Op-Ed

To attack women’s sexual harassment and assault, attack poverty

Yuleidy González-Nieto, a victim of abuse since childhood, tells her story in the Miami Workers Center’s Women’s Circle.
Yuleidy González-Nieto, a victim of abuse since childhood, tells her story in the Miami Workers Center’s Women’s Circle. Miami Herald

Those of us involved in fighting gender-based violence were grateful to all those at the Golden Globes who gave volume and visibility to the crisis of sexual harassment and assault. By creating a legal defense fund to assist victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and by inviting activists such as Tarana Burke, Ai-jen Poo, Monica Ramirez, Saru Jayaraman and Calina Lawrence, celebrities rightly anchored their solidarity with the diverse grassroots voices involved in empowering and healing women far away from the big screen.

Yet to truly build on that important social moment, we must be willing to end both acts of inappropriate behavior and violence and unequal access to services and support for those who are affected. Everyone has a right not only to be safe, but to also have the tools to heal and recover from their impact.

We start, of course, where it’s easy — in recognizing our shared humanity and dangers. Through the course of our femme work — which includes members of the LGBTQ community and gender nonconforming people — supporters and members of the Miami Workers Center know that the issue of sexual harassment and assault is one that cuts across boundaries of race, gender and class. From the CEO and the stay-at-home wife to the student, the factory worker and home attendant, women of every status face the risk of being harassed or assaulted by a stranger, a relative or a lover. No matter who you are, no location — from school to work to church to even your home — is ever truly safe or immune from the threat.

Our Women’s Circles provides space for healing and strategies for transformation. What we have learned from our conversations with those who have been affected by inappropriate behavior and by violence is the fundamental unequal impact of the experience — even identical experiences — on their lives. A low-income femme who is sexually assaulted by a employer or a supervisor cannot afford to quit and go to work on another project. It doesn’t just endanger the growth of her career; it immediately limits her ability to provide the basic needs for herself or her family — food, shelter and even love.

Away from the workplace, low-income femmes who are financially dependent on their abusers for housing, childcare or even food, can’t report instances of assault because it would jeopardize their already tenuous situation. Ironically, their attacker’s arrest might cause greater harm to the dependent victim — losing a home and income — than to the perpetrator, who might only spend a few nights in jail.

The lack of economic flexibility doesn’t just limit their ability to get out of the situation; it affects the immediate and long-term care that they receive. They may have neither the time nor money to treat immediate injuries or engage in valuable extended physical and mental therapy, essential to the process of healing from traumatic experiences. They cannot always afford to see a doctor and even those with healthcare are not all able to take time off work, arrange childcare or access to reliable transportation.

Society’s perception of the credibility and desirability of some people to be protected also plays a role in the delivery of services. Nowhere is this seen more than in the treatment along lines of sexual orientation and identity. For gay, lesbian and transgender victims of assault, their stories are often discounted, and they disproportionately endure additional indignities, such as the unwillingness of medical professionals to treat them or further sexual assaults from police or other officials responsible for protecting them.

Access to support and services helps recovery and minimizes the impact of sexual harassment and assault. Access to support and services is limited by poverty and legal status. Ending the affects of poverty, then, serves to contain those of harassment and assault on victims. We simply cannot address the crisis of sexual harassment and assault without addressing the crisis of poverty and immigration. Otherwise we will be erasing low-income women and femmes from the conversations and the solutions.

To be clear, this is not an attempt to diminish the indignity and trauma of sexual assault suffered by those with wealth or social influence. However, solving this problem for Hollywood stars will not necessarily solve it for more vulnerable populations. By contrast, centering the solution of this problem on low-income Black and brown women, girls, femme, undocumented, will ‘raise the floor’ and, therefore, solve the problem for everyone above it.

Basic justice and true safety cannot flourish if support and service systems are elitist, classist and racist. Moving the wheels of power to provide equity in both prevention and care won’t just happen. The political, economic and social power of all women and femmes are an absolute prerequisite to ending sexual harassment and assault. Every person deserves not just to be safe, but to have the tools to heal from trauma and to thrive in every aspect of society.

Marcia Olivo is executive director of the Miami Workers Center.

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