What Is Intersectionality?

We all have a variety of identities based on our race, class, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs, ability, size, citizenship status, and geographic location. No one identity is necessarily more important than the other, and everyone values certain parts of their identities differently. While the way we identify ourselves is personal and varied, the way society treats us based on our identities often follows troubling and violent patterns of discrimination and disadvantage. 
 Sometimes, people can face multiple forms of oppression toward different aspects of their identity. In 1989, Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw created the term intersectionality to describe and center the lives of Black women, who experience oppression at the intersections of gender and of race. Kimberlé Crenshaw explains in “What Is Intersectionality?”,
“Intersectionality is a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves, and they create obstacles that are not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism or other social justice advocacy structures we have. Intersectionality isn’t so much a grand theory; it’s a prism for understanding certain kinds of problems.”
When it comes to working with victim-survivors of abuse,  The Initiative uses an intersectional framework. This means that we recognize that race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, location, religion, and more, can impact someone’s experience of abuse, and even be used as tactics of power and control by abusers and systems.

 

Below, you will find descriptions of a few different identities and how they might impact a person's experience as a survivor. We hope that you find information and empowerment as you read them, and we encourage you to care for yourself and take breaks if you need to. The following statistics and descriptions might be upsetting for some people.

 Jump To: DisabilityImmigration StatusGender IdentitySexual OrientationLocationIndigenous CommunitiesReligionBody SizeClassEthnicity and Race

Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with disabilities as someone who has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” While some disabilities are more obvious or perceivable, others are hidden. Disabilities include physical, sensory, cognitive, developmental, mental-health, and health-related conditions. In short, disability is vast, but the common factor is the impact on one or more major life activities. Some disability communities push back against the words “impairment” and “limits”  in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rather, it is society and ableism that impairs and limits people with disabilities, not the disability itself. Ableism is a system of power, practices, and dominant attitudes that privilege able-bodied people and marginalize people with disabilities. People with disabilities can face a variety of barriers in everyday life due to ableism, including inaccessible buildings, outdated and discriminatory laws, lack of representation in media and politics, and unequal access to education, employment, and stable housing.

Colorado, in particular, has an incredible history of disability activism, from the Gang of 19 laying their bodies in front of RTD buses to demand accessible transportation, to the creation of one of the country’s first centers for independent living, Atlantis Community, Inc., to current disability activists fighting for a disability movement that connects disability to class struggle, racial justice, and queer and transgender rights.

People with disabilities experience abuse at higher rates than people without disabilities because of the perceived vulnerability of disability, not from the disability itself. People with disabilities might experience abuse because we live in a society where they are devalued, not seen as credible, and sometimes isolated. Abuse of people with disabilities is underreported, often unprosecuted, and even more often unpunished. Abusers may restrict access to medicine, transportation, or assistive technologies, deny the right to consent, justify abuse as a result of caregiver stress, or use a person’s disability to discredit their experiences in front of law enforcement, service providers, family, and friends.

Immigration Status

Some undocumented individuals consider their undocumented status to be an important part of their identity. Undocumented individuals have created beautiful and fierce communities around their undocumented status, and have centered their undocumented status in their politics, art, and activism.

Undocumented individuals in the United States face unique and often dangerous barriers when it comes to reporting abuse. Abusers can use their immigration status as a way of gaining and maintaining power and control. An abuser may threaten to reveal a victim-survivor’s immigration status or withhold their immigration paperwork or documentation. Victim-survivors of abuse may be hesitant to report the abuse out of fear of deportation or losing access to transportation, housing, health coverage, and more. Further, going into court and being around judges and police officers can be scary and unsafe for these victim-survivors.

While these concerns have always existed for undocumented individuals in the United States, in the last few years there has been more (outward) xenophobia which has led to a more intense focus on undocumented individuals. Xenophobia is a dislike, fear, or hatred of people who are perceived to be ‘outsiders’ and/or from other countries. In the United States, xenophobia is rooted in White Supremacy and Settler Colonialism

Gender Identity

 Gender identity is one’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or other gender(s). Everyone has a gender identity! Some examples of gender identity could be man, woman, or non-binary. For people who identify with the same gender that was assigned to them at birth, we add “cis” to the front. This could be “cis man” or “cis woman.” The term “cis” is a prefix for same. People whose gender identity and whose sex assigned at birth are not the same could use the word “trans” in front, such as trans woman or trans man, or simply as their identity, trans. The only way to know someone’s gender identity is to ask them, or to listen for how they self-identify. There are infinite gender identities. Gender is not a binary of “male” and “female,” but a lot of people in society often treat gender that way. Gender can also change over time.

Because our society’s perception of abuse is so deeply rooted in gender norms and expectations—for example, the idea that only men or masculine people can be abusers and only women or femmes can be victims—it can be difficult for people who don’t fit into these stereotypes to be believed, to access services, and to receive support when they are experiencing abuse. 

Sexism is the experience of prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination based on someone’s sex or gender. Sexism is usually targeted against people who identify as women or femmes and trans people, but sexism hurts people of all genders. This is especially true in cases of abuse.

Survivors of abuse may face sexism in the form of victim-blaming. Victim blaming is when people blame the victim for the abuse instead of the abuser - for example, “she wouldn’t have been raped if she hadn’t been drinking.” In Domestic Violence situations, victim-blaming often comes in the form of a question: “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Asking this question puts all of the focus and blame on the survivor, and ignores the reality that leaving an abusive relationship can be extremely complicated and dangerous. Victim blaming and sexism can become internalized, leading victims to believe that the abuse really is their fault.

Sexism harms people of all genders. Sexist ideologies tell us that women are weak, emotional, and irrational, whereas men are strong, logical, and driven by a constant desire to have sex. These stereotypes of men can lead people to believe that men can’t be victims of abuse or sexual assault - for example, "he can’t have been raped because men always want to have sex," or "he can’t have been abused because he’s physically stronger than his partner."

Transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, agender, and non-binary people experience abuse at higher rates than cisgender women, but the experiences and needs of these communities are often erased or ignored. One reason for this is cissexism, which is society and institutions that reinforce that cisgender is the norm and that transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, agender, and non-binary communities are inherently inferior. Cissexism shows up in many different ways, from the high trans unemployment rate to a service provider using the wrong pronouns for a non-binary person, to the average life expectancy for Black trans women and trans women of color being only 35 years old, primarily due to violence. 

Abusers may threaten to “out” a victim-survivor as trans, restrict access to hormones or gender-affirming clothing and products, use harmful slurs and names, question a victim-survivor’s gender identity, or use the wrong pronouns, all of which are extremely harmful. Transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, agender, and non-binary communities can be less likely to report abuse out of fear of discrimination or violence from law enforcement or service providers. they may not feel accepted or affirmed by law enforcement or service providers. These communities may have significant concerns of being misgendered, not being believed, or encountering racist and transphobic stereotypes about trans people, particularly Black trans women and femmes, as hypersexual, hyperaggressive, or “tricking” their partners. These stereotypes are hateful, violent, and untrue, but hold power in our society’s attitudes.

 The acronym LGBTQIA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and the + indicates an infinite number of other gender and sexual identities. The acronym LGBTSTGNC stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Spirit, Trans, and Gender Non-Conforming. Both of these acronyms contain both sexual identities and gender identities, which are different. If you want to learn more about specific gender identities, visit Trans Student Educational Resources.

Sexual Orientation

 Sexual Orientation or sexuality is a person’s physical, romantic, emotional, and/or other forms of attraction to others. Just as there are many gender identities, there are many sexual identities. Sexuality can also change over time. In Western cultures, gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Transgender people can be straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, asexual, pansexual, queer, etc., just like cisgender people. For example, a trans woman who is attracted to other women would often identify as a lesbian.

Even though “same-sex marriage” laws were passed in 2015 and there is more representation of LGBTQ+ people in politics, media, and culture, there still are many negative attitudes towards people who are not heterosexual (straight). Heterosexism is when heterosexuality is seen as the norm, and it is assumed that everyone is, and should be, heterosexual (straight). Heterosexism can make people more vulnerable to abuse. For example, an abuser can threaten to “out” the victim without their consent. Coming out is an extremely personal choice, and can involve telling family, friends, and others about your sexual orientation. Some people choose to never come out or to come out to only a few people in their life. All of these choices are okay.

A person may not want to come out because of the fear that people will treat them differently based on their sexual orientation. So, when an abuser threatens to “out” their victim-survivor, it can be a powerful control tactic. Another barrier to safety involving sexual orientation is that our society has deeply held gender stereotypes regarding abuse: that abusers can only be men or masculine, and victim-survivors can only be women or feminine. For people who don’t fall into this experience—for example, a man experiencing abuse from another man—these hurtful ideas can make it more difficult to access support and services. Law enforcement or other organizations might have “difficulty” determining who is the abuser and who is the victim-survivor, leading to the victim-survivor actually being punished instead of the abuser.

Location

For some people in rural areas, where they live is a strong part of their identity. People in rural areas may feel proud of where they live and believe that rurality informs their values, their sense of community, and the ways they relate to the world. Unfortunately, in the United States, there are some harmful stereotypes about rural areas and the people who live there.

Ruralism is a form of discrimination on the basis of living in a rural area. Ruralism worsens rural poverty,  makes normal the lack of services, healthcare, education, and employment opportunities in rural areas, and depicts people living in rural areas as backward, intolerant, and even unsophisticated. Stereotyping dehumanizes people, of all marginalized communities.

That being said, people in rural areas experiencing abuse may face particular challenges accessing services or leaving an abuser. For one, there may be physical isolation. A victim-survivor living in a city may be able to go to a shelter on foot, using a wheelchair, by public transportation, or by taxis and rideshare companies; for someone in a rural area, this is not likely an option. If a victim-survivor doesn’t have a car or the abuser controls access to the car keys, leaving can be far more difficult. For someone who uses a wheelchair or has other disabilities, these barriers in a rural area are amplified. Rural communities may also lack resources such as homeless shelters, emergency clinics, domestic violence services, or disability organizations. Finally, some rural communities are close-knit. For someone in an abusive relationship, this can mean it is impossible to keep their situation private. This can be further complicated if an abuser is well-respected or well-liked in the community, or holds a position of power, such as being in local law enforcement.

Indigenous Communities

The lands making up the state of Colorado belong to the Sioux, Ute, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne nations. Society often speaks about Indigenous people in the past tense, as if they no longer exist, because this makes it easier to deny Indigenous people their rights, their land, and their struggles. Indigenous communities continue to exist and thrive all over the world, with incredible activism, cultures, and creative presence. It has been made normal to take land, break treaties, and exclude Indigenous people from employment, education, and politics. It has also been made normal to use extraordinary violence towards Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women and femmes.

A Department of Justice study shows that 84% of Native American and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, 56% of experienced sexual violence, and over 90% have experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member. These high rates of violence exist for many reasons, including systemic racism, a lack of support from local law enforcement, lack of funding for domestic violence and sexual assault programs, and conflicts between tribal legal systems and state or federal legal systems. Tribal courts do not currently have the jurisdiction to prosecute non-tribal members who are perpetrators of sexual assault, rape, and other crimes. And while as of 2015 tribal courts are able to prosecute non-tribal members for domestic violence, in practice this prosecution is still a distant reality for many tribal courts due to lack of funding as well as large changes in regulations that take time to put into place. Also, protection orders that are mandated by tribal governments are often not respected by local law enforcement outside of the tribe - meaning that an abuser can stalk or harm their victim outside of tribal lands and not face punishment. All of these factors contribute to situations where non-tribal members are able to abuse Indigenous people and avoid punishment. 

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is a growing activist movement to raise awareness and create systemic change around violence against Indigenous communities. For more information, see https://www.csvanw.org/mmiw/

Religion

 Religion is an important part of many, but not all, people’s identities. Whether someone experiences privilege because of their religious beliefs, or discrimination because of their religious beliefs, often depends on the place where they live. For example, in the United States, Muslim communities may experience violence due to islamophobia, a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. In a Muslim-majority country, however, the same challenges may not exist. Antisemitism - the discrimination against, violence towards, or stereotypes of, Jews for being Jewish - also exists in many places in the world. Antisemitism, especially towards Jewish people of color, is also rooted in racism.

 Religion can intersect with abuse in a variety of ways. For one, people of minority faiths in the United States may face discrimination for their beliefs. This discrimination may make someone less likely to reach out for support when they need it, for fear that they may face similar discrimination from service providers. There are also many service providers and shelters that require clients to participate in religious acts. For example, some homeless shelters require people to pray, or even attend religious services, before they can receive support. For someone whose religious beliefs conflict with the shelter, these requirements may prevent them from accessing needed supports.

Another important way religion intersects with abuse is that someone’s personal religious beliefs might make it harder to leave an abuser. For example, someone who is Catholic might not be able to divorce their abuser because of their belief that divorce goes against their religion. Along with conflicts with an individual’s personal beliefs, they might also face pressure from their religious community to stay in the relationship.

Body size

*While some people may embrace the term “fat” to describe themselves, others may not. We will use this term in this section because it is what fat activists (like Your Fat Friend, an anonymous essayist) are currently using to describe themselves.*

People of all body types and sizes are always deserving of respect and love. Regardless of the reasons that somebody might be fat, or their health condition (which is often unrelated to weight), every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Fat people face significant discrimination in accessing clothing, spaces, employment opportunities, and healthcare. 

The way that society views and treats fat people is called “fat-phobia,” “sizeism,” or “anti-fatness.” One study found significant anti-fat stigma in health care and proposes that it “poses serious risks to their psychological and physical health, generates health disparities, and interferes with the implementation of effective obesity prevention efforts.” For example, Rebecca Hiles, a writer, had chest pain and coughing that lasted for 11 years that was repeatedly dismissed by doctors who told her to “just lose some weight.” That cough turned out to be lung cancer and she had to have one of her lungs removed to save her life within weeks of the proper diagnosis. Another study found that almost 70% of fat women had experienced weight stigma from a doctor, and yet another found that heavier weight women avoided seeking healthcare due to the way they were treated. If we apply this to the way that someone might feel in other service areas, like victim-survivor services, we can see how a fat person might not feel safe or comfortable reaching out and accessing safety-related services like the police or victim advocates. Fat people can also be disbelieved, or told that they deserved the abuse or should be grateful for the attention. These false stigmas can prevent someone from accessing supportive services and can create additional harm when they do reach out for help.

Class

In the United States, as in much of the world, capitalism increases the gap between the wealthiest individuals and the poorest individuals, most often following patterns of marginalization, such as ability, race, gender, sexuality, religion, and immigration status.

In the United States, capitalism as an economic system was made possible by enslaving Africans during the hundreds of years of chattel slavery, and the genocide of Indigenous peoples and taking of their land. To this day, capitalist systems work on many levels to prevent certain communities, particularly disabled people, undocumented people, Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people from accessing basic human needs and gaining wealth. 

One way capitalism works is to individualize class, meaning it is an individual’s “fault” if they are poor, if they are low-income, if they are homeless, rather than it being the result of many systems of oppression working as they were meant to work. Classism is the institutional, cultural, and individual set of practices and beliefs that place different values to people based on their income, wealth, education, work status and/or power.

For people who are experiencing homelessness and poverty, it can be hard to leave an abusive situation. For one, they may not be able to leave because they do not have a safe place to go to. For example, for people with disabilities, this could be needing to go to a safehouse, but not having the money or resources to find accessible transportation. People may also face difficulties paying for expenses related to leaving, such as storage costs, moving costs, first month’s rent or a deposit at a new home or apartment, medications without an abuser’s insurance, and more. Many victim-survivors who are experiencing poverty might choose between leaving and being homeless, or staying and continuing to live in a dangerous, even life-threatening, situation. In fact, abuse (and domestic violence, in particular), is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Additionally, homeless individuals also face discrimination and stigma, which may present barriers to accessing services.

 Ethnicity and Race

Ethnicity denotes groups, such as Irish, Fijian, Latino, that share a common identity-based ancestry, language, or culture. It is often based on religion, beliefs, customs, as well as memories of migration or colonization. Race is a powerful social category used to group different types of human bodies. We say “social category,” because there isn’t a biological basis for race (for example, genetic differences within a racial group are often greater than differences between racial groups). We know, however, that there is a long, and often violent, history of attempts to organize groups of people based on similar skin color or physical appearance. Racial groups were created, and re-created many times, to serve social and economic purposes. They are kept up through controls like slavery, Jim Crow, uses of ‘law and order,’ restrictive immigration policies, and more. They are reinforced through belief systems, such as the belief of white superiority and/or the association of the United States with whiteness. White supremacy is the idea that white people and the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to Black and Indigenous people and people of color and their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. The United States is, and has been from its beginnings of slavery and genocide of Indigenous people, a white supremacist country.

Race and ethnicity are both important parts of many people’s identities. It should be said that everyone has a race, including white people. 

Systemic racism is the broad experience of policies, practices, laws, and attitudes that oppress and harm people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous people. Examples of systemic racism include discrimination in hiring practices, stereotypes of people of color as angry, dangerous, or unreasonable, exclusion from politics, stable housing, education, and other cultural institutions, the fact that the predominantly Black city of Flint, Michigan has not had clean water since 2014, and the criminal legal system targeting communities of color. For example,  Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. Although Black people and Latinx people make up approximately 32% of the population in the United States, they comprise 56% of all incarcerated people. If Black people and Latinx people were incarcerated at the same rate as white people, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color may be less likely to report abuse for a number of reasons. For one, they may feel unsafe calling the police for help out of fear that the person responding to the crime may discriminate against them. Many people of color have experienced further violence from the police and other state bodies. People of color might not want to contribute to mass incarceration or criminal legal systems that have been harmful. People of color might hesitate to reach out to victim service providers or domestic violence shelters if they have faced racist ideologies in those spaces in the past.