In 2017, the galvanized resistance against sexual harassment was deeply tied to Hollywood.
However, harassment is most acute in service industries, in which many employees rely on tips, and low-wage industries, in which workers have little power to begin with. And while the Me Too movement was created more than 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, a black activist, its recent resurgence has often silenced the perspectives of people of color and poorer Americans.
Overlooking their experiences isn’t just unrepresentative, it’s an injustice. That’s because the prevalence of sexual assault increases dramatically as annual household income decreases. It’s a reality documented by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), an annual American household survey released in December by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In a deep-dive report on the annual survey, FiveThirtyEight writers Kathryn Casteel, Julia Wolfe, and Mai Nguyen explain that while imperfect (as all sexual-victimization surveys are), this national survey is among the most accurate representations in the US, due to its consistency. Unlike the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey from the Centers for Disease Control, a widely cited survey that has only been conducted a few times, the NCVS is conducted every year, Casteel tells Quartz.
“[The NVCS] captures data on a number of crimes, including rape and sexual assault, that respondents experienced during the previous six months. It tends to capture much more information than sources like police statistics, since many crimes are never reported to the police. The survey helps us understand who these victims are and how they respond to being attacked,” FiveThirtyEight reports. “The basic unit of the NCVS is a ‘victimization,’ which is a crime affecting one person or household. If one person was the victim of the same type of crime on three occasions, for example, that would count as three victimizations.”
The 2017 NCVS estimates the US had more than 320,000 incidents of rape and sexual assault in 2016, equivalent to 1.2 per 1,000 people age 12 or older. Of the survey respondents who said they’d been victims of sexual assault or rape in the past year, 84% of the incidents were reported by women, 66% were reported by non-Hispanic white respondents, 15% were reported by Hispanic respondents, and 13% were reported non-Hispanic black respondents. “That tracks fairly closely with the racial and ethnic breakdown in the US,” notes FiveThirtyEight, adding that “much of the existing literature on sexual violence under-represents racial and ethnic and minority groups.”
How income indicates vulnerability
Beyond racial disparities, income disparities proved most damning when it comes to susceptibility to sexual assault and rape. As FiveThirtyEight explains:
Some 44 percent of victims who participated in the survey said their household income was less than $25,000—while only 22 percent of households nationwide earn less than $25,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau. When you compare the lowest- and highest-income groups, the difference in victimization rates is stark: People with household incomes of less than $7,500 reported a victimization rate of 4.8 incidents per 1,000 persons age 12 or older, which is 12 times the rate reported by those with household incomes greater than $75,000 (0.4 per 1,000).
Yes, you read that right: People with a household income under $7,500 are 12 times more likely to report instances of sexual assault or rape than people with a household income over $75,000.
Casteel tells Quartz that this data shows that Americans living in poverty are among the most vulnerable to rape and sexual assault. Given international research linking poverty and sexual violence across the globe, this reality may not be shocking—but it indicates the desperate need for nuanced, targeted solutions to sexual abuse, rather than blanket policies that will only deepen the divide between the highly privileged and poorer populations.
“Abusers are more likely to target victims who are less likely to report their abuse,” says Casteel, referencing research by advocacy groups such as the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. “And because low-income women (or men) have fewer resources and are already facing economic and social hardships, it puts them more at risk” to experience both repeat-offenses and unpunished perpetrators.
The poorest victims face more hurdles
As Alana Semuels explains in The Atlantic, men who harass or assault women in low-wage and service industries are less likely to be held accountable because “because the housekeepers and food servers they harass fear being retaliated against and losing their much-needed paychecks if they bring complaints.” Many women in these industries are also undocumented immigrants, and worry that they’ll be reported to authorities if they complain. “What’s more, low-wage and poor women are often not believed when they report instances of sexual harassment,” Semuels writes.
“Our willingness to believe victims of harassment and violence is not extended to all victims equally,” Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, tells Semuels. “If you’re poor, you may be found less credible when you tell your story.”
Ultimately, all of these factors intensify the risk of sexual abuse becoming a cycle that reinforces itself in low-income communities, as Scott Berkowitz, founder of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, tells FiveThirtyEight: “That means that those abusers in those areas are more likely to be able to continue without repercussions.”
Even the newly visible “unified” front against sexual misconduct fully embraces class-based injustices perpetuating the sexual-victimization epidemic. That’s important to remember as Americans often look to the most privileged among them to drive change. Hollywood women have banded together to heed the call of their blue-collar sisters, creating a $13-million legal defense fund to provide subsidized legal support for women and men beyond the headlines who’ve experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace.
As the crime-survey findings show all too clearly, they are the ones who have the chance to make real change happen—money and power make the biggest difference when it comes to sexual assault.