Sexual Assault When You’re on the Margins: Can We All Say #MeToo?

Sexual Assault When You’re on the Margins: Can We All Say #MeToo?

Sexual Assault When You’re on the Margins: Can We All Say #MeToo?

To effectively combat sexual harassment, we must understand how a survivor’s identity shapes his or her ability to tell a boss, sue a company, or even join the hashtag #metoo.


A little over a week ago, dozens of women in Hollywood came forward and accused the powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment. Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie were among the most famous celebrities to allege harassment by Weinstein. Ashley Judd, Asia Argento, Mira Sorvino, Lucia Evans, Cara Delevigne, and Léa Seydoux are among the more than 40 women who have come forward since. The New Yorker has a meticulously reported list of the women, mostly actresses, who allege Weinstein assaulted or mistreated them. The New York Times revealed to us how he kept his abuse under wraps for so many years. The women who have made public their allegations of being sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped by Weinstein are being (rightfully) universally recognized as courageous; each revelation makes the fact of his decades’-long success that much more sickening.

The bravery of Weinstein’s accusers has inspired people across social media platforms to share their stories of sexual harassment, assault and rape using the hashtag #metoo. (Most outlets have been crediting actress Alyssa Milano with sparking the movement, but as Ebony points out, a black woman, Tarana Burke, also started a campaign by the same name 10 years ago.)

Missing, however, from the bulk of the conversations around rape culture is a crucial wrinkle: People on the margins—women of color, poor women, undocumented women, and trans men and women—are uniquely impacted by sexual assault and harassment. In the last weeks, as countless articles and personal stories have been shared, many who spoke up seemed to be attempting to genuinely deepen the national conversation about the ubiquity of sexual assault. But to do that effectively, it is imperative to understand how a survivor’s identity shapes his or her ability to tell a boss, sue a company, or even write a Facebook post with the hashtag #metoo.

Women in marginalized communities are more likely to be victims of sexual assault and often face more hurdles to being believed when they come forward. Thirty-three percent of women who identified as multiracial reported being raped, as did 27 percent of Native women. Twenty-two percent of black women experienced rape, according to the CDC. Almost 19 percent of white women did. A Frontline investigation found that undocumented women face numerous challenges when it comes to reporting sexual assault. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department investigated policing in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Joe Arpaio was sheriff. “Amid the investigation,” Frontline reports, “the DOJ said the sheriff’s office admitted that it had failed to properly investigate more than 400 cases of sexual assault and child molestation over a three-year period in 2007. In many of the cases, the sexual assault victims were undocumented Latinos or their children.” (Two months ago President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, who had been found guilty of criminal contempt for the tactics he used to police Latinx people in the county.)

Industries in which women of color workers are strongly represented are also particular hotbeds of sexual harassment and assault. As we consider the myriad possibilities of how we move forward in ameliorating rampant sexual assault in Hollywood, on campuses, and in media, let us too consider survivors in occupations that receive far less attention—for instance, the fast food and home healthcare industries. A study on workplace harassment in fast food found that 33 percent of black women and 32 percent of Latinas in fast-food restaurants experienced sexual harassment, compared to 25 percent of white women. Home health-care workers, heavily immigrant and women of color, are at particular risk. A quarter of home health-care workers live under the poverty line and few, if any, are provided with adequate workplace protections. A report by a group of NGOs, addressed to the UN Human Rights Committee, called attention to how vulnerable home care workers are. “Domestic workers experience abuses ranging from verbal abuse and economic exploitation to physical and sexual assault and forced servitude,” the report said. “Although U.S. laws should protect them, domestic workers find that they are often excluded from legal protections or that the laws are not enforced.” Ninety-nine percent of more than 500 domestic workers who were surveyed for a study based in New York City by the Domestic Workers United and DataCenter were foreign-born, 76 percent were non-US citizens, and 93 percent were women.

People of color have begun to push back on the dangers of homogenizing the experience of sexual assault across race, gender, sexuality and class. Last Wednesday, software engineer Kelly Ellis called for women to boycott Twitter to protest actress Rose McGowan’s having been kicked off the platform after speaking out against the power brokers who were complicit in Weinstein’s behavior. But for social-media activist April Reign, boycotting a social-media platform meant enforcing more silence, especially for women of color, who more often than not are not in positions of power in Hollywood. Reign created the hashtag #WOCAffirmation for those who were not observing the boycott in order to affirm women of color. Last week actor Terry Crews also publicly shared on Twitter his experience of being groped by “a high level executive” in Hollywood. As a cisgender black man, his experience stood in sharp contrast to the stories we’d been reading about, listening to on the radio, and watching on television.

Part of the effort to incorporate and create space for survivors who are more disenfranchised is to understand how we got here, to reach back into our country’s history. The Equal Justice Initiative provides a chilling demonstration of the deep roots of the sexual exploitation of black women in American history:

In 1855, a 19-year-old enslaved black woman named Celia killed the white man who owned her and was trying to rape her. Missouri law allowed a woman to use force when in “imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse,” but the judge ruled an enslaved woman had no right to refuse her “master.” Celia was convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and hanged on December 21, 1855.

Women, under the law, were raped by white men for generations in this country.

The silencing of sexual assault against black and brown women didn’t cease with slavery’s end. We only have to look back a year. It took the suffering of at least 13 black women for Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw to be sentenced to 263 years in prison. He had been assaulting women for at least six months, but most of his victims were were poor and had a criminal record.

Women and men living at the margins of American society are far from immune to sexual assault, and it is the duty of those of us who feel safe enough to tell stories without fear of retribution, jail time, or deportation to make a little more space, to consider that not everyone feels like they can say #metoo.

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