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Oppression names a social reality that is intertwined with violence to provide the grounding for the threat and use of violence to maintain the victim of violence in a subjugated status without equal access to protection and just compensation for injuries and loss related to the experienced violence. As Marilyn Frye described it in 1983 in a classic essay using the analogy of the birdcage, the concept of oppression points to social forces that tend to press on people to prevent their access to well-being and choices. As Frye describes it, the experience of oppressed people is that of living one’s life confined and shaped by barriers that are not accidental and are systematically related to each other in such a way as to restrict motion in any direction.
Oppression is related to the existence of certain groups in any society that are privileged over others. Although reasons for this privileging may vary widely, the oppression that characterizes contemporary societies is most forcefully reproduced when those victimized by violence and subjugated by oppression accept their social status as natural, necessary, or inevitable. Oppression has many faces so that focusing on one strand, such as gender oppression, at the expense of others, such as class or race, disregards the intersectionality of oppression that Patricia Hill Collins refers to as the matrix of domination. Each particular form of privilege is part of a much larger system of oppressive strands of domination. Categories that define privilege and its flip side oppression exist all at once and in relation to one another. An individual experiences the totality of the multiple social categories with which he or she is identified.
In addition, social policies are implicated in the reproduction of systems of class, race, and gender oppression. Social policies may open access on the basis of some categories (e.g., race and gender), but at the same time foreclose access to others on the basis of other attributes (e.g., sexual orientation, perceived or actual disability, religion).
The pervasiveness of damage to oppressed individuals appears in people’s external and internal lives. Externally, it appears in unequal distributions of income, wealth, and power. It appears in unequal treatment and lack of access to opportunities in education, work, health care, and political representation. It appears in the unequal and disproportionate representation of oppressed people under control by the criminal justice system. Internally, oppression is manifested through a gradual erosion of belief in self and a wearing away of resistance to the dominant discourses that further reinforce the status of individuals of oppressed groups as not measuring up or making the right choices to eliminate their own oppression. It subjects members of these oppressed groups, such as women, gay and lesbian people, and people of color, to the threat and reality of violence at home, at work, and on the street.
Violence refers to acts of aggression and abuse that cause or intend to cause injury or harm to persons. Violence can be used for intentional purposes in criminal behaviors, in retaliatory efforts, and globally in acts of terrorism and war. On some level, violence is always used as a means to gain control to oppress others. In an interpersonal context, violence is used specifically as a strategy to gain or maintain power and control over a relationally known victim. In this respect, modes of abuse tend to be gendered, females using more psychological or emotional forms and males using more physical forms of violence. The consequences of these forms differ markedly as well.
The use of power and control is integral to the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project or the Duluth model, which theorizes a wheel of typical and interlocking forms of gendered violence that reinforce the power and control that is at the center of the asymmetrical interaction between victim and perpetrator. These forms of violence include coercion and threats; intimidation; emotional abuse; isolation; minimizing, denying, and blaming; using children; economic abuse; and male privilege.
The Duluth model attempts to address abuse by challenging the misuse of power by the perpetrator and by using a system based on reeducation and criminal sanctions to assist perpetrators to learn alternative ways to communicate with their intimate partners. It is provided within a patriarchal context of male violence against women. Critics have argued that the model fails to examine system factors within relations, account for same-sex use of violence in interpersonal relationships, or examine the ways in which male perpetrators also belong to social categories in which they are also oppressed, sometimes by the systems established to protect their victims.
Violence and the threat of violence are extended by the social factors of discrimination and inequality that can deplete emotional and concrete resources, creating additional stress. Conversely, favorable social environments and conditions may remediate the additional harms that the victim may suffer due to unjust social policies. Favorable social environments may also provide a context for resistance to violence and oppression. Any act through which a person attempts to expose, repel, stop, prevent, strive against, impede, refuse to comply with, or oppose a form of violence or oppression or the conditions that make such acts possible may be understood as an act of resistance to the larger context of social conditions that perpetuate oppression and violence. Furthermore, any effort to establish a life based on respect and equality on behalf of one’s self or others and including any attempt to redress the harm caused by violence or any other form of oppression represents a de facto form of resistance upon which larger projects of community and social acts of resistance may be built.
- Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.
- Frye, M. (1983). The politics of reality. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.
- Pence, E., & Paymar, M. (1993). Education groups for men who batter: The Duluth model. New York: Springer.
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