Anti-Oppression Theory

(from CALCASA‘s Support for Survivors training manual)

SEXUAL ASSAULT and DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS A TACTIC OR TOOL OF OPPRESSION.

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Sign for "Colored" waiting room, Georgia, 1943. Image via Wikipedia

Most frequently, sexual assault is used by men to dominate women and by adults to dominate children. Sexual assault has also been used as a weapon of oppression against people of color, people with disabilities, and lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and gay men. Because sexual assault is a weapon of oppression, we must understand oppression if we hope to end sexual violence. This chapter examines oppression, explains how different forms of Oppression work together, and explores the ways that oppression may stand in the. way of efforts to end sexual violence.
Oppression and What Keeps it Going
Oppression is the systematic and pervasive mistreatment of individuals on the basis of their membership in a disadvantaged group. Institutional and interpersonal imbalances in power contribute to this mistreatment. Oppression involves the systematic use of power to marginalize, exploit, silence, discriminate against, invalidate, deny, dismiss, and/or not recognize the complete humanness of those are members of a disadvantaged group.

In the United States, there are systems of oppression based so race, class, gender (and gender identity) sexual orientation, religion, ability, age, body size, and citizenship. Privilege is given to those who are white, male, middle-class or “well off” economically, heterosexual and not transgender, Protestant, able-bodied and of able mind, middle-aged, thin, and a U.S. citizen. This means that some groups of people are oppressed, and some are not. For example, men, as a group, are not oppressed. Men do not face systematic and pervasive mistreatment because they are male. An individual man may face oppression based on another identity characteristic such as race or disability. We all have multiple identities, because we all have a gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. This means we can be privileged because of one identity while at the same time facing oppression because of another.

Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination support oppression and keep it going. Stereotypes are generalizations about groups of people. They do not take into account the differences within groups. Like stereotypes, prejudice is based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Prejudice is a preference or bias toward or against a group. Both stereotypes and prejudice have negative or detrimental effects. They assert that groups of individuals are all the same (that is, “Those people are….,” “That group can’t….,” “They all act…”). They fail to recognize uniqueness, which is an important part of every person’s humanity. It is true that prejudice and stereotypes are only attitudes, but these destructive attitudes, opinions, feelings, and ideas shape our actions and contribute to discrimination.

Discrimination is active; it is preferential or biased treatment based on stereotypes, prejudice, and/or historical practices. It results in unequal access and/or representation. Oppressive systems and ideologies — such as racism and white supremacy, sexism and male supremacy, and classism and capitalism — are maintained through discrimination. Institutionalized oppression involves enforcing discrimination in such a way that the status quo is maintained (for example, when all the secretaries are women and all the supervisors are men) and inequality is made to seem legitimate (for example, when it is said that the workplace is structured this way because women who apply for supervisory  positions lack the skills to hold these jobs but do possess the skills to be secretaries).

When oppression is enforced through everyday interaction between individuals, this is interpersonal oppression. Interpersonal oppression may take place in a variety of ways. For example, a shop clerk might follow Black customers, expecting them to steal and making them uncomfortable. Interpersonal oppression may occur among friends and relatives as well as among strangers. For example, family members may psychologically and/or physically abuse elder or disabled relatives. Interpersonal oppression is often supported by institutional oppression. For example, if a lesbian teen is harassed by her classmates because she is a lesbian, this is interpersonal oppression. If school authorities allow or condone the harassment, that is institutional oppression.

Discrimination can take many forms, including unfair hiring practices, white flight (from cities to suburbs) and residential segregation, the educational “tracking” of students (college track, not college track), and even violence. In fact, many people refer to violence (and the threat of violence) as a weapon of oppression because it protects oppression.

In doing anti-rape and anti-domestic violence work, it is important to have a clear understanding of oppression and how it functions in the United States. Oppression, a political term often used in the anti-violence movement and other progressive U.S. social movements, must maintain its sharpness, its clarity; otherwise,  it will be stretched to meaninglessness (that is, everyone calling them selves oppressed, regardless of their actual positions of privilege).

Oppression is an abuse of power by a dominant group. Other interactions among people may be hurtful or unfair but not oppression. As a social movement, our goal is to challenge abuses of power—more precisely sexual assault and domestic violence, a specific power abuse—and we require language that can articulate why abuses of power occur.

Making the Connections

Audre Lorde writes, “There is no hierarchy of oppression.” What does this Black lesbian feminist, poet-activist mean? Ultimately she is saying that she will not choose between her identities or favor one identity over another. Any movement that fails to recognize her multiple identities or that asks her to recognize only her Blackness or her gender or her lesbian identity is a movement in which she refuses to participate. In fact, Lorde argues that such a movement holds the seeds of its own failure and destruction.

If we look deeply, we will see that violence – in the form of sexual assault, battering, lynching, genocide, and other hate crimes – is a tactic of all forms of oppression. Thus, violence is one area where all forms of oppression intersect. And, in fact, acts of bias violence, or hate violence often involve more than one form of oppression. For example, lynching – most obviously an expression of racism – often included bizarre sexual mutilation of the victim. It seems clear that the white male perpetrators of such violence where expressing not only their racist ideology of white supremacy, but also their sexist fantasy of masculinity.

By the same token, rape – most obviously an expression of sexism – also involves other forms of oppression. When women, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are threatened with rape when they show affection toward other women, we see homophobia (and transphobia) acting in concert with sexism. This all-too-common occurrence is a manifestation of these forms of oppression interacting with and bolstering each other. Suzanne Pharr, who co-chaired the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and its Lesbian Task Force, calls homophobia a weapon of sexism and connects homophobia and heterosexism to sexual and domestic violence perpetrated against women:

How many of us have heard battered women’s stories about their abusers calling them lesbians or calling the battered women’s shelter a lesbian place? The abuser is not so much labeling a her a lesbian as he is warning her that she is choosing to be outside society’s protection (of male institutions), and she therefore should choose to be with him, with what is “right.” He recognizes the power in woman-bonding and fears loss of her servitude and loyalty: the potential loss of his control. The concern is not affectional/sexual identity; the concern is disloyalty. The labeling is a threat. . . . Our concern with homophobia, then, is not just that it damages lesbians, but that it damages all women. We recognize homophobia as a means of controlling women, and we recognize the connection between control and violence.2

The intersection of oppressions also affects how acts of bias violence are perceived. The feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw notes that rape is “racialized.”3 In the United States, rape has been historically racialized in the image of the white female victim and the Black male rapist, and our social problem of rape has grown to be racialized in the rapist as a man of color. This does two things. First, women of color are absolutely invisible in this equation. Women of color come to be seen as “unrapeable.” Second, white men are protected by this mythology. They are let off the hook; they are not seen as perpetrating rape. But we know that 90% of sexual assaults occur between individuals of the same race and socioeconomic class.4 We also know that in 84% of all rapes, the survivor knows their rapist.5 Such a racialized image of rape obscures these facts as well as the everyday attacks that white women experience at the hands of white men. Therefore, this racist mythology harms, not only women and men of color, but also white women. Here, racism and sexism work together to hurt everyone but white men. Donna Landerman clearly articulates why it is of utmost importance that the anti-violence movement be anti-racist:

From both an ideological and practical point of view, it is essential for the anti-rape movement to investigate racism and incorporate an anti-racist perspective, because racism in major ways both causes and defines rape. If we are to successfully aid women who have been raped, prevent rape, and eventually eliminate rape, it is necessary to understand and attack rape in all its forms and at all its roots. Racism and cultural and class oppression are some of those roots of rape, and lead rape to take different forms in the lives of women of various races, cultures, and classes. 6

Angela Davis insightfully links rape to the capitalist class structure. She asserts that:

those men who wield power in the economic and political realm are encouraged by the class structure of capitalism to become agents of sexual exploitation. Their authority (within this capitalist structure) guards them against punishment in all circles except one: they may not violate a woman of their own standing… With this single exception, the man of authority can rape as he will, for he is only exercising his authority. 7

The highly publicized William Kennedy Smith rape case, which involved a rich and influential man for a well-known political family and a less-affluent woman, shows that there is validity to what Angela Davis argues. But it may be inaccurate to say absolutely that economically privileged men cannot rape women of their economic class with impunity. Nonetheless, the power of Davis’s analysis is her awareness that capitalism is connected to violence against women.

Capitalism is based on competition rather than cooperation and therefore promotes conflict. In addition, capitalism has exploitation of one group of people by another “built in,” because profits can be achieved only by the exploitation of workers and/or consumers. Capitalism treats workers like objects to be used just as many perpetrators of violence treat women and children like sexual objects to be used or consumed. Modern capitalism, in its advertising, also treats women like sexual objects to be used to sell products. Capitalism teaches those who are or who aspire to be of the owning class to dominate, exploit, and use workers. These are the same dynamics that the anti-rape and anti-domestic violence movement has identified as contributing to sexual and domestic violence. And arguably it is capitalism that encourages us to believe that poor and working-class men are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence than economically privileged men. Classism works to the benefit of those at the top of the hierarchy, protecting them from being held accountable for the sexual violence they perpetrate against women of their economic class and against those women who have less economic privilege.

All of this demonstrates that considering sexism and male supremacy as the only important forms of oppression involved in sexual assault and domestic violence is not only inaccurate by self-defeating. This is, in part, because we cannot neatly separate sexism from homophobia and transphobia or sexism from racism or from classism.  Over time, forms of oppression have become intertwined. Movements that fail to take this into account cannot fully succeed and may cause more harm. I think Kimberlé Crenshaw, writing about the anti-rape movement, says it best: “This movement inadvertently participates in exclusionary politics because some of us fail to comprehend the anti-violence movement as an anti-oppression movement.”8

Thinking about all of the different forms of oppression and how they work together can feel overwhelming and depressing. With so many forces against us, how can we hope to make a difference? Although the task is challenging, it is not impossible. From the anti-lynching movement in the United States to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, history is filled with examples of women leading and contributing to successful collective efforts at social change. Working with and learning about other activists can be educational, inspirational, and transforming.

Oppression and the Anti-Violence Movement

Because oppression is, by nature, pervasive, it is not surprising that social change organizations – including the anti-rape and anti-domestic violence movement – are sometimes hampered by oppression. Obviously, those in power seek to hold on to their power, so the oppressive forces against which social change organizations struggle often strike back. “Backlash” is an example of that. Less obviously, but still importantly, social change organizations sometimes have internal problems rooted in one form of oppression or another.

As social change agents of the anti-violence movement, we recognize the prevalence of oppression in our communities, whether it be sexism, racism, hatred of immigrants, heterosexism and transphobia, Antisemitism, anti-Islamic sentiment, or some combination of these or other forms of oppression. And we recognize the existence of a backlash, a reactionary response to our social change work. This backlash stems from the unwillingness of institutions and individuals to give up power and privilege.

Often it is easier for us to see oppression “out there,” beyond our social movement or our agencies. But oppression is insidious and does find its way into our organizations. For example, a white-dominated organization might neglect the needs of survivors of color, or a primarily heterosexual agency might ask its lesbian staff members to “act straight.” Like many other institutions, anti-rape and anti-domestic violence agencies may be inaccessible to people with disabilities or unfair in their treatment of workers.

One example of resistance to institutional  and interpersonal oppression within social change organizations is the work of the Ann Arbor Coalition for Community Unity. This Michigan-based  coalition formed in 1994 in the wake of a poorly handled serial rapist investigation and committed itself to simultaneously addressing sexism and racism. During its work, it issued a statement to feminist agencies in the Ann Arbor area that stressed the importance of addressing abuses of power within women’s agencies. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by the women of the coalition:

Audre Lorde told us that when we, as women, fall back on the same tactics that the patriarchy uses to control us, tactics of sexism, racism, silencing, and dismissal, we become self-defeating as a movement. Instead of working to end the conditions that create and perpetuate violence against women, we enable them. Every time we silence other women’s criticism of our work, or punish dissent, we commit an act of violence. Violence, after all, is the abusive or unjust exercise of power. And when we perpetuate this kind of emotional and spiritual violence against women within our movement, we condition women to accept the physical and sexual violence we are fighting daily.9

We have to meet all forms of oppression in our communities and in our movement head on in order to progress and to ultimately end rape and domestic violence. This means that we cannot write enough about how racism, classism, heterosexism and transphobia and other forms of oppression reinforce sexism. This means that we cannot educate enough about how violence is rooted in oppression. And this means we must act!

Notes: (the books cited are older, yes, but are classics)

1. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumanberg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1984), 20.

2. Suzanne Pharr, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (Little Rock, AR: Chardon Press, 1988).

3. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The Marginalization of Sexual Violence Against Black Women,” National Coalition Against Sexual Assault Journal 2, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-6, 15.

4. Angela Davis, Women Race, and Class (New York: Random House, 1981).

5. Mary Koss, “Date Rape: The Story of an Epidemic and Those Who Deny It,” Ms Magazine (October 1985).

6. Donna Landerman, “Breaking the Racism Barrier: White Anti-Racism Work,” in Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, ed Pam McAllister (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1982).

7. Angela Davis, “Rape, Racism and the Capitalist Setting,” Black Scholar 9, no. 2 (1978): 24-30.

8. Crenshaw, “Marginalization of Sexual Violence Against Black Women,” 6.

9. Ann Arbor Coalition for Community Unity; Open Letter to Women’s Community-based Organizations in the Ann Arbor Area, 1996.

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