Rowena Chiu is a survivor, and she knows firsthand why people who have experienced what she has sometimes don’t come forward.
The first time she tried was in 1998: Chiu was 24 years old and working as an assistant when Harvey Weinstein targeted, groomed, and diminished her, and eventually tried to rape her in a hotel room in Venice, Italy. Though she and a coworker, Zelda Perkins, wanted to report him to both his bosses at Miramax, and to the police, they were told he was too powerful for them to take on. Both she and Perkins were coerced into signing a punishing nondisclosure agreement that effectively bought their silence for over two decades.
When she finally spoke her truth again, the decision to open up was on her terms. In 2019, two years after a series of bombshell stories by the New York Times and the New Yorker opened the floodgates for survivors around the world to speak out, Chiu joined the dozens of other survivors who spoke out about the abuse dealt to them by Weinstein. “I took the time to make sure, ‘Do I really want to be public with this story?’” she told MTV News about the decision to ultimately write an op-ed for the New York Times that was published in September 2019. The response, she remembers, was overwhelming, and mostly positive. But it wasn’t without one last attempt by Weinstein to smear her: Just before he was set to go to trial, his lawyer denied Chiu’s story, and further said anything “physical” between Weinstein and Chiu had been consensual.
“It isn’t true,” Chiu said the Times. “But muddying the waters is a common tactic of abusers.”
Since then, Chiu has continued to speak out about her experience. She hopes other survivors are bolstered by her story, as well as the groundswell of voices amplified on social media and by movements like Tarana Burke’s Me Too. Though she has the vantage point of appearing in interviews and documentaries, such as Investigation Discovery’s Harvey Weinstein: ID Breaking Now, which debuted on Sunday (April 12), she also believes there’s power in survivors telling even one person in their life about the violence someone else inflicted on them.
During a recent phone conversation, Chiu told MTV News what she wishes she knew as a young assistant, how she made time for her mental health throughout Weinstein’s New York trial — which wrapped with a 23-year sentence in early March — and why she hopes that more survivors of color continue to speak out about their experiences.
MTV News: How are you feeling these days, especially after the verdict came down?
Rowena Chiu: Because the verdict was mixed, I felt mixed that day. Two of the five counts were guilty, three of them were not. It seemed uncertain which direction things would go because the sentencing was then due another week or so away, and it was between five to 29 years. There didn't seem to be a clear indication of whether or not he would just go to jail for a few years, get a slap on the hand, and then restart his film company, or whether this was actually a very serious indication of how rape cases will be tried. I think the sentencing was much more meaningful. 23 years definitely felt like a clear indictment and a success for the Me Too movement, and a way to move forward.
MTV News: How did you take care of your mental health throughout the trial and sentencing? And how do you safeguard your well-being when you tell people your story?
Chiu: The trial was certainly emotionally difficult for a lot of us. We had given our stories to the DA, and were waiting to see who would be selected to actually take the stand. So there was a nervousness from not knowing whether or not you'd be one of [those] people. I'm sure I share with many of the other survivors [feeling] a mixture of trepidation, perhaps relief at not being chosen, maybe even slight guilt because other women are going forward and having to be brave to tell their story… as well as incredible compassion for the women that did go forward. That could have been any of us.
A lot of us were bracing for an unanimous acquittal. There was a really interesting Jezebel article entitled, “We Have Been Taught To Expect Nothing.” And I thought the headline itself was very fascinating. In some ways, we're always preparing for the worst, especially in terms of rape convictions because frequently the worst happens. We're not believed, we're laughed at, we're shunned. If our cases do come to trial they often result in acquittal.
There's evidence to suggest that even when you go so far as to tell your story and it's incredibly painful and traumatizing, your perpetrator doesn't end up in jail, the sentence is often light or they're often released early due to other mitigating circumstances. We saw it with the Brock Turner case. The legal system has often failed women time and again, so it was hard to believe that we would get to where we are now. But he [Weinstein] got 23 years and he's actually behind bars. It's more than any of us could have expected.
MTV News: How do you make space for your healing and for your mental health these days?
Chiu: For me, the assault itself took place a really long time ago, and I was 24 at the time. In many ways my life now is very different from how it was back then. I'm no longer a young person. I don't work in film. My focus really is on raising my four little children.
Many of the survivors have moved into different places. Obviously it's important to go through the usual channels to look after ourselves: Get therapy, confide in the people closest to us, take time for ourselves to think, work, and talk through things. I took two years after the story came out in October 2017 before I made a decision to speak out. I didn't rush it. I talked to my parents and my sister, I talked to my closest friends at that time, and to Zelda, to ensure that I was really ready to come forward. I thought very deeply about all the options. If I had come forward with everybody else in October, 2017 when I was very much being hounded by journalists, I would've felt rushed, like it was somebody else's decision.
I feel like I've owned my decision. Writing about it in the New York Times also gave me a sense of ownership. I needed to be ready because a lot of survivors have come forward, not just Harvey survivors, but survivors of rape in general, particularly Asian-American survivors.
MTV News: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you had known when you were that 24-year-old?
Chiu: One thing that would have blown my mind is if I had known about the women that came before and the women that would come after. And of course that is one of the huge dangers of the nondisclosure agreement. It was only when we had the strength of all of these dozens of survivors that came forward that we were able to tell our story and be believed.
At that time, there was very little we could have done differently that would've led to a different outcome, because frankly we had no power. We had no money. We were two very young women who were fighting really hard to make the story public, and not a single soul believed us. And journalists have come and they've gone, and they haven't been believed themselves. Often they've had components of the story, yet it was still shut down. The story was buried until there was a time in history where it was able to come out, and then the momentum built around the Me Too movement happened.
One interesting theory is that, had Trump not been in the White House, and had women not been angry about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, and about privileged white men who clearly assault women but then are able to continue with their positions, maybe there wouldn't have been momentum here. It was a very long road, and it's not a given that Weinstein would have stood trial for any of these assaults. It's the effort of dozens of us — hundreds of us actually, not just the survivors but also the support network of journalists, attorneys, PR agents. Everybody played their part to bring these stories to trial.
MTV News: One of the things that really struck out at me in the Discovery documentary is that the filmmakers spoke to a number of the survivors who are women of color. How do you think the culture has shifted with regard to believing survivors more broadly, and specifically survivors of color?
Chiu: I would love to think that the culture has shifted. Obviously the verdict and the sentencing of this case are a great signaling that survivors will be believed. Ongoing, there are still issues: I don't think it's a given that women who come forward will be believed. I wish it was, but I think it's still going to be a struggle for survivors to be believed, and I think it's going to be an additional struggle for women of color. There are many cultural, there's sociological reasons why that's true, why we are less believed and we get less air time.
Unfortunately, I don't think it's as simple as a cultural shift. Change happens incrementally. More survivors have spoken out, which destigmatizes the speaking out. Whether or not you'll actually be able to get justice and get your case to trial or be believed, that's still a fight. But I think it's really important survivors continue to speak out. You don't have to be on the front cover of a newspaper or be on television to speak out. Coming out to your parents about it or speaking to your spouse about it or telling a close friend — all of that is really important. Don't just keep it to yourself.
The more women of color that can speak out offer a figurehead for others to rally around and to think, I can do that. Chanel Miller and Evelyn Yang have also inspired me to continue with this journey. There are so few Asian and Asian-American women out there who have spoken about sexual assault experiences that each one is emotionally very important to me. Certainly judging by the hundreds of letters I've received from young Asian assault victims, I think we're doing some good and making some change. I'm hoping we are inspiring a young generation so that they don't have to be silenced and oppressed in the way that we were.
MTV News: This month is also sexual assault awareness month. What message would you have for survivors, and for allies?
Chiu: Don't be afraid to speak out if you can. For many decades I was really afraid to speak to anybody. And even when my story went public, I was still afraid to speak to anybody. But I would say now, own your voice. It's a valuable voice. Don't ever think that your voice doesn't matter. I spent a long time thinking there are other more high-profile victims of Harvey that have come forward, like Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow. They have experience in the media and their stories matter and people will listen to them because they're beautiful and white and wealthy and they're glamorous. I thought nobody would really be interested in my story. I was amazed at the response that I got, which was largely positive.
Every voice matters, and you matter. Don't be silent because you think you’re unimportant. When you tell somebody, even if that someone's just a trusted friend and they're not in any way going public with the story, I think you release something in yourself. That's really important. You don't hide in this shell of blame and silencing. That has never done anybody any favors. If you're too afraid to go to law enforcement, you're too afraid to go to the media, or you're too afraid to talk to your own parents, find that one trusted person that you can talk to because speaking out is in itself an empowering act. And then of course, the usual caveats apply. Get therapy if you can. If something happens to you that's a crime, report it if you feel able to, because it's important even if we're not believed.
My message to allies... This is an interesting question. I think men have often felt sidelined: They don't know what to say and they don't know what to do and they think of it as predominantly a “woman's thing.” As in, women are speaking out, they're getting more empowered and they're telling their stories and I'm just going to stand aside and let that happen. But I must make this point too: A lot of the conversation has been about binary gender, men and women. And of course, gender is much more complicated. We must leave room for male survivors, and for survivors of any gender because they're much more at risk in many ways.
I think also, at least in private behind closed doors, it helps if allies also come forward, which I mean in terms of men who are able to speak out to their own families or their closest friends about and process their own feelings, because it is complex. The issue of consent, the issue of relations, communication essentially between people, because this is what it comes down to. It’s important that our allies raise their voices in cultural debate about consent, about rape, because if they don't raise their voice it just becomes a narrative of predator and prey. And then it just becomes this dichotomy between evil men that commit rape and other sexual assault atrocities and these vulnerable women that are their prey who are fighting back.
This interview has been edited for length.