The Erasure of Women of Color in the Me Too Movement: Impact of the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline

The Me Too movement has stirred the pot in Hollywood and has helped bring transparency to sexual harassment and assault that happens within the workplace and everyday life. While the Me Too movement has swelled after Alyssa Milano’s involvement, it began with Tarana Burke, a woman of color (Onwuachi-Willig, 2018). Women of color have seemingly been left out of the mainstream Me Too movement, which is especially problematic considering that women of color are more vulnerable to sexual harassment than white women and are less likely to be believed when they report harassment, assault, and rape (Onwuachi-Willig, 2018).

The abuse and harassment the Me Too movement calls out is not only in the workplace, and does not only happen to adults. Childhood sexual abuse is appallingly prevalent in our society. Van Der Kolk asserts that child abuse is the nation’s largest public health problem (2014). The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study importantly found that negative experiences in childhood are common (Van Der Kolk, 2014). For girls with an ACE score of 0 (little to no negative experiences), the prevalence of rape in adulthood was 5%, but for girls with an ACE score of four or more, the prevalence of rape in adulthood was up to 33% (Van Der Kolk, 2014). Therefore, it is likely that those affected by the Me Too movement have long term histories of sexual abuse, but the conversation focuses on elite workplaces.

One potential reason for the exclusion of these voices is that they are simply not around to be included. Perhaps even more troubling than the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and adult rape and harassment, is our punitive response to survivors. Sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of involvement in the juvenile justice system (Saar, Epstein, Rosenthal, & Vafa. 2015). A study conducted in Oregon in 2006, found that 93% of girls in the juvenile justice system had experienced sexual or physical abuse, and 76% had experienced at least one incident of sexual abuse by the age of 13 (Saar et al., 2015). Girls of color are much more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system, Black girls are 20% more likely to be detained, and three times as likely to be referred to court; Native American/Alaska Native girls are 50% more likely to be detained and 1.4 times more likely to be referred to court than white girls (Myers, 2016). The charges that call for these actions are minor, girls account for 35% of arrests for disorderly conduct, 37% for simple assault, 38% for domestic battery, 40% of liquor violations, 29% of curfew violations, and 76% of arrests for prostitution (Myers, 2016). The charges of these arrests are closely linked to sexual abuse, curfew violations for running away from abuse, prostitution to survive away from the home, substance use to cope with the trauma, and assault as self-defense against sexual abuse. These statistics highlight the disturbing trend called the sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Young women, especially those of color, are being punished for their abuse, and retraumatized, rather than treated.

Van Der Kolk discusses many effective treatment methods for persons who have experienced childhood sexual abuse including, yoga, EMDR, and IFS. Unfortunately, our systematic response ignores these options in favor of incarceration, despite what is known about development. Van Der Kolk explains that girls who have experienced sexual abuse have an entirely different developmental pathway, their biology is up against them, leading them to overreact or numb out (pg. 165, 2014). While incarcerated, girls are further traumatized through invasive search procedures and restraints, and are subject to potential abuse from correctional officers. A study of incarcerated girls found that 46 percent of participants reported that the staff, programs, and treatment in county juvenile justice facilities did not help them deal with past trauma in their lives; 4 percent said their time in county facilities did more harm than good in dealing with past trauma (Saar et al., 2015). The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) holds that, “[m]any characteristics of the detention environment (seclusion, staff insensitivity, loss of privacy) can exacerbate negative feelings and feelings of loss of control among girls, resulting in suicide attempts and self-mutilation” (Saar et al., 2015).

The NCTSN has found that 70% of girls with juvenile justice involvement had been exposed to some form of trauma, and over 65% had experienced symptoms of PTSD (Saar et al., 2015). Further, 80% of justice involved girls have mental health diagnoses, but mental health screenings are rarely administered, and there is a severe lack of services, only half of youth are in facilities that even offer services (Saar et al., 2015). Trauma based interventions have been effective post release at decreasing recidivism (37% less likely), and reducing teen pregnancy (only 26.9% of those who received the intervention became pregnant at a young age, compared to 46.9% of those who did not) (Saar et al., 2015). The justice system does not meet health needs for expecting girls, or any gynecological or obstetric care (Saar et al., 2015).

The Me Too movement cannot be effective if it continues to exclude the voices of girls and women of color, and those in the sexual abuse to prison pipeline. The great successes the Me Too movement has had in creating transparency should be shared with those experiencing the sexual abuse to prison pipeline. The moralistic, punitive approach we hold towards these girls and women must be changed to stop the re-triggering and further traumatization of these girls.


Myers, A. (2016, June 22). What You Need to Know About the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.   Retrieved from        to-prison-pipeline/

Onwuachi-Willig, A. (2018). What About #UsToo?: The Invisibility of Race in the #MeToo Movement. The Yale Journal Law Forum. Retrieved from   

Saar, M. S., Epstein, R., Rosenthal, L., & Vafa, Y. (2015). The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline:        The Girls’ Story (Rep. No. 031215). Retrieved          pipeline-girls-story

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of          trauma. Penguin


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