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Absent men: paid domestic work, sexual exploitation and male domination in the family in the USA

Catherine Weiss, RMIT University

Paid domestic work is a significant source of employment worldwide, particularly of women (at a minimum estimate, it comprised 7.5% of all paid female employment in 2011), and sexual abuse is commonly reported by women engaging in this activity. Despite this, little discussion of the sexual abuse of domestic workers as a specific phenomenon exists. This paper aims to advance this discussion, and is the first to provide a theoretical analysis of the sexual abuse of domestic workers within families in the US.

Domestic and caring work is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy in the US, as in many other parts of the world. A very large proportion of domestic workers are migrants and/or women of colour, particularly from Latin America but also from the Caribbean, Asia and elsewhere. Many domestic workers are undocumented, while the visa status of others is dependent on their employment, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse. These workers are also among the most likely to live in the homes of their employers (“live-in”). Live-in domestic workers in the US and globally are the worst paid, work the longest hours in the worst working conditions and are most subject to abuse. Finally, the experiences of domestic workers in the US today have been heavily shaped by the history and legacy of slavery in this country. Following the official abolition of slavery, most US domestic workers were black women, and the idea that poor women of colour are those who should perform the “dirty work” in American society persists until today.

Recent studies of the experiences of domestic workers have tended to focus on the relationships between domestic workers and female employers. This body of literature has been important in revealing the conditions of abuse and exploitation in which a large proportion of domestic workers live, and has explored the phenomenon of power differentials between women as a result of race, class and citizenship status. Female employers do perpetrate a large amount of the abuse suffered by domestic workers. However, this perspective tends to hide the fact that domestic workers, particularly those who live in the homes of their employers, are plunged into the patriarchal institution of the contemporary family. This too affects their experiences. Sexual abuse of workers by male employers is one of the clearest manifestations of this fact.

Consequently, my article examines the relationship between the context of patriarchal employing families and the sexual exploitation of domestic workers. I consider the male-dominated family to be one of a number of patriarchal structures that interact to create the specific form of patriarchy existing in the US today. It is telling, I think, that a small number of analyses of the effects of patriarchal family structures on domestic workers exist for non-Western societies such as Taiwan, Japan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The lack of attention to this topic when addressing Western contexts can be seen as symptomatic of a tendency by Western scholars to see patriarchy as existing “elsewhere”. Hence, my article takes the concept of the western patriarchal family seriously, tracing a brief history of its existence and the place of servants and slaves within it. I then look at work by second-wave feminists (such as Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard) who provide a useful critique of male domination in the family and provide evidence to demonstrate that inequality between men, women and children within the family is still a fact of life in the US today.

The sexual abuse of domestic workers takes place within this context of male domination within the family. Historically – and to a lesser extent today as well – the economic and social power of male household heads over other household members included the right to sexual access to those household members. I suggest that this may provide an explanation for the present-day sexual exploitation of domestic workers, as well as the invisibility of this form of abuse.

In considering a theoretical analysis of this phenomenon, I argue against seeing this as a form of “work” performed by domestic workers, an interpretation that has occasionally been suggested by some scholars and which follows logically from the work of some others. We do not consider sexual relations with children or the rape of wives within the family as “work”; rather, this is rightly seen as sexual abuse. This should also be the case for domestic workers. Instead, I follow Carole Pateman in suggesting that the sexual abuse of domestic workers – as of wives – is a manifestation of male sex-right in the private sphere. An complementary analysis can be found in the work of Colette Guillaumin, who argues for the recognition of private and collective appropriation of the class of women by the class of men. I suggest that both Pateman and Guillaumin’s analyses can be usefully extended to include domestic workers.

Domestic workers’ “workplace” is the private home. An analysis of the patriarchal dynamics of this environment is central to changing domestic workers’ experiences and to reducing the exploitation and abuse that they so frequently suffer. I hope that this article can contribute to achieving this goal, and raise awareness of the situation of these workers more generally.

In April 2017 my paper “Absent men: paid domestic work, sexual exploitation and male domination in the family in the USA” was published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics (link to paper)

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