Stigma’s consequences part 2: inequality’s insidious impact

If you’re a minority, the news cycle has been dreary. Inequality is everywhere, whether it’s toxic bosses who demand you work for free after-hours, rising costs while your wages stay the same, or even seeing men paid better for the same jobs women do. The same inequality that gave rise to the civil rights movement hasn’t gone away; it’s simply morphed into a complex economic form while we seem powerless to do anything about it.

My name is Timothy, and I’m an abuse survivor. I’m also an autistic married gay man. This is part 2 of a series of posts about stigma’s impact on sexual violence prevention and how we can explore better options. This part concerns how inequality connects to abuse and some circumstances that lead to child sexual abuse. If you haven’t read part 1, you can do that here.

Where does inequality come from?

Inequality isn’t just an observable statistical phenomenon; it’s also a belief system. It comes from the idea that one group of people is better than another and that you deserve better things than someone else. This can seem harmless at first. Maybe you have trauma of your own, have worked hard to get ahead in life and feel like you’ve earned it. Maybe you feel like other groups of people, or maybe just individuals from that group, don’t work as hard as you do.

These phenomena also come from policies – ideas written down by fallible human beings working with incomplete information or biases from their upbringing. Of course, those same human beings don’t think they’re doing anything wrong when they create these unequal policies; they think they’re doing their best to create a better world.

Hopefully, by now, you’ve picked up on a theme: Bias. When someone isn’t exposed to Black people, and the few people they are exposed to seem difficult to work with or hostile or whatever negative descriptor you want to use, they will start forming a general opinion about the entire group. The only real counter to bias is intentionality: Purposely acknowledging that the opinion isn’t complete and needs more data and working deliberately with more Black people to get that wider perspective.

I worked with Black people in that example, but you can insert any minority, and the analogy works. Inequality comes from us. It comes from the ideas about other groups of people that we accept at face value without asking where the idea originated.

Inequality causes vulnerability

When people aren’t equal at a social or economic level, they don’t have the same opportunities or the same protections. That makes them vulnerable to mistreatment, misinformation, and that ugly word: Stigma, hostility, and malice. When minorities are vulnerable to this, it’s socially okay to treat them worse, and if that’s the case, then socially taboo things are now socially acceptable. It’s okay because it’s them. They’re not the same as me, so I get to treat them worse. It’s a slippery slope, and you might protest that it’s a fallacy, but history and social psychology show us it’s a logical prediction. Nazi, Germany didn’t start off with the mass murdering of Jews; it started with hateful propaganda blaming the Jews for social ills (and the bad ending to World War 1).

That can be little things – simple rudeness, maybe letting the door close on someone or cutting them off in traffic – but eventually, it escalates to bigger things, like trying to find ways of ensuring they can’t live in our neighborhood. Maybe that’s by raising property values and taxes so they can’t afford to live here. Maybe it’s by paying them less for the same position as someone who isn’t them.

When we put other human beings into this environment where they struggle in a vulnerable position, we’re creating a situation where they can be exploited and harmed and may then exploit and harm others. Add in trauma, maybe generational trauma from their father and their father’s father living this way. Add in the reality of what it’s like to live every day knowing that you don’t have enough money, and those other people do.

Try to put yourself in their shoes. Would you be able to break out of the rut and make a better life? Would you know what resources you have or where you can find support? Would you know that you even can live in a better reality, or would you just accept that this is your reality and give up? This is what stigma does to people. This is what inequality and fear can do.

Stigma interferes with support

Stigma in the form of inequality can turn otherwise resourceful people into limited, narrow-minded individuals who either cannot find support or, worse, cannot afford support. Worse because they see the resources that could help them, but they can’t access those resources. This means their ability to break out of the inequality and stigma is limited, and they need further support that they don’t know how to find, ask for, or can’t access.

Inequality, fear, and stigma form a downward spiral that can suck even the most resourceful people into maladaptive behaviors. Child sexual abuse is just one possible example, and the reality of this downward spiral is that it can take many forms and have many different effects. Suicide, mental health struggles, substance abuse, and addictions can be just as real as poverty, disease, and lack of support.

Equality isn’t the answer

As you may have guessed, making sure things are equal isn’t the solution because not everyone needs the same resources. If someone’s health due to inequality requires therapy twice a week and substance use treatment, giving them employer-sponsored healthcare is simply not good enough. They need more support than that at a systemic level.

What some have called justice or liberation is the removal of barriers to the resources they need. For some stupid reason, some call this justice or liberation ‘woke’ and eschew it as preposterous. I guess tradition is better than caring for fellow human beings (sarcasm). The goal of liberation and justice is to support our fellow human beings in what they need to thrive, not just survive. These policies are things like universal healthcare, guaranteed basic income, and guaranteed housing, and the principles behind them are not in some socialist ideas of distributing wealth. The principle is that there are basic human needs, and meeting those needs is the ethical and humane thing to do.

We have the resources to do this once the exploitation of workers moves from the horrendous CEO-to-worker salary ratios we have seen in the last 25 years. Some countries have already implemented these policies, and they work. Some cities have already done very successful trials of basic income. At the policy level is where equity, justice, and liberation can take a front seat and break inequality and its stigma.

Stigma’s basis

Stigma finds its basis in fear, vulnerability, inequality, and learned exploitation. Stigma is deliberate ignorance of a topic in hopes we don’t have to deal with it or think about it, so that we can stay in our comfort zone and not think critically about an issue. Stigma is giving into bias and what we have blindly accepted as fact without questioning where it comes from or why we believe negative tropes about other groups of human beings.

How do you think we can move away from stigma?

Part 3 of Stigma’s Consequences will be available on July 24th.


  1. i guess i’m finding it rather difficult. to understand how this relates to the cause and your mission statement. and i’m not sure if one should rubbish equality. there’s issues with it, but also with equity. forcing equality of outcome seems to come with its own set of challenges and some of the methods have been criticized as illiberal.

    there seems to be a Gramscian undercurrent that is in many institutions and i’m trying to make heads and tails of it. It concerns me a great deal for many reasons.

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