Living Below the Poverty Line Makes Me More Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

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Commentary Economic Justice

Living Below the Poverty Line Makes Me More Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

Julie Fletcher

For poor women like me, especially those supporting our families, there are no easy choices.

Twice a month, I clean an elderly man’s house for about $20 at a time. A few weeks ago, I was cornered by his adult son in the master bedroom’s tiny bathroom. I was on my hands and knees cleaning the toilet when I heard his voice above me.

“You look like you know how to work on your knees.”

“Well, you must be happy to see me, your nipples are hard.”

“No? Those must just be big nipples. Can I see?”

I finally pushed past him and left.

According to a 2004 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people who are poor are twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault. Other studies in the early to mid-2000s confirm that poor women experience sexual predation at home, in public, and at work. Based on my own experiences, I fully believe that living below the poverty line has made me more vulnerable to being harassed and preyed upon, especially by those I rely upon for help or employment.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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My husband and I are both disabled due to different severe illnesses. We have a large family and since I can no longer concentrate due to a string of mini-strokes, it has been difficult to find freelance work as a writer or finish the two novels I am working on. My husband is seeing a neurologist for possible multiple sclerosis or, God forbid, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS). We had to go on assistance, and we keep afloat by borrowing money when we must and by doing small, odd jobs for our neighbors.

For poor women like me, especially those who do domestic work in homes or support our families in other ways, there are no easy choices. For example, this neighbor provides transportation when my family needs it. If I act angry over his comments or the danger of being touched, getting food from the grocery store if my van breaks down becomes even more difficult. What if I need gas money? Something for school for one of my children? If I say anything, will that be another source of income gone? What if I speak up and the entire tiny community here shuns me, effectively cutting off all work options? When you are poor, anyone with more money holds all the cards. And too often, they know it.

It is difficult to explain to anyone who doesn’t live in this economic bracket how what seem like illogical decisions color our everyday lives. Dignity or gas money? Reporting harassment or a ride to work, store, or doctor appointments? Or maybe: reporting an employer or keeping a job that pays most of the bills?

And the situation is even worse for some women who might be trapped in situations of extreme violence with no choice at all—and not enough resources to escape.

Even when we do report the actions, there may be no punishment for the harasser. For example, we live in a rural part of New York, where each town has an elected judge who doesn’t need to have any previous experience in law enforcement or as a lawyer.

This can be a terrifying situation for women who rely on town justices. In 2006, the New York Times reported on the abuse that can happen in these small courts: For example, a woman in Malone, New York, needed to seek “an order of protection against her husband, who the police said had choked her, kicked her in the stomach and threatened to kill her. The justice, Donald R. Roberts, a former state trooper with a high school diploma, not only refused, according to state officials, but later told the court clerk, ‘Every woman needs a good pounding every now and then.'”

Of course, this won’t be an issue in every state or even every court in New York. However, because of stories like these, I don’t feel that my word alone is enough to be taken seriously.

Add up these experiences, and is it odd that I don’t feel safe without my husband by my side in many circumstances?

I don’t go near that home alone anymore, though my husband and I sometimes take care of the animals. I thought that was the end of it until last week. This time, it was the elderly man, who asked about a sewing machine I had previously mentioned I needed to buy. My own is no longer working, and he knows I can’t afford a new one right now.

“I thought I’d give you the money to buy a new one. You can work it off cleaning or…some other way.”

“Cleaning is fine, but that’s about it,” I said. I wasn’t prepared for what he said next.

“You know, I’m going to get my hands on those 44 double-D’s sometime,” he said, referring to my breasts.

I think the blood must have left my face because he started laughing and grabbed my hand before I could get all the way past his chair. “Come on, you need the money.”

I just wanted to get out the door and into the van where my husband was waiting, oblivious to what was going on.

I pulled his fingers off and left.

When I explained what happened to my husband once we were home and away from the kids, I thought he was going to explode. He told me to call the police.

Do I want to punish my harassers? Sure, I’m still angry right now. Do I want to have my name spread all over our community? No. Even writing a piece that will appear online won’t do as much damage as a call to the police would. We’re in a community where we’re the most avid internet users—I doubt anyone in our immediate community will see this or care.

Poor folks have it bad because our humanity isn’t considered by an innumerable amount of people. Add in femininity, disability, and being on government assistance? Hell, we might as well give up. Some rapists already go free or with a slap on the wrist. What is going to happen to an old man trying to cop a feel or his adult son for sexually harassing me?

Almost certainly: Not a damn thing.

I’m angry, nauseated, and afraid for what the future holds for my daughters. I’m afraid for what the future holds for me. A few days prior to this incident, my husband had joked that I didn’t need to learn self-defense because I’m always with him or our German Shepherds. That didn’t help me or my dignity. To be honest, I’m not sure what would help.

In a few days I will be back to normal.

But there will also be someone somewhere ready to knock me, or another woman who dares think of herself as more than an object, down a few notches.