We live in a society where our founding documents say that we are all created equal. However, in our day-to-day lives, people are overtly or covertly discriminated against based on differences such as race or ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, gender identity, ability, age, etc. This discrimination affects people in every area of their lives, including feelings about themselves and their intimate relationships. It also puts people in power hierarchies – giving some privilege and oppression to others.
Understanding Privilege and Oppression
Understanding privilege and oppression can be a theoretical exercise as well as a personal exploration. While it might be painful, for our society to change it is important that you understand how privilege and oppression personally affect you and the people you love.
Let’s start with some definitions:
- Oppression occurs when a society – where prejudice and institutional power combine – creates and enforces societal differences. This enforcement robs a segment of the population of their rights. It also limits their freedom, and frequently prevents access to essential resources such as education, housing, employment and health care. Additionally, people in oppressed groups may be monitored, policed, jailed and/or diagnosed by mental health practitioners differently than people in the dominant group. They are more likely to be seen through the lens of stereotypes instead of being seen as a full person.
- Privilege is when you have some kind of advantage over others – simply because of the way you fit in well with dominant culture. When someone is privileged, they are given advantages based on their race, gender, skin color, sexual identity, etc. Frequently, they don’t see or acknowledge these privileges. Instead, they assume to have earned them, and that anyone can have them if they work hard enough.
Privileges Often Beget Other Privileges
The examples of how privilege begets privilege are often overlooked because they are so ingrained in our society. For instance – if you are wealthy, you are likely to have had the privilege of a better education (educational privilege).
Or if you are white, you are likely to be given the benefit of the doubt in every activity – from shopping to applying for a job. You have the privilege of not being harassed or unnecessarily pulled over by the police.
If you are heterosexual, you feel safe walking down the street holding hands with your partner. A gay couple may feel fearful to do the same, and be beaten or even killed for it.
Privileged people take for granted that they are seen as “normal”, non-criminal, responsible, intelligent, etc. Those who are not in the dominant group, are often seen as different, criminal, irresponsible, lacking intelligence, weak, etc.
Privilege means not having to prove yourself. When it comes to race, that often means benefiting from a long history in which your ancestors profited from their hierarchies, enslavement of or exploitation of other races.
The Difference Between Oppression and Prejudice
While people can have interpersonal interactions that are prejudicial, oppression is different from prejudice in that it is not just a personal feeling towards someone else. Oppression is systematically supported by the institutions under the pretense they are supporting equality.
Race is a good example. The US has a long history of institutional racism. A black person can be prejudiced against a white person too – however, in America, as a result of institutional racism, a black person would not be able to oppress a white person. The institutions in America discriminate against black people in the form of racial profiling, stricter sentencing, police brutality, housing and job discrimination, among others. At the same time, they award privilege to white people in the form of assumption of innocence, lighter sentencing, earlier promotions, higher pay, and concern for their well-being that is not shown to other races.
Why Helpers Need to Understand Privilege and Oppression
As Somatica practitioners, therapists, or helpers of any kind, it’s important to be aware of the oppression and privilege your clients experience. At the same time, you need to be cognizant of your own background around these topics.
While this article only scratches the surface of the complexity of oppression and privilege, it is essential look at relationships and sex through this lens as well. Institutional discrimination has all sorts of consequences for people’s emotional and psychological well-being, in addition to their interpersonal relationships.
As practitioners we need to take into account that people come from different cultures. They have had different experiences that impacted their lives. We need to scan for oppression and discrimination and how it might have impacted our clients – the same way that we scan for trauma.
In a recent panel on how privilege and oppression impact our interpersonal relationships, three Somatica graduates spoke to how their lives have been affected. They talked about the tensions that have arisen as a result of the way the outside world perceives interracial relationships. They related how discrimination impacted their feelings about their bodies. And they described the challenges to intimacy that come with the feeling that you always have to present a certain version of yourself in order to stay as safe as possible in a racist world.
You can hear their in-depth, vulnerable, and important shares here:
Some of our clients have also shared their unique experiences with us. It is clear that institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia have been foundational to some of their relational and sexual challenges. Here are their stories:
Healing Ethnic Fears
Jared was a white man who came to us with a dilemma. He was only sexually attracted to Middle Eastern women. However, he was afraid that his friends would judge him for his attraction. He was also apprehensive that his chosen partners would not fit in with his friends. Another worry was that he wouldn’t have enough culturally in common with a woman of Middle Eastern descent to enjoy a long-term relationship. Underneath it all, the biggest issue was that he was ashamed of being attracted to someone who was different. He was trying very hard to change that attraction.
We worked with him on celebrating his attraction instead. We helped him understand why his childhood experiences might have led him to long for difference, and realize that Middle Eastern women was not a monolithic category.
So often racism is evidenced by an erasure of differences between people within that race. In other words – while white people are seen as unique and varied, someone from the Middle East might only be seen as having particular traits. We pointed out that dating Middle Eastern women was the same as dating a woman from any race or ethnicity. Having been born and raised in the U.S, some would have high cultural overlap, while others might not.
During our work together, Jared ended up meeting and eventually marrying a woman from the Middle East.
Expunging Internalized Homophobia
Anthony was a young, black man who came to us with a complaint of erectile dysfunction with the women he was dating. It became clear very quickly that the real issue was that he was gay, which had been completely unacceptable to his father. In sessions with a male practitioner, he showed clear attraction and desire. In sessions with the female practitioner, he stayed shut down and uninterested.
We simultaneously worked with him on his goal of being able to get an erection with women, while gently re-parenting him around accepting and celebrating his attraction to both men and women. During one session with the female practitioner he was finally able to come out as gay, and be loved and supported in his identity.
Overcoming Ingrained Sexist notions of Weakness
A client had come back from war and was dealing with intense PTSD. When he and his wife first married, she had been highly attracted to what she thought of as his masculinity. She liked the way she always felt safe and protected around him, and saw him as strong and powerful. When he returned home from war, his PTSD caused depression. He cried a lot in the months after he returned. His wife felt judgmental and less attracted because what he was showing were not masculine traits.
Since our client was a young, white, able-bodied man and thus at the top of the social hierarchy in the US, this might not seem like an example of privilege and oppression. However, the relationship challenge here was clearly founded in the sexist notion that emotions – which are seen as feminine instead of human – are a sign of weakness.
If we thought of people as having human traits – as opposed to male and female traits – this man’s tears would have been seen as a normal and natural consequence of his traumatic experiences. He would have been much less likely to negatively impact his wife’s attraction.
We worked with his wife to make her understand that crying was different from weakness. She came to grasp that both of them could be emotional, strong, supported and supportive. We also helped them see how they could play with power in the bedroom. She would still feel turned on, but he could be himself too, with his full range of human emotions.
How to Deal with Oppression and Privilege in Your Relationship Coach Practice
We hope you can see from these real-life therapy examples the complexity of ways the different forms of oppression and privilege are part of the fabric of our intimate lives. As a relationship coach, these are the type of challenges clients and partners will bring to you.
We hope you will take some time to look at your own experiences of privilege and oppression, and how they have impacted all the areas of your life. Consider bringing the lens of oppression and privilege to your client work. Taking these societally-enforced differences into account will allow you to be most effective as a helper.
Most of all though – remember to bring empathy, not pity, to your practice. Always focus on a person’s strengths, even as you explore their challenges.
If you’re interested in expanding your practice tool chest, consider joining us for our next Somatica Training.