Sexual abuse and economic inequality

Not simply a matter of location: The ties between sexual abuse in sweatshops and economic inequality

In an editorial written for the New York Times in December 2014, the author claimed that women in poverty are at a much greater risk of sexual violence overall. And yet, as pointed out in the article, there is a severe lack of studies that examine the links between sexual abuse and poverty. When researching this issue, a writer for Jezebel noted in 2014: “After an exhaustive search, colleagues and I could find no major study that focuses on the relationship between social and economic disadvantage and rape and sexual assault risk in the United States.” In spite of a need for more comprehensive investigations regarding this matter, statistics linking sexual violence and poverty continue to subsist.

Callie Marie Rennison, a criminology professor at the University of Colorado Denver, and Lynn Addington, a professor in the same field at American University, published the study “Violence Against College Women” in early 2014. The study relied on statistics from the American Bureau of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey. It demonstrated that women, aged 18-24, who were “non-student females [were] victims of violence at rates 1.7 times greater than college females.” Rennison claimed her preliminary analysis of the survey data implied that various sorts of social inequality—poverty, lack of educational attainment, renting versus owning a home— “correlates with a higher risk for sexual assault.” While privileged members of society can and do experience rape, Rennison made an important point in her analysis: differentiations in social power can perpetuate a dynamic of abuse between victims and perpetrators more quickly.

Scores of young Sri Lankan women guest workers have been sexually abused and repeatedly raped, over the course of years, while sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, Hanes, Target, Macy's, Lands' End and other labels at the Classic Factory in Jordan.

Scores of young Sri Lankan women guest workers have been sexually abused and repeatedly raped, over the course of years, while sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, Hanes, Target, Macy’s, Lands’ End and other labels at the Classic Factory in Jordan.

Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that in 2011, the ‘Classic Brands Factory Complexes’ in Jordan, employed by Target, Walmart, and Macy’s, came under scrutiny when several sexual assault cases against their managers reached the international news media. According to the Huffington Post‘s coverage of the 2011 scandal, many victims of these offences existed in a non-consensual relationship with their managers, where their willingness to submit their bodies ensured their continued employment.

According to the Huffington Post, the victims of these abuses did not report their assaults initially, for fear of losing their jobs. Sweatshops in the Global South have faced similar controversies with sexual exploitation, mirroring those in the East. In 2013, a Haitian woman named Suzette Pierre spoke about her experiences with sexual abuse from her manager, while working in a garment factory from 2003-2005. She eventually reached a breaking point when two supervisors additionally demanded her to sleep with them. This led to her quitting her job. She has been unemployed since, as she was “blacklisted” from other textile factories in the area by her former employer. She has four children to support. Though Pierre was evidently courageous in her decision to leave, many women understandably cannot take the same jeopardy with their employment.


The West is also not immune to its own perpetuation of sexual abuse in textile factories. An article written by Al Jazeera in 2015 drew attention to the garment industry in Los Angeles, where primarily young Latina, undocumented women were employed to sew clothes that bore a “made in the U.S.A” label on them. The women working at these garment factory reported suffering poor working conditions, and many women also reported cases of sexual abuse. The extent of these violations were unspecified by the article.

The global reach of sexual abuse in sweatshops illustrates how pervasive and complicated this problem is, and how economic stability becomes entangled with issues of sexual violence. To truly halt the sexual exploitation of textile workers, employees must feel secure enough to leave their jobs and find alternate employment, should they feel pressure to enter a relationship of sexual exchange for their wages. To change the labour practices in sweatshops does not only improve a worker’s living conditions. More likely than not, changing the work practices of sweatshops grants employees agency over their bodies.

And yet, ethnocentrism in western society perpetuates the idea that sexual assaults in sweatshops result from their posts in the East and Global South. In reality, the inflammatory language that is used to characterize gender politics in these places detracts from sexual violence that arises from economic vulnerability. While many articles appropriately focused on the “code of silence” that Walmart, Target, and other major American brands adopted during the 2011 abuse scandals in Jordan, multiple articles gratuitously directed attention upon the accused manager’s “Sri Lankan” heritage. Though subtle, the racialized discourse used when reporting this issue raises a red herring concerning the cause of these assaults. The East become the villains of these crimes, and the crimes’ locations, in sweatshops, become incidental. While the gender politics in the East and Global South are indeed complicated, to ignore the ways that economic vulnerability leads to sexual abuse is to overlook a primary (if not the primary) catalyst of sexual assault in sweatshops. Stopping sexual assault in sweatshops is not simply a matter of changing location. The sooner that ties between poverty and sexual exploitation are investigated, the more quickly the overlying structures that perpetuate this ill-treatment in sweatshops may be broken down.

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About the Author

Sharon Kashani is a Masters of Arts in English Literature recipient from the University of Toronto. Upon applying for graduate school, Sharon was honoured to receive the major federal award for humanities doctoral programs in Canada, The Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS-SSHRC Masters Scholarship. Her SSHRC proposal, entitled Gender and Sexuality in Novelistic Works, described a project that aimed to chart the subversive tendencies of women writers through their depictions of sexuality and gender in novels. Most recently, Sharon has completed her Masters and is excited to now be writing for Trusted Clothes.

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