the world is in a moment of reckoning, making this movement accessible to all survivors — not just women, not just wealthy, not just white. I’m most optimistic about the opportunity to pursue intersectional protections for survivors. What’s been really exciting to see is how Rise’s bill, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, has become a concrete, tangible action item that people who care about this issue can take in response to the #MeToo moment. It is a proactive step to protect the rights of all sexual violence survivors.

What are things we don’t talk enough about within sexual violence amongst Asian American communities?

Women’s lives are often not valued with full human dignity. As an Asian-American woman, I know all too well how race and sexual violence intersect. Asian American women are subject to hyper-sexualization which contributes to sexual violence. Yellow fever, the objectification of Asian female bodies, and the stereotype that Asian women are submissive are examples of this. The exotification of our bodies dehumanizes us and that dehumanization creates a greater chance for sexual violence.

How has your Asian American experience impacted the way you do your work?

I am often the only person of color — and woman of color — in the room. Representation matters and Asian Americans need more representation in public office, the entertainment industry, and in the community so our voices are heard. Unfortunately, the model minority myth only serves to suppress engagement and it affects people well beyond Asian American communities.

What is your advice for someone who is scared to open up about their sexual assault experience?

The first thing I tell survivors is “you are not alone.” That’s such an important message to carry. I never fully understood loneliness until I left my local area rape crisis center following my own assault. I felt so isolated until I looked around and discovered how many other people were sitting in that waiting room. That turned my isolation into fire. It turned my single story into a collective narrative of progress and change and justice. To survivors afraid of opening up: I know what it’s like to be scared, but your story is another coal in a collective fire that we each carry.

How does one reconcile conflicting feelings towards their assailant and is forgiveness even an option?

Each survivor story is different and there is no one way to react or respond to assailants. Because statistically, the majority of female survivors were sexually assaulted by someone they know, it is possible and understandable to have conflicting feelings. It is important, however, to prioritize your own safety, self worth and self care. After that, forgiveness is a personal journey.

For sexual assault victims, is there ever closure? If so, what are some of the ways closure can look like?

Much like forgiveness, closure looks differently for every survivor. I often say, the only justice I may ever receive is in passing the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. That has become a form of closure for me. For others it might be sharing your story for the first time, or volunteering. For some survivors, closure remains out of reach. It’s most important to break the stereotype that all survivors and all individuals react to trauma the same. That perpetuates harmful narratives such as a “perfect witness” or a “credible victim.” Traumatic experiences affect people drastically differently and it’s critical each reaction is considered valid.

At this time when it’s important to focus on women’s stories and elevating their voices, where do you think the movement will go next?

It’s been incredible to see so many survivors who have hidden behind shame and guilt of their own stories finally feel safe enough to step forward and reallocate that blame. The stigma-breaking phenomenon of this #MeToo moment has empowered many survivors to channel their trauma into action. Yet, there is still a lot of work to do in order to create a society that not only makes way for survivors to come forward, but also to be believed.

If we want to be a society that treats rape seriously and gives survivors the right to talk about their experiences at various points in their life, believing survivors is necessary. Believing allegations and investigating them thoroughly is necessary, but it is also not enough. And I am more ignited and committed as an advocate to continue creating a safe and supportive environment for survivors to come forward.

Our Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights does just that without infringing on the rights of the accused. We’ve passed our bill in 15 states and will keep pushing forward until every state recognizes equality under the law for all survivors.

What are the ongoing policy challenges in pursuing your work? What’s surprised you when it comes to the bureaucracy?

The biggest obstacle we face is simply ignorance and validation. People don’t often understand the full extent of a survivors’ experience in navigating the criminal justice system or how many odds are stacked against us. Awareness is such an important first step when speaking with legislators and they are often unaware of the gaps in legal protections and equality.

How do we make a day in 2018, 2019, 2020 easier to live through?

Fight for survivors’ rights. Organize in your community. Join Rise!

What is your favorite most underrated Vietnamese food dish?

This is a really good question! Bánh Khọt (Vietnamese savory shrimp coconut pancakes)!

Amanda, do you believe we can sustain life on Mars?

Absolutely! I hope to someday be a part of the team to terraform Mars, but only after we accomplish equality under the law for sexual assault survivors in all 50 states.

Learn more about Rise, and follow Nguyen on Instagram and Twitter to keep up with her work.