This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.
When news broke of the seemingly bottomless Harvey Weinstein scandal, it released a flood of similarly harrowing tales of sexual harassment and assault in music, academia, science, media, restaurants, government, libraries, on and on and ever on. Near countless numbers of women and a decent number of men shared their own stories in private conversation, public essays, and as part of the #MeToo hashtag on social media. One inescapable fact immediately became manifest: Sexual harassment and assault are everywhere in the human experience, regardless of profession, ideology, ethnic identity, or financial privilege.
The question of financial privilege does, however, make one enormous difference: If you’re poor, you may find it that much harder to escape the abuse, or to recover and heal.
The reasons for this are myriad, complex, and mutually reinforcing, much like the causes of poverty itself, but they can be roughly assigned to two categories: Questions of power and questions of access.
Sexualized violence is a statement of power — harassment is not flirting, and assault is not sex. In both, the perpetrator is establishing themselves as having the right to treat another human being as they will. The victim’s right to safety is void; the perpetrator has the power to say or do what they wish, and the victim has no choice but to accept those choices.
Indeed, men who harass and assault women routinely prey on those who are clearly less powerful than their attackers. Harvey Weinstein consistently visited his depravity on Hollywood’s young and aspiring; R. Kelly has long been known for plucking girls from high schools on Chicago’s South Side. As Donald Trump said in 2005, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
One needn’t be a star to have relative power over a woman, though. In a society in which women are dehumanized in private, in public, in statute, and in practice, women as a class are axiomatically less powerful than men as a class. Poverty serves to exponentially increase that power differential.
Women in the lowest income bracket experience sexual violence at six times the rate of women in the highest. That statistic supports something poor women already know: The poorer you are, the more likely you are to endure a man’s unwanted attention. You can’t quit the job that barely pays, you can’t argue with the uncle in whose home you must live, and you can’t afford the classes that might allow you to leave both behind.
Poverty is not only a risk factor for harassment and assault, though — poverty is often the result of harassment and assault. The victim who leaves her job may have no other source of income, and more than one-third of women who leave their abusers’ homes end up homeless. Weinstein’s victims understood all too clearly that he ultimately held power over their ability to make a living, and a vindictive restaurant manager might be all that stands between a server and her ability to feed her kids.
Then there’s the question of access to medical or psychological support. Non-consensual sexual contact is often violent; rape can of course lead to pregnancy; studies have found that alarming numbers of harassment and assault victims develop PTSD; and even short-term experiences with shock and anxiety can be temporarily debilitating or permanently life-altering. But treating all of those things costs money. Even something as simple as transportation can present an obstacle — what if there’s no bus from your neighborhood to the nearest free clinic?
Every survivor’s experience is different, and trauma is not made untraumatic by a middle class income. Women of color, trans women, undocumented immigrants, and women with disabilities all face further hurdles, complications, and intersections, regardless of income.
Yet poverty places an undeniable additional burden on anyone who has survived sexual harassment or assault. Even as we reel from the unending revelations out of Hollywood or Silicon Valley, it’s worth remembering that even healing is a privilege.