STAR’s vision is to build a community free from oppression and sexual trauma. You may be wondering, why include “oppression” as something we seek to eliminate? Why not just sexual trauma?
Recently at STAR, we instituted “issue of the day” discussions at our weekly staff briefings concerning current events and social issues being covered in the media. Last week, we discussed the Texas woman who was forcibly cavity searched by police in public.
We discussed how an imbalance of power can render consent unobtainable if a person feels that they don’t have the right to say ‘no.’ We examined how the experience of a traumatic sexual assault can be invalidated by its justification as legally-protected policy and practice. The course of the conversation also took us through discussion about police brutality, trauma experienced by police officers, sexism, racism, and adultism.
All of that, from one article about a single incident of sexual assault?
The conversation was a reminder that many different forms of oppression and violence contribute to individual and collective experiences of trauma. In order to carry out our vision, we must be conscious of and actively engaged in the understanding of the intersection of different oppressions in order to acknowledge all experiences of sexual trauma, and to ultimately work toward solutions to sexual trauma.
To explore this, we are introducing this new blog segment entitled “The Intersection.” Through monthly, in-depth essays, we plan to examine the many layers of oppression, violence, and trauma that we encounter in our survivor-focused and community-based work at STAR.
Before we begin, let’s first define oppression:
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 who are members of a certain group. [STAR volunteer training]
Sexual violence is considered a type of “pervasive mistreatment” of members of societally disadvantaged groups. This means that sexual violence is a tool of oppression.
Most frequently, sexual violence is framed and perceived as a form of violence used by men to exercise power and control over women. While this is globally and historically true, it is not the whole truth. And, if we only tell this part of the story, we are ourselves perpetuating oppression.
Alisa Bierria, in “An Historical Perspective on Anti-Rape Organizing,” challenges this limited view:
In truth, specific oppressions (male domination, white supremacy, class exploitation, etc.) rarely work singularly. Instead, oppressions feed off of each other, their dynamics changing according to specific contexts. The current challenge for anti-rape organizers is to develop solid analyses of rape and rape culture that recognize the multiplicity of oppressions that constantly shape and influence each other…The time for thinking about rape as merely a tool of male domination is over.
For this reason, STAR has shifted from referring to sexual violence as a form of “gender-based violence” and toward recognizing it as a form of “power-based violence.” This shift allows us to recognize all survivors of sexual trauma, including men and children, and acknowledge that women can be offenders and many survivors of child sexual abuse were abused by older adolescents.
This shift also reminds us that there is no single, standard experience of sexual trauma. When we only view sexual violence as a form of gender-based violence, we are ignoring sexual violence that has been perpetrated in contexts where an offender targeted their victim based on racial or ethnic prejudice, homophobia, adultism, ableism, or any other type or combination of societally-supported dehumanization.
Another important reason we strive to operate as an anti-oppression organization is that survivors of sexual trauma are often survivors of multiple oppressions and forms of violence. To provide holistic support for survivors, STAR advocates address clients’ various needs by providing information, assistance and referrals.
To truly be survivor-centered, we must examine and challenge all forms of oppression and oppressive mindsets that contribute to epidemic levels of sexual trauma.
Fortunately for us, we are living in an era of social movements. Our society is witnessing, experiencing and participating in massive disruption of the status quo. However, progress can be painful for those among us who are firmly rooted in our collective traditions and history—a history that largely ignores the persistence of racism, sexism and classism. For those who continue to experience oppression, the examination of systemic and power-based violence is a welcomed change, though one that is not without challenges.
Before beginning training workshops on the topic of sexual violence, I tell participants, “We’re about to get heavy, but it will make us all lighter in the end.” To drastically reduce sexual violence and the trauma it causes, we have to get heavy. We must take on the collective responsibility to recognize and examine the root causes of sexual violence and trauma. Then, together, we will be able to do something about it.