Exploited Vulnerabilities: Sexual Violence and Marginalized Communities

Apr 26, 2019

According to Merriam-Webster, to marginalize means “to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group.” Individuals who identify as members of non-dominant groups may experience both personal and collective marginalization.  If you live in the United States and you are, for example, a woman, a person of color, a youth or an elderly adult, if you are poor or homeless, addicted to substances, identify as LGBTQ, if you live with cognitive or physical disabilities, or with mental illness, you may have experienced implicit and/or explicit denials of privileges, rights and opportunities, of your value, and of your voice. To be marginalized means to be pushed aside. It is there, at the edges, that perpetrators of sexual violence often seek their victims, counting on societal blind spots to protect and perpetuate their transgressions.

People of color disproportionately represent victims of sexual violence. The website of End Rape on Campus notes, “[w]hile 80% of rapes are reported by white women, women of color are more likely to be assaulted than white women.” The YWCA reports that 56.1 percent of Native Americans have been victims of sexual violence. More than 20 percent of Black women have been victims of rape, according to The Institute for Women’s Policy Research. People who identify as Latinx, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander or of mixed race are also overrepresented as victims of sexual assault.

Historical oppression, current systemic biases, and interpersonal prejudices contribute to the victimization of people of color. In the United States, enslaved Black women and men were treated as property, with no agency over their own bodies. Women who were raped by slave owners had no legal recourse; in fact, these women could be “lawfully” executed if they tried to fight back. Enslaved men were often treated no better than livestock, forced to “breed” and surrender their children.  Although slavery was abolished in the 19thcentury, the objectification and violation of Black women’s bodies persist to this day.

Stereotypes about particular racial, ethnic and cultural identities reduce individuals to caricatures, creating a lens through which we see “types” rather than individuals. For example, Native American women are frequently portrayed as hypersexualized, Asian women as submissive and “exotic,” and Latinas as feisty and always available for sex. The dehumanizing effects of these stereotypes feed sexual violence, freeing perpetrators from accountability and trapping victims in cycles of shame, fear and silence.

People who live with physical and cognitive impairments are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of sexual violence. According to statistics cited by the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, 83% of adult females and 32% of adult males with disabilities are victims of sexual assault. Their disabilities may make them vulnerable to manipulation; further, their impairments may lead others to regard them as unreliable sources. These factors make them ideal targets for sexual predators.

The vulnerability that comes with youth, and with old age, puts people on both ends of the life spectrum at greater risk of becoming targets of sexual violence. While the sexual exploitation of children is a growing topic of concern, sexual victimization of the elderly has been largely underreported. A report relayed by the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, shows that 18% of women raped annual are aged sixty or older. Elders who depend on the assistance of others may be victimized by the very people – such as family members and residential care workers – who are supposed to help them.

People rarely occupy one zone of marginalization. Rather, inequalities tend to intersect, creating webs of disenfranchisement that can be hard to escape. In her article, “The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking”, published by the UCLA Law Review, Cheryl Nelson Butler writes, “Race intersects with other forms of subordination including gender, class, and age to push people of color disproportionately into prostitution and keep them trapped in the commercial sex industry.” We see these multiple inequalities at work in the lives of runaway LGBTQ youth. According to an infographic put out by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 46% of LGBTQ youth run away because their families have rejected their sexual orientation or gender identity; these young people are then three times more likely to engage in survival sex than their non-LGBTQ-identifying homeless peers. In homeless LGBTQ minors, we see how the intersections of sexual and gender discrimination, youth, poverty, and homelessness make these individuals particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of sexual exploitation.

Statistics reveal that far too many people from marginalized communities become targets of sexual violence. What these figures do not accurately reflect, however, are the actual number of victims. Sexual violence against disenfranchised communities is thought to be greatly underreported. Many nuanced factors contribute to this lack of reporting, but in broad strokes, the very circumstances that contribute to a group’s victimization work to prevent the group’s access to justice and empowerment. Our attorneys are committed to working toward justice for allindividuals. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual violence, please contact us for a free consultation.

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