The term “Oppression Olympics” refers to the claim that the oppression faced by one group of marginalized people is somehow worse than the oppression faced by another group. Competing to see who’s more oppressed is rightly viewed as counterproductive and a derailing tactic in social justice activism. Aside from the general futility of such arguments, competitors in the Oppression Olympics ignore the reality that many people face intersecting oppressions. Therefore it’s far more helpful to think of individuals as privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others, rather than attempt to create a hierarchy of oppression in which the most oppressed is considered the winner.
One thing I’ve noticed is that feminists are more likely than other social justice activists to call each other out for “engaging in Oppression Olympics.” However, most of the people called out for this offense aren’t saying sexism is worse than other *isms. What they are usually saying is that sexism is considered more normal and acceptable than some other types of bigotry. Simply pointing to the success of another social justice movement and asking, “How can we learn from that?” is enough to get feminists accused of playing Oppression Olympics (interestingly, several of the commenters in the Feministe thread making the Oppression Olympics charge are serious competitors in the games themselves).
As I’ve mentioned before, the male hosts of our local radio station’s morning show are unabashedly sexist. In fact, that’s true for the hosts of every single morning radio show I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing. They may very well be racist too. I suspect that they are. But they know better than to make racist jokes on the air. Not because racism is a thing of the past, but because the anti-racism movement has succeeded in making racist on-air pronouncements more or less unacceptable. I’ve noticed the same thing slowly starting to happen with anti-gay jokes, thanks to the work we’ve been doing in the LGBTQ rights movement. Sexist and misogynist jokes, however, remain as acceptable and noncontroversial as ever. But we’re not supposed to talk about that? Or we can talk about it only if we neglect to look at other social justice movements that have been more successful to see what we can learn from them? No wonder we’re not making more headway.
Another reason someone may compare sexism to other types of bigotry is that hatred of women is so acceptable in our society, many people fail to notice it or see anything wrong with it even when it’s pointed out to them. This became very apparent again recently when many of those outraged by the racist video made by female UCLA student Alexandra Wallace responded with an avalanche of sexism and misogyny. Several people pointed out that fighting bigotry with more bigotry doesn’t work, but they didn’t get very far. Without a hint of irony, commenters argued that “the bitch had it coming” and that this kind of hate speech wouldn’t be allowed to stand. To drive home the point that misogyny was wrong no matter how reprehensible Wallace’s bigotry had been, someone asked if racist slurs would be acceptable against a black man who made a misogynist video. That, of course, quickly got them accused of engaging in you-know-what.
An argument against comparing oppressions is that even without an explicit claim that oppression X is worse than oppression Y, the implication is there. I’m not sure I buy that. For example, if a rapist targets me because I’m having a sexual relationship with another woman and calls me a “fucking dyke” during the attack, there’s a better chance that my rape will be considered a hate crime than if I’m targeted because I’m a woman and called a “fucking bitch” by my rapist. That’s a fact. It doesn’t mean that gay/bi women have it easier than straight women. Nor does it mean that the rape of a gay or bi woman is more likely to be taken seriously than that of a straight woman. While her rape is more likely to be considered a hate crime (if the victim is in a reasonably progressive jurisdiction, that is), she runs the risk of having to deal with investigators, prosecutors, and medical personnel who have homophobic preconceptions in addition to their sexist ones. But when it comes to hate crime status, I’m better off if my attacker is seen as having targeted me because of my sexual orientation as opposed to my sex. That’s ALL that statement means. And why make such a statement? Simple. The example illustrates that women are targeted because of their sex in much the same way gay people are targeted because of their sexual orientation, but the latter is widely considered a hate crime and the former isn’t (but should be).
There’s something else I’ve noticed about the Oppression Olympics charge in the (online) feminist community: Argue that bigotry against marginalized group X is more likely to be acknowledged or taken seriously than bigotry against women, and people will call you out on your participation in the Oppression Olympics in a New York second. Argue that the oppression faced by marginalized group X is more serious than the oppression faced by most women, and there’s a good chance you won’t be called out at all. For instance, the first time I saw someone state that white privilege trumps male privilege and that consequently white women have it far easier than men of color, I waited for the usual Oppression Olympics charge. Nothing. And I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen trans activists and their allies argue that women who had male privilege and gave it up (i.e., trans women) are far more oppressed than women who never had male privilege at all.
This leads me to believe that certain feminists don’t so much have a problem with comparing different oppressions or even with arguing that marginalized group X is worse off than marginalized group Y. What really seems to bother them is the argument that the oppression of women is at least as serious and deserving of attention and activism as the oppression of other marginalized groups. I think many third-wave feminists are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that women are oppressed as a class. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on other types of oppression. You know, the ones that men experience too. The ones that matter. And so it is that the oppression of poor women is considered a serious concern. And the oppression of women of color, and trans women, and fat women, and disabled women, and so on. But what about a woman who is none of those things, who isn’t part of any other oppressed group? Is she oppressed at all?
An argument I come across with alarming frequency is that women are so different from each other and experience oppression in so many different ways that there’s really nothing that unites us. No common ground. The class “women” is so varied as to be meaningless. Therefore feminists should concern themselves with fighting all forms of oppression equally and that will automatically benefit women. Besides, it’s just selfish to put the needs of “women” (usually interpreted as meaning class-privileged white women who are viewed as the main beneficiaries of feminism) ahead of other marginalized people.
Of course the same arguments could be made for every other oppressed group and corresponding social justice movement. Do these women believe all gay people experience homophobia precisely the same way–regardless of sex, gender, class, race, age, religion, disability, size, physical attractiveness, education, nationality, etc.? Do they think all black people experience racism the exact same way? Of course not. These groups are just as diverse as women, but no one is arguing that they have nothing in common and that their gay rights or anti-racism platform is selfish and should be abandoned in order to fight for all marginalized people equally. Only feminists do that.
Let’s face it, as women we’re socialized to put the needs of others ahead of our own and to feel guilty when we do things for our own benefit. Putting our own needs first is considered particularly egregious. It’s one thing to do things for yourself as long as you do the same for others, but a woman placing her own needs ahead of others’ makes many people profoundly uncomfortable. I think that’s why the Oppression Olympics charge is so common in the feminist community and why it’s usually leveled at those who suggest that women are getting a raw deal because sexism and misogyny are less likely to be acknowledged, let alone taken seriously, than other forms of oppression that also affect men. Moving beyond that socialization can be very difficult, even for feminists.
But it’s important that we do. If there’s one thing history has taught us it’s that we can’t count on men–even those who call themselves liberals or progressives or allies–to fight our battles for us. For the vast majority of dudes, injustices affecting men will always take precedence over those resulting from sexism and misogyny. If even feminists aren’t prepared to prioritize sex-based discrimination and abuse, women’s oppression will forever remain an afterthought.