Bonding Over Trauma

A poetry writing workshop with Work Ready reflecting on past experiences revealed quite a few gems and quite a lot of trauma. The one thing every women in that room had in common: sexual assault. The statistics that “1 in 3 American women will be sexually abused during their lifetime” flew out the window. The room batted a perfect score – 12 out of 12. A third of the women were white presenting and two thirds were women of color, namely African American and Latino – this is stated based on observation and self-identification given during conversation. All of these women receive state subsidy funding and therefore are low-income, poverty level women, all with children or pregnant.

It seems obvious that women in low-income families, whether they are the provider or the dependent, will suffer an increased rate of sexual assault. Based on the nature of low-income neighborhoods, there is increased distrust in the police force; crimes are less likely to be reported. Rapists are left uncharged and able to repeat offend. Low-income youths are less supervised because everyone is forced to work unrealistic amounts of hours thanks to the minimum wage, and are left more at risk. Women in abusive relationships are often economically tied to their abuser and have fewer options to leave
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Additionally, Women of Colour in this country, most significantly African American women, who, while having the highest ratio of education relative to gender and racial demographic, are still simultaneously the highest percent for demographic in poverty. African American women across all classes are also the most at risk demographic for sexual assault; therefore, poor African American women are outstandingly at risk for sexual assault: “Recent national telephone study showed that African American women, in a community sample and a college sample, report higher rates of lifetime forcible rape than Caucasian, Latina, and Asian women. The negative psychological sequelae of sexual assault have been widely studied with findings indicating that survivors of sexual assault are more likely to experience an array of mental health consequences including but not limited to depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation and attempts.” 

I know too that some of these women were homeless at some point in their lives, sometimes officially and sometimes unofficially. Studies show that the status of homelessness contributes another significant leap in sexual assault risk: “As cuts to welfare and social services have deepened over the last decade, the hidden homeless population has grown steadily, with African-American women and female heads of households at greatest risk…One of largest and most in-depth studies on this topic found that 92% of a racially diverse sample of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, with 43% reporting sexual abuse in childhood and 63% reporting intimate partner violence in adulthood.”

Let’s consider more facts from the American Pyshcological Association at Research on post-violence consequences finds that exposure to violence can negatively affect the ability to sustain employment.

  • Intimate partner violence causes U.S. women to miss about 8 million days of work and lose about $727 million in wages each year (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2003).
  • After experiencing a violent incident, low-income women who worked 40-hour work weeks had only one-fifth odds of maintaining that full-time status for 6 or more months than women who did not experience violent incidents (Browne et al., 1999).
  • Low-income women who experienced intimate partner violence or aggression had only one-third odds of maintaining a 30-hour work week for 6 or more months than women who did not experience violence (Browne et al., 1999).

Living in the condition of poverty radically increases your risk of sexual assault, which then decreases your ability to maintain a steady job, which pushes you into or farther into poverty. Too many of the women at Work Ready said their first sexual assaults occurred in their youth – some as children and some as teenagers. What followed was a cocktail of badness that has no doubt contributed to their current situation, their current level of poverty.

Too often, the relationship between poverty and sexual assault and race is left out when discussing any three of those subjects. If you’re a woman, you have a one in three percent chance. If you’re poor, that goes up. If you’re a woman of Color, that goes up, especially if you’re African American. And if you’ve ever been homeless, you’ve reached a critical 92% assault rate.

Veteran health care is far from perfect, but it’s there, ready to treat PTSD. Surprise though, PTSD isn’t just for veterans. Civilians or no, women are “twice as likely as men” to develop PTSD and the number one cause of that PTSD is sexual assault. Who’s looking out for them? There’s a distinct missing treatment for women in poverty and that is responsive treatment for sexual assault related problems and proactive securities for low-income neighborhoods.

Beau Charles ’17
Gettysburg

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