Ten percent of low-income women who took part in a new pilot study said their landlords had sexually harassed them.
The harassment included landlords asking them to trade rent for sex and subjecting them to lewd comments, home invasions, and indecent exposure.
During the past year, thousands of women have shared their stories about sexual harassment and assault as part of the Me Too movement. The new study shows the problem does not only occur with superiors in the workplace.
The randomly-selected women taking part in the study, which appears in the Missouri Law Review, were almost all in their 20s when the incidents occurred, and they were disproportionately likely to be minorities.
“While the sample was limited, I think the results of this study should be a wake-up call to policymakers,” says author Rigel Oliveri, a professor in the School of Law at the University of Missouri. “Low-income women are easy prey for landlords who seek to exploit them for sex.”
The women interviewed in the study were all living in private rental housing, and only one woman reported the harassment to police. The others said they did not tell anyone because they feared jeopardizing their housing or they did not know where to direct a complaint.
Oliveri, who interviewed 100 women for the study, says that although it’s difficult to generalize the results broadly, she believes a similar pattern would emerge with a larger sample. According to Census data, more than 16 million women are living in poverty in the United States.
“The next step is to conduct a survey like this on the larger level so that we have a clearer picture of what is actually happening,” she says. “Reliable statistics on sexual harassment in housing are elusive. Not only is under-reporting rampant, but there has never been a comprehensive nationwide study of the issue.”
Oliveri hopes that better understanding the scale of the problem will help lawmakers enact laws that provide greater landlord oversight, which most jurisdictions only lightly regulate. She also hopes that work like hers will lead to strengthened enforcement and more public housing options for low-income women.
“The Me Too movement has sparked an important national discussion about the prevalence of sexual harassment in American society and the ways in which powerful people can use their positions both to exploit their vulnerable targets and to escape the consequences of their actions,” she says.
“This conversation is a necessary starting point, but the focus on high-status workplaces overlooks other contexts in which sexual harassment occurs.”
Source: University of Missouri