Over the past year, the “#MeToo” movement has exposed serial sexual predators in corporate and other settings and has given voice to those who have been victims of sexual abuse. The movement has empowered and given voices to women who previously were ashamed of and feared speaking out. The television and film industries have led the way in the “#MeToo” movement by uncovering the darker side to fame. Although most victims who have stepped forward are women, men have also been subjected to sexual abuse. The movement also took hold at Michigan State University where much still is unknown on how Larry Nassar, an osteopathic physician on campus, could prey on hundreds of female athletes, including children. Despite the surge the movement has caused, little attention has focused on the factors that contribute not only to sexual misconduct, but also to the silencing of victims. Studies on the sexual assault of farmworkers highlight the underlying factors that lead to sexual abuse. Farmworkers are vulnerable, impoverished, under-paid, and isolated due to cultural and linguistic barriers, not to mention citizenship status. These factors together leave farmworker women, the large majority being Latinas, susceptible to sexual abuse and exploitation.
Undeterred by low wages averaging $11,000 a year, undocumented immigrants secure employment as farmworkers in the US out of necessity, demand, ability, and the political context of farm labor that facilitates the illegal hiring of undocumented workers. Yet, the low wages that farmworkers earn make them susceptible to sexual abuse by labor contractors and others who take advantage of their desperate situations. Conservative figures estimate that about 50 percent of farmworkers in the US are immigrants, while other figures suggest that over 70 percent of them are unauthorized to work in the US. An overwhelming number of Americans consider farm work to be undesirable labor. Foreign laborers are consequently needed to tend to fields and harvest crops, and since most have backgrounds in farm labor in their home countries, this makes them a capable workforce. Motivated by extreme necessity and poverty these workers enter the US to meet labor demands. By this point in their journey, some workers have already been exploited, both monetarily and sexually. These workers are also susceptible to violence or threats of violence and live vulnerable lives of fear.
The fields are isolated places where women fall victim to sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. In 2013, PBS’s Frontline featured the documentary Rape in the Fields that depicted the brutal rape culture that exists in farm labor. The film describes the “fields de calzones” or “fields of panties” or “green motels” where women are subjected to sexual harassment and abuse, including quid pro quo demands for sex in order for them to gain or maintain employment. Like most victims of sexual assault, these women are fearful of not being believed of being abused. However, unlike other groups, undocumented Latinas are hesitant to reach out to law enforcement officials out of fear of deportation and or violent retaliation by their perpetrators. Language and cultural barriers, along with unfamiliarity with US law, perpetuate the silencing of sexual assault victims in the fields.
Still, sexual abuse in the fields is not limited to women, as children and men also fall victims to sex crimes. In socially conservative Latino culture, conversations about sex or sexual behaviors are often taboo, creating an inclination to not speak of what otherwise could be considered embarrassing, shameful, and unvirtuous behavior, further leading to low reporting levels of sexual abuse. In addition, young Latino males also deal with similar vulnerabilities in which issues of machismo and homosexuality shun victims of sexual abuse and lead to low reporting levels.
The Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Alliance of Female Farmworkers), an advocacy group, was established in 2011 with the aims to provide aid and resources to farmworker women. Bringing attention to the struggles of female farmworkers, this advocacy group has identified sexual harassment and sexual abuse as its top concerns. Nevertheless, to fully confront sexual abuse of farmworkers, labor, wage, and immigration issues must be addressed as well. Sexual abuse and exploitation will not go away until the economic and situational vulnerability of farmworkers is addressed. Americans must stop taking farmworkers for granted as through their hard work they help feed the nation while keeping the oldest industry in this country alive.
The farming industry in North America has historically relied on exploiting vulnerable people for its survival. Whether it was indentured servants, slaves, immigrants, braceros, or poor Americans, and now undocumented immigrants and H-2A workers, manual labor in the agricultural industry has been subsidized by individuals regarded as aliens and, to many, as subhuman, thereby exposing them to inequality and injustices. Until the humanity of farmworkers is recognized, affirmed, and protected, their physical and sexual exploitation will continue.