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Preventing Sexual Violence And Supporting Survivors Is A Community Responsibility

The title of this post sums up the position that many have taken in efforts to prevent sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, incest, stalking, sexual harassment) and to support survivors of violence.  Such a stance goes against two problematic positions, one hostile and one supportive to survivors of violence.

  1. Hostile Victim-Blaming: Unfortunately, many people lay blame for sexual violence in the hands of victims of violence themselves.  Violent acts, such as sexual assault, are seen as incidents that are preventable simply by changing one’s behavior, interactions with others, appearance, and mentality.  First, survivors of violence, especially women, face the dilemma of providing proof that they have been victimized.  Second, if they are believed, they must provide enough evidence to convince others that such violence was not somehow the result of being sexually promiscuous, dressing in revealing clothing, giving “mixed signals” in interactions (sexual and non-sexual) with one’s attacker, drinking too much, and so forth.
  2. Supportive Victim-Blaming: Indeed, many are concerned with eliminating sexual violence for good.  But, efforts to prevent violence, like the above, center on the victims of violence themselves.  As an online op-ed at Ebony magazine points out, too much sexual violence prevention work provides potential and past victims of violence suggestions to protect themselves: don’t walk alone at night in unfamiliar places, tell a friend where you are going, watch your drinks at parties, don’t go home with strangers.  While this position differs from the above in its concern for survivors of violence, it too lays responsibility for sexual violence on the victims themselves.

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

With estimates denoting that 17-25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are survivors of violence (experiencing sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes), it is undeniable that a substantial portion of the US population is directly or indirectly affected by violence.  The numbers alone point to a larger, systemic problem that cannot be reduced to the individual motivations and actions of every instance of sexual violence.  Yet, there are many other social factors that contribute to making sexual violence a standard component of our social world, as well.

  • Myths and stereotypes: One barrier to acknowledging and addressing sexual violence and supporting victims of violence is the inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, “information” that pervades our culture regarding gender, sex, sexuality, and violence.  Sexual violence myths include assuming all victims are women, attacked by a lone stranger (a man) in a ski mask lurking in the bushes.  But, stereotypes outside of sexual violence also contribute to a false understanding of sexual violence: men with uncontrollable sexual appetites (“they can’t help themselves“), women who have or should have little interest in sex, strong and aggressive men and weak and passive women, LGBT people as sexual aggressors, etc.
  • Exclusive focus on victims: Even in prevention advocacy and research, we place so much attention on survivors of violence — who are they, what happened to them, how many are there.  Despite extreme underreporting of sexual violence because of stereotypes, the feeling that no one will believe you, fear of retaliation by one’s attacker, and so forth, we have some sense of the demographics of survivors of violence.  But, we know little about perpetrators of sexual violence, with most information coming from reports about those who have been convicted of sexual violence.  One important fact, surprising to some, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are not men lurking in bushes at night, nor are they otherwise innocent men who got carried away once in sexual activity; perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders (of both sexual violence and non-sexual crimes) and often know the person they attack.
  • Misplaced responsibility: Too often, potential and past victims of sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility for such violence and any efforts to prevent violence.  We, as a society, generally fail to place such responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And, when we do, we narrowly focus on them, while ignoring others’ responsibilities to prevent sexual violence and to support survivors.  Many advocates and researchers are beginning to promote the notion of bystander intervention, which calls upon others who witness violence to intervene.  And, while we must push to never see another case where bystanders stand idly by as someone is attacked, our efforts to encourage bystander intervention also include promoting ways to change the culture that condones sexual violence: challenging gender stereotypes and gender socialization in general; teaching about sexual violence; teaching about sexual violence as expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, and so on.
  • Exclusive focus on gender: Another barrier to comprehensively understanding sexual violence is focusing exclusively on the role of gender: men rape women.  What is missing from this narrow analysis, besides overlooking male survivors of violence, is attention to the ways that sexual violence intersects with race and ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, class, body size and shape, age, nativity, and ability.  Attending to these systems of oppression does not mean only documenting demographic characteristics of the survivors and perpetrators of violence.  It also means assessing how sexual violence may operate as manifestations of these systems of power, for sexual violence itself is an expression of power over another person.  For example, in many countries, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are raped by men in an effort to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
  • Ignoring the role of society: Given the pervasive problem of sexual violence in society, many advocates and academics have argued for thinking about sexual violence more broadly.  As noted above, we too often lay blame on individuals, especially survivors of violence, while ignoring the roles that communities, social institutions, and culture play.  Some have pointed out that we live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence — we live in a “rape culture.”  Various institutions, like colleges, the military, and the medical system, are implicated in their failure to prevent sexual violence, support survivors of violence, and punish perpetrators of violence.  Some have argued that these institutions are structured in ways that make sexual violence invisible and potentially even promote violence.

Indeed, given the complexity and multiple layers and dimensions of the problem of sexual violence, it seems like a tall task to take on.  But, in order to protect everyone from sexual violence and to support survivors of violence, we must address every aspect of the problem.  We can no longer leave the responsibility to prevent sexual violence exclusively in the hands of potential and past victims of violence.

“Stop-And-Frisk”: Legalized Racist, Homophobic, And Transphobic Discrimination

New York City’s unpopular, but supposedly “effective” crime-reducing program, “Stop, Question, and Frisk” or (“Stop-and-Frisk” for short), was ruled unconstitutional on Tuesday.  The program entails the following: “a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”

The judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, ruled that NYC police officers were systematically stopping people with little cause for suspicion.  (In this particular case, police officers were stopping individuals thought to be trespassing on a Bronx apartment complex property.)  In reviewing police training, she further noted that this evidence “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”

“Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote.

In a way, this is exactly what NYC major Michael Bloomberg and other advocates of the “stop-and-frisk” program call for.  In exchange for the universal possibility of being stopped by a police officer, residents of NYC see a significant reduction in crime and gun possession.  While there have been notable declines in the crime rate (but few seizures of guns), many have argued that this purported exchange is not enjoyed universally.  Rather, an overwhelming majority of those stopped by police over the past two years were Black and Latino men.  Judge Scheindlin took note of one role of race (and racism) in her decision:

As a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.”

The decision continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”

Legalized Racism

Many civil rights and anti-racist activists have criticized the “stop-and-frisk” program due to the overrepresentation of men of color in police stops.  Indeed, in practice, the program is a form of institutional discrimination — in this case, as disparate impact discrimination.  That is, while the program does not target a particular disadvantaged group — men of color — by design, it does, in practice, disproportionately burden them.

Typically, disparate impact discrimination is deemed otherwise innocent in terms of intention or bias; these are merely programs or policies that have been unfair in practice.  Yet “stop-and-frisk” actually operates as a legal door for racial profiling by both those unintentionally and those intentionally targeting Black and Latino men.  Some say the racial and ethnic imbalance is merely a product of geography: greater surveillance of predominantly black and brown areas of the city (this, of course, is problematic, too!).  In light of stories of being stopped many times in one’s life, others suggest the “stop-and-frisk” program legally allows police to use one’s blackness/brownness as suspect.  “You’re Black/Latino, so you must be up to no good!”

Even if police stops were equally burdensome for every racial group (and police were evenly hostile to “suspicious” people), the experience of being stopped, questioned, and searched by police is fundamentally racialized.  Given the history of racism, including racist violence and harassment by police or by others yet ignored by police, no white person can ever fully experience the feelings of anger, humiliation, and powerlessness that follow being targeted by police as a person of color.

Further, programs like this one, Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” law that unfairly targets Latina/o people, among others are just the tip of the racist iceberg of the US criminal justice system.  From interaction with the police, to arrest, to court, to prison, racial inequality exists at every step and every facet of law enforcement and criminal justice.  Unfortunately, the narrow view of the law cannot handle the reality that racism shapes the core and operation of every social system and institution, including law enforcement.

Legalized Homophobia And Transphobia

It may have come as a surprise to some that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups joined the chorus of anti-racist and civil rights organizations that rallied against the “stop-and-frisk” program.  Beyond advocating for racial equality, these groups took issue with the disproportionate number of LGBT people of color who have been stopped by police.  Often, young Black and Latino LGBT people are stopped as suspects for sexual crimes (e.g., public sex, sex work).  In these stops, many are sexually harassed or assaulted by police.

Parallel to blackness and brownness as suspect, LGBT people are legally targeted through the “stop-and-frisk” program often because of their gender expression.  LGBT people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming people, are deemed suspicious because their “appearance transgresses gender norms embraced by mainstream society.”  It turns out that stops based on suspicion of sexual crimes has already been deemed illegal, again by the same judge:

In 2010, in a decision dripping with outrage, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin held New York City in contempt for failing to end enforcement of loitering laws held unconstitutional decades before. One of the laws at issue was the “loitering for sex” statute that Lambda Legal had succeeded in getting struck down in 1983 by New York’s highest court, shortly after it threw out the state’s sodomy law.

“The human toll, of course, has been borne by the tens of thousands of individuals who have, at once, had their constitutional rights violated and been swept into the penal system,” Scheindlin wrote. “More disturbing still, it appears that the laws — which target panhandling, remaining in a bus or train station, and ‘cruising’ for sex — have been enforced particularly against the poor and gay men.”

Missing The Complex Reality Of Discrimination Today

The above discussion points to the inability for the law, in its present state, to fully appreciate the complex reality of discrimination today.  One challenge is to prove that a law or program — instances of institutional discrimination — disproportionately affect a particular group (without just cause).  This sidesteps the matter of proving biased or prejudiced intentions, a matter central to cases of unfair treatment; however, the narrow view of the law fails to account for the systemic, wide-reaching influence of systems of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and transphobia.  Indeed, it can be argued that discrimination within one institution (e.g., criminal justice) mutually reinforces discrimination in other systems (e.g., education).  The true challenge, then, is proving when discrimination is not at play, at least indirectly.

The other important matter that is systematically overlooked is the simultaneous, interconnected operation of multiple systems of oppression.  “Stop-and-frisk” reflects the practice of both racism and homophobia/transphobia by police and the criminal justice system.  What, on the surface, appears to be a matter of racial inequality has turned out to disproportionately affect Black and Latina/o queer people.  Another instance of legalized discrimination, the US military’s “Don’ Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, had its greatest effect on Black women.  And, given the greater number of Black same-gender couples who have children, Black LGBT people hold a greater share of the burden created by laws that prohibit or hinder same-gender marriage and adoption.

Of course, greater attention should be paid to the reality that some people are victimized by multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racist and sexist discrimination).  Yet, discrimination cases that pursue such claims are ultimately less successful in court, probably because the court is unable to apprehend this level of complexity.

The days of explicit, unapologetic racist discrimination are (mostly) gone, and great progress has been made toward equality for LGBT people.  Yet, the task remains to better understand prejudice and discrimination in the new millennium.  There is a great deal of complexity to discrimination that we consistently miss when attending to the discriminatory actions of a few bigoted apples.  We will never achieve full equality, whether in opportunities or outcomes, without an appropriately comprehensive understanding of what discrimination is, how it operates, and how to prevent it.

The Importance Of Representation: Voice, Visibility, And Validation In America

For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group.  In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities.  However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men.  Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US.  Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.

Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power

The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members.  In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts.  Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth.  In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.

However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences.  In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts.  Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men).  Do the math.  Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women!  Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black.  Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination.  But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.

Representation: Why Group Composition Matters

There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters.  Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US.  So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups.  In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing.  Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.

So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group.  Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes.  But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members.  For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:

When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group.  However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.

In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making.  And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members.  Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making.  I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).

Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group.  I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male.  The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group.  I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.

Seeing Yourself

The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes.  The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated.  For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year.  The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.

Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions.  In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys.  One primary reason?  White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch.  And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles.  This is less so the case for other kids.

Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being.  I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.  Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief.  I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality.  To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.

Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”

The Concept of Double Jeopardy: A Look At The Lives Of Multiply Disadvantaged Individuals

Black Feminism Symbol

To my surprise, I came across an article posted on Huffington Post yesterday that mentions “double jeopardy” — here, in the academic sense.  The article reviews a study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that leaders of unsuccessful companies in a fictitious news story were more harshly criticized when they were Black women.  That is, Black women faced more penalties (in this case, criticism) than Black men, white women, and white men:

In a study conducted by Rosette and Livingston, 228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts — even those of the same race.

What Is “Double Jeopardy”?

I say, “to my surprise,” because a quick search for “double jeopardy” on Google yields site after site about the movie, Double Jeopardy, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd; a search on Wikipedia also yields a page about the film, as well as a few pages about the legal concept of double jeopardy.  Ironically, the legal meaning of double jeopardy, in which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, somewhat counters the academic meaning of the term.  In this sense, double jeopardy refers to the additional barriers and burdens faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses (e.g., Black women) compared to their singly disadvantaged (e.g., white women and Black men) and privileged counterparts (e.g., white men).

As early as the late 1960s, the term double jeopardy came into use to highlight the unique experiences of Black women, particularly their simultaneous exposure to racism and sexism (and classism). As the second wave feminist movement made progress through the 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights, calls from Black, Chicana, and multicultural feminists, lesbian feminists, and other women who faced other forms of oppression other than sexism to attend to the diverse needs and experiences among women grew louder.  Various feminist activists and scholars worked intensely to draw attention to the fact that the category of “woman” and all of its associated experiences and obstacles is not universal; many advocated for a perspective that considers the intersections among sexism, racism, and classism.

Double Jeopardy Versus Intersectionality

Over time, awareness of the full array of systems of oppression that operate simultaneously has evolved to include heterosexism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, xenophobia, and so forth.  Obviously, one can be disadvantaged in multiple ways or face “multiple jeopardy,” for example, as a lesbian, woman, Latina, and working-class person.   In fact, in my own research, I have found just that: among 15-25 year olds, the more disadvantaged statuses an adolescent or young adult holds (among race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class), the more forms of discrimination one faces (e.g., race and gender and sexual orientation discrimination).  And, as a result, these multiply disadvantaged individuals face double or multiple jeopardy in mental and physical health; that is, partially because of their disproportionate exposure to discrimination, they face even more depressive symptoms and worse physical health than more privileged youth.

While the notion of multiple jeopardies — almost easily counted based on the number of disadvantaged statuses one holds — is still used in some research, especially in sociological work on health, it has fallen out of favor among scholars who study the intersections among race, gender, and class.  This is, in part, because the idea of adding up one’s statuses, essentially adding one’s exposure to sexism to one’s exposure to racism and so on, misses the ways in which these identities and systems of oppression intersect.  Or, said another way, racism + sexism + classism misses how one experiences the world as a working-class Black woman, an experience that is not merely the sum of working-class experiences + Black experiences + woman experiences.  These systems of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another in such a way, for example, that homophobic policies like the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy harm Black women more than any other group.

Should We Do Away With Double Jeopardy?

Well, if we meant the literal experience of multiple systems of oppression — yes, we should do away with it.  But, what I mean here is, if it seems the notion of “double jeopardy” misses the ways in which systems of oppression intersect, should we stop using it in the way that we understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals?  Having used the concept in past and current research, it might seem I have a vested interest in calling for the continued use of the concept.

Like any good researcher, I would say the appropriateness, relevance, and usefulness of the concept depends on your research question.  In health research, documenting whether multiply disadvantaged groups are at elevated risk for illness and disease necessarily calls for a comparison with singly disadvantaged and privileged groups.  For example, lesbian and bisexual women’s elevated risk for obesity is identified by comparing them to heterosexual women, gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual men.  But, what causes that elevated risk — factors brought on or exacerbated by sexism and heterosexism — can be said to be evidence of double jeopardy (sexism + heterosexism) and intersectionality (the intersection of sexism and heterosexism).

As such, in general, I would recommend that we need both perspectives — multiple jeopardy and intersectionality — to fully understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals and their more privileged counterparts.  Even if you use only one of these two perspectives, you are contributing to what little we know about the lives and experiences of, and challenges faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses.

On The Importance Of Intersectionality: Multiple Forms Of Discrimination And Health

Black Gays for Justice and Respect

Over thirty years ago, Black feminist scholars and activists began emphasizing the importance of recognizing every identity and status of which each individual is comprised.  We are not merely a particular gender, nor race, nor class.  In fact, the crux of the perspective known as intersectionality is that we must account for the intersecting nature of our identities and statuses.  For example, a full understanding of the lives of Black women cannot come from considering their lives as Black people only, as women only, nor as the sum of these two sets of experiences.

Fortunately, sociologists like myself are beginning to recognize that it is crucial to examine intersectionality in our research.  But, it seems one key component of the theoretical framework of intersectionality is often overlooked.  Black feminist scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw, called not only to examine the intersections among race, gender, class, and sexual identity, but, more importantly, to focus on the intersecting and mutually reinforcing relationships among systems of oppression: racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity.

In my own research on the health consequences of discrimination, I have noticed that almost every one of the hundreds of studies on discrimination and health focus exclusively on one form of discrimination – especially racial discrimination.  There is solid evidence demonstrating that one’s experiences with discrimination are consequential for one’s mental and physical health; however, these studies have not examined whether the relationship between discrimination and health depends upon the number of forms of discrimination individuals experience.  Could it be the case that individuals who face sexist and racist discrimination fare worse in terms of health than those who experience sexist discrimination or racist discrimination only?

In a study I published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, I find that the answer is yes, at least among youth.   Using a sample of 1,052 Black, Latina/o, and white youth aged 15-25 from the Black Youth Culture Survey of the Black Youth Project, I found five important patterns.

  1. First, disadvantaged youth report more frequent exposure to their status-specific form of discrimination.  Black and Latina/o youth report more frequent race discrimination than white youth.  Girls and young women report more frequent gender discrimination than boys and young men.  Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report more frequent sexual orientation discrimination than heterosexual youth.  And, youth whose families have been on welfare or state assistance report more class discrimination than youth from wealthier families.

    Reports of Each Form of Discrimination

  2. Generally, more frequent exposure to each form of discrimination is associated with worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms in the past month.
  3. Multiply disadvantaged youth (e.g., Black working-class boys, Latina lesbian and bisexual girls) report facing more forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination overall (i.e., the sum of the frequency of exposure to the four forms of discrimination).

    Number of Forms of Discrimination Reported by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

    Overall Frequency of Discrimination by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

  4. Youth who face multiple forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination report worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms than youth who face fewer forms and less frequent discrimination.

    Self-Rated Health by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

    Depressive Symptoms by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

  5. Multiply disadvantaged youth experience worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms compared to their more privileged counterparts.  This is due, in part, to their disproportionate exposure to multiple forms of and chronic discrimination.  That is, exposure to multiple forms of discrimination contributes to these documented health disparities.

These findings reiterate the importance of examining the intersections among systems of oppression.  In the case of this article, only examining racial discrimination or gender discrimination, for example, would miss that youth who are disadvantaged in more than one way face the greatest amount of discrimination.  Unfortunately, scholarship and popular discussions of racism, or sexism, or homophobia in isolation from other forms of oppression continue to gloss over the experiences of individuals whose lives are constrained by multiple systems of oppression.