We all have a variety of identities based on our race, class, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs, and more. No one identity is necessarily more important or relevant than the other, and everyone values certain facets of their identity to different degrees. While the individual experience of identity - how we identify ourselves - is personal and varied, the social experience of identity - how our society treats us based on our identities - often follows troubling patterns of discrimination and disadvantage. Sometimes, people can face multiple forms of discrimination toward different aspects of their identity - for example, a black woman can face both racism and sexism. The idea that people can experience multiple forms of discrimination and oppression toward multiple parts of their identity is called intersectionality.
When it comes to working with victims of abuse, The Initiative uses an intersectional framework - meaning we recognize that issues like race, class, sexuality, and more can impact someone’s experience of abuse. Here are some ways these different aspects of identity can impact victims, and can even be used as tactics of power and control by abusers.
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 visible, others are hidden. Disabilities include physical, cognitive, sensory, developmental, mental-health, and health-related conditions. In short, the range of what disability can look like is vast, but the common factor is the impact on one or more major life activities.
People with disabilities can face a variety of barriers in their everyday life. Inaccessible buildings, outdated and discriminatory laws, lack of representation in the media, and prejudiced ideas are only a few examples of the challenges people with disabilities face.
Undocumented individuals in the United States face unique and often dangerous barriers when it comes to reporting abuse. Abusers may target the vulnerability of undocumented individuals, and use their immigration status as a method of gaining and maintaining power and control. An abuser may threaten to reveal a victim’s immigration status, or withhold their immigration paperwork or documentation. Victims of abuse who are undocumented may be hesitant to report the abuse out of fear of deportation. Going into court and being around judges and police officers may be intimidating and scary. The victim may also fear deportation for their children, other family members, and even their abusive partner if they report the abuse.
While these concerns have always existed, the current political climate has heightened xenophobia and led to an intensified focus on undocumented individuals. The result has been an increased fear of, and even hatred for, undocumented communities. These attitudes amplify the previously discussed barriers undocumented victims of abuse face when trying to access safety.
Unlike gender (how we identify ourselves), sexual orientation is about who we are attracted to. Common sexual orientations are heterosexual (being attracted to people of the same gender), homosexual (being attracted to people of the opposite gender), or bixexual (being attracted to both). There are many more sexual orientations than just these three.
Unfortunately, there are still many negative attitudes in our society toward people who are not heterosexual - and these negative attitudes can make people vulnerable to abusers. For one, an abuser can threaten to “out” the victim without their consent. Coming out is an extremely personal choice and involves telling family, friends, and others about your sexual orientation. A person may not want to come out because of a fear that people will treat them differently based on their sexual orientation. So when an abuser threatens to out their victim, it can be a powerful control tactic.
Another barrier involving sexual orientation is that our society has deeply entrenched gender stereotypes regarding abuse: abusers can only be men, and victims can only be women. For people who don’t fall into this experience - for example, a man being abused by another man - these harmful stereotypes can make it more difficult to report. People might have difficulty determining who is the abuser and who is the victim, leading to the victim actually being punished instead of the aggressor.
A Department of Justice study showed that of over 2,000 women surveyed, 84 percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, and over 90 percent have experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member.
Why do these high rates of violence exist for Indigenous communities? In short, 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 ability to prosecute 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 practice.
Furthermore, 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 get away with it. All of these factors contribute to circumstances where non-tribal members are able to abuse Indigenous persons and avoid punishment.
Because our society’s perception of abuse is so deeply rooted in gender norms and expectations - for example, the idea that only men can be abusers and only women can be victims - it can be difficult for people who don’t fit into these stereotypes to access services and receive support when they are being abused. People who identify as transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, or countless other gender identities may face discrimination when accessing services. They may also be less likely to report the abuse out of fear that the person responding to the crime may discriminate against them.
Trans and nonbinary individuals are also targeted for abuse at high rates. Abusers may threaten to out a victim as trans, restrict access to hormones, use harmful slurs and names to refer the the victim, or use incorrect pronouns, all of which are extremely harmful for the victim. On top of higher rates of abuse, trans individuals also face higher threats of physical violence and murder. A Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition study estimates trans women face 4.3 times more the risk of being murdered compared to cis women in the U.S., and at least 87% of trans people murdered from 2013 to 2015 were people of color.
Depending on where someone lives, their ability to access services or leave an abuser can be extremely difficult. In particular, people who live in rural areas may face a variety of barriers to leaving an abuser. For one, there’s the physical isolation. A victim living in the city might be able to leave their abuser on foot and walk to a shelter; for someone in a rural area, this is likely not an option. If they don’t have a car, or if the abuser controls access to the car keys, getting away can be far more difficult. For someone who uses a wheelchair or has other disabilities, these barriers to escape are amplified.
Rural communities also may lack services. Whereas cities are more likely to have a number of homeless shelters, domestic violence services, and more, rural areas often won’t have a single service available for victims.
Furthermore, rural communities are also often tight knit. For someone trapped in an abusive relationship, this can mean that it may be impossible to keep their situation private. This can be complicated by the fact that their abuser might be well-liked in the community, or by local law enforcement.
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 help when they need it, for fear that they may face discrimination from service providers. .
There are also many service providers and shelters that require clients to engage in religious acts. For example, some homeless shelters require people to engage in prayer, or even attend an entire religious service, before they can receive services. For someone whose religious beliefs conflict with the shelter, these requirements may prevent them from accessing needed services.
Another important way religion intersects with abuse is that someone’s personal religious beliefs may make it harder to leave the abuser. For example, someone who is Catholic may not be able to divorce their abuser because of their belief that divorce goes against their religion. Along with conflicts within an individual’s personal beliefs, they might also face pressure from their religious community to stay in the relationship.
16% of homeless persons are victims of domestic violence (Source)
For people who are experiencing homelessness and poverty, it can be extremely hard to leave an abusive situation. For one, they may not be able physically leave because they do not have a safe location to go to. For people with disabilities, this could look like needing to get to a shelter but not having the money or resources to find accessible transportation. They may also face difficulties paying for expenses related to leaving, such as storage costs, first month of rent or a deposit, and more. Many victims who are experiencing poverty may face a choice between leaving and being homeless, or staying and continuing to live in a dangerous, even life-threatening, situation. Another reason that abuse and homeless intersect is that abuse often causes homelessness. Many people become homeless as a result of domestic violence, and 16% of homeless persons are victims of domestic violence. Homeless individuals also face discrimination and negative stereotypes and stigmas, which may present as barriers to accessing services.
Systemic racism is the broad experience of policies, practices, laws, and attitudes that discriminate against people of color. Examples of systemic racism would include racism in hiring practices, harmful stereotypes toward people of color, and the criminal justice system disproportionately targeting people of color. For women, trans, and nonbinary people of color, they may not only be experiencing racial oppression but also gender oppression. Our systems tend to lack an understanding of how multiple identities intersect, making services difficult to access for these populations.
People of color who experience abuse may be less likely to report for a number of reasons. For one, they may not feel comfortable or safe calling the police for help because of a fear that the person responding to the crime may discriminate against them. Another reason is that they may not want to reinforce harmful stereotypes about their community, or contribute to mass incarceration. People of color might also hesitate to reach out to victim service providers or domestic violence shelters if they have faced racist ideologies in those spaces in the past.
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.
Women who experience 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 victim, 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.
While sexism obviously harms women, it also is very harmful to men. 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.