Reposted from Teen Vogue
By: Wendy Lu
In this op-ed, author Wendy Lu explains how sexual harassment and disability are linked.
We were 15 years old, just starting high school. A boy from my biology class would hiss my name, just loud enough so his friends standing nearby could also hear. “Psst — hey Wendy,” he said. I turned my head. He stuck out his tongue and wiggled it between two fingers. He laughed. His friends laughed alongside him, elbowing each other as I continued to walk by, cheeks flushed. He did this over and over again for all four years in the hallways where everyone could see, and he did it without ounce of empathy or shame. His laughter rang in my ears every time I read another story about women — including actors, senators, lobbyists, and musicians — experiencing harassment, assault, and other forms of sexual violence.
Before the #metoo movement took over social media in October, I had never written about my experiences with sexual violence before. I couldn’t even write “sexual harassment,” “abuse,” and other related words without feeling deeply ashamed — even though there is nothing for me to be ashamed of.
I am a proud disabled, Chinese American woman. As a journalist, I’ve dedicated my work to address major disability issues like ableism, lack of accessibility in political activism events, and domestic violence. In fact, women with disabilities are more likely to experience relationship abuse, and they’re also less likely to report the behavior than non-disabled women. Women of color, prison inmates, LGBTQ folks and homeless people are also at a higher risk of being raped or sexually assaulted.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the boy from biology class wasn’t just being sexist and misogynistic — his behavior was also horribly ableist. Ironically, this 15-year-old boy made those sexual gestures and his friends laughed with him because they couldn’t possibly imagine that a young Chinese girl with a disability could be sexy, desirable or sexually experienced. They discovered power and social status at the expense of making me feel small. And their taunts succeeded: I felt angry, confused, hurt, and unattractive, and I wondered if girls with disabilities like me weren’t “supposed” to know about or be into things like sex.
As disabled people, we are too often portrayed as being infantile and inexperienced. Being disabled labels us “asexual,” “unsexy,” and “undesirable.” Being disabled also labels us “easy,” because we are expected to feel grateful if someone actually shows interest — even when it’s exploitative and not consensual.
Having a multi-marginalized identity means navigating misogyny from those who diminish people with disabilities and those who fetishize Chinese women or believe in the Chinese patriarchy. During my childhood, I was told that it would be hard for me to find a partner willing to be with someone who’s disabled; on the upside, however, “men like short, cute Chinese girls.” A well-intentioned friend once told me that she hoped I would one day “marry a nice Chinese man to take care of you,” even though I’m quite capable of working and living on my own in New York City. That same boy from my biology class who sexually harassed me for years would also stretch out his eyes to imitate mine and told me that my face looked like a rat that had been slammed into a door.
Sexual violence — including violence that targets marginalized communities — starts with seemingly harmless comments and gestures, and those gestures can turn into actions. The misogynistic racism, sexism and ableism we experience, regardless of our age, are often overlooked and easily dismissed. “What did you expect?” “You should take it as a compliment.” “It’s not a big deal.” People observe each other’s behaviors and consume media that perpetuate gender norms and harmful stereotypes about how men, women and people of different identities should treat each other.
As an adult, I continue to experience the kinds of sexual microaggressions and harassment that women face every single day. Men think if they call me “beautiful” or “oriental,” I’ll be flattered enough to go home with them. Instead of getting “meow” from cat-callers, I get “ni hao.” Two years ago, in my first New York apartment, a drunk man cornered me in the elevator, red in the face. We pressed the same elevator button. He bent over toward me and kept asking, “Where are you going on the sixth floor? You going to a friend’s? Where are you going?” He wouldn’t stop until the elevator doors opened, and that’s when I discovered this man lived across the hall from me. I spent the next several months worried about running into him again if I left my apartment. Another time, I was interviewing a source outside when a stranger came over and started commenting on our “fine asses.” He wouldn’t leave. When I tried to ask for help, a nearby police officer shrugged and said, “Oh, he’s just being annoying.” I yelled at the NYPD: “He is sexually harassing us.” I wanted to add, Don’t you get it? But clearly, he didn’t.
Sexual violence is about power and control. It is also about prejudice. It’s about a lack of empathy and understanding for those who are not like you. Who we are, where we come from and what we look like all influence not just whether someone will sexually disrespect us, but how and why. Too long have we put up with perpetrators assigning a value to women’s bodies based on our cultures. Instead of telling survivors to be less sensitive, to feel flattered, to change who they are, to shake it off — listen, believe them, and realize that our identities don’t exist to be fetishized.