Even though wealthy, white men have been the primary focus of the #metoo and Times Up movements, poor and working-class men are just as responsible for sexual harassment and violence. I was sex trafficked from infancy until early adolescence in Appalachia in the 1970’s and 1980’s by a poor, male family member who also physically and sexually abused me. (This is a photo of me with our cat Shnooks around 1976.)
We were white trash, and he sold me for sex to white, working-class men – primarily truckers driving on a nearby highway – by “advertising” via CB radio. These men, including my exploiter, often told me I deserved the sexual violence I endured. My role and “duty” as a “white trash” girl was to be bought and sold for sex by men who felt they had the right to use my body as entertainment. A strict, intergenerational class hierarchy is a cornerstone of Appalachian culture: your family determines your status. I was trapped and I was expected to follow these rules.
My exploiter told me, “This happened to me, so it’s happening to you.” He had grown up hopelessly poor with alcoholic parents and had also been sexually abused. My exploiter, and other family members, chose to pass down our family’s legacy of violence instead of protecting me. They all called me “bad” and “dirty” as if I brought on the violence myself.
I was recently reminded of this victim-blaming when I heard supporters of Judge Roy Moore’s state his female accusers knew what they were doing by engaging with the powerful former prosecutor when they were teenagers. These supporters – many of them female – did not allow his accusers to be victims and chose to believe a sexual predator with a privileged social position. Helping a predator maintain his social power allowed them to maintain theirs. This is especially important to women who already have less social power, especially in Appalachia.
Thankfully, the majority of Alabama voters did not agree with this victim-blaming stance and Moore lost the election. His loss is another clear signal that the #metoo and Times Up movements are energizing a shift in power to support and believe victims of sexual harassment and violence that has been building for decades. Male and female victims are speaking up and men are refusing to enable predatory male behavior by looking – or voting – the other way.
In my experience with Appalachia, “power” is the common theme linking class expectations and sexual violence, which is about gaining physical and emotional power over a “weaker” person. The men who purchased me had more power than me and my exploiter due to higher class status. But my male exploiter had power over me because I was a girl, which gave him a sense of permission to abuse and sell me.
I am not saying all white, poor and middle-class Appalachian men are pedophiles or sexual predators: I am saying the region’s class hierarchy made me vulnerable to sexual violence and sex trafficking. My exploiter saw an opportunity to gain the social and economic power he had did not have as a poor man by selling me to for sex to middle-class men who felt they had the right to buy me. Their superior class status gave them permission to use my “white trash” female body for their entertainment, and my exploiter profited by handing me over.
I started speaking out against my exploiter after I charged out of Appalachia in my teens. Subservience was supposed to be my fate, but I refused to comply. Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance says disconnecting from unhealthy Appalachian social norms and family relationships is important for “self-preservation.” I needed to move away from my family members who said I made up this story in order to demand money from them to pay for college. Nothing could be further from the truth. I did make up my mind to speak out against my exploiter to help myself and all victims of sexual violence to heal.
Sometimes I am nervous to speak out against my exploiter for fear that he or my family will harm or attempt to discredit me. But I am now more outraged than I am scared. The #metoo and Times Up movements remind me I am not alone and that we are causing change. The repudiation of Roy Moore in classically conservative Appalachian state gives me hope that some of those beliefs that helped shape the monster that my exploiter became are finally becoming a thing of the past.