Abuse in lesbian relationships
Violence against women in now recognized as a significant
health issue. Abuse in lesbian relationships must also be
recognized as a major health concern in our communities. Victims
of abuse may be affected sexually, physically, emotionally,
Although violence against lesbians occurs in other contexts (e.g.,
lesbian bashing and heterosexual rape),
this article focuses on abuse in intimate relationships. Although
the principles presented in this article apply equally to these
contexts, this article also presents additional dynamics in cases
of abuse against lesbians outside their intimate relationships.
It provides guidelines for lesbians, friends, and helping professionals
responding to lesbian abuse.
Fears about coming forward and discussing abuse
Until fairly recently, violence in lesbian relationships has
been a taboo subject and one best kept "behind closed
doors". Only in the recent past have women begun to name
and discuss their abusive relationships. One reason is that,
until recently, abuse has been hidden. However, additional
factors have made it more difficult for lesbians to discuss
abuse in their relationships.
For many lesbians, a same-sex relationship is a positive alternative
to heterosexual relationships. It's often assumed that women interact
in a caring and supportive fashion and that as a result, they cannot be
abusers. Consequently, it's commonly thought that abuse occurs only in
heterosexual relationships. Consider also society's prejudices
and misconceptions about lesbians. There is fear that open discussion
will generate even more negative images and notions about the lesbian
The larger social context
In speaking about violence in lesbian relationships, we must
always consider the larger social context of lesbians' lives.
Violence against lesbians may stem from hatred of women (misogyny)
and fear of homosexuals (homophobia). It can also be linked to
other forms of domination within society, such as racism and
classism. These can provide the framework that allows abusive
relations between people.
For instance, in our society, women often report feeling devalued
or commodified—feeling like little more than sexual objects
or property. Because they are seen as sexual deviants threatening
the social and moral fabric of society, lesbians are often ostracized
and discriminated against.
Where heterosexist and misogynist views exist, anger, fear,
and rage can be misdirected at partners who have come to
represent those things we've been taught to hate in ourselves.
Like others in our society, lesbians are a product of their
upbringing; they could have been been exposed to unhealthy
patterns of dealing with conflict and anger. They may have
learned about relationships from abusive families and may
not have learned how to behave appropriately in an intimate
and caring relationship.
Violence and violent patterns may be learned. A person
who has learned violent patterns may use violence as a means
to gain and maintain control of another person. Therefore,
as a result of societal influences, abuses of power, ownership,
and control can exist in lesbian relationships.
Types of abuse
As seen, abuse is a pattern of behavior in which physical violence and/or
emotional coercion is/are used to gain and maintain power or control in
a relationship. Abuse may be continuous, or it may be a single incident
of assault. Abuse may be physical, sexual, psychological/emotional, or
ecomonomic. It can include threats, the destruction of property, and/or
stalking/harassing behavior. (See Types
of Abuse for more information and concrete examples.)
Prevalence of violence
At present, there are no reliable statistics clearly demonstrating
the scope of lesbian abuse. Although studies have attempted to identify
the incidence of lesbian violence, there has been little consistency
in the results. Therefore, lesbians must often rely on anecdotal
reports to fully appreciate the scope of abuse within the lesbian
community. Some report having been subjected to psychological and
emotional abuse. Others report physical or sexual assault. Unfortunately,
few victims of abuse seek counseling or legal/medical services. It
seems even fewer turn to police, shelters, or distress lines, believing
social service workers, health care officials, and police need to
become educated in order to address the issue properly and appropriately.
Why does lesbian abuse happen? Myths and facts
Although there are many explanations as to why abuse occurs in
lesbian relationships, these are often myths fueled by stereotypes,
fear and prejudice. Below are some common myths:
Myth: Lesbian relationships are never abusive.
Fact: Although it's commonly thought that
lesbians are caring and supportive to one another, violence
does exist in some relationships.
Myth: Lesbian violence occurs only in "butch"
and "femme" relationships. The "butch" is the batterer and
the "femme" is the victim.
Fact: Regardless of the fact that most lesbians
do not assume explicitly butch-femme roles, the roles themselves
do not automatically dictate who has more power or the desire
to exercise more control in the relationship.
Myth: Abuse between lesbians is mutual.
Both partners contribute equally to the violence.
Fact: This myths assumes that lesbian relationships
are always equal partnerships. In violent relationships, there
is often a perpetrator and a victim. A perpetrator cannot
be distinguished by any features such as size, height, or
age. Defending oneself against an attacker must be examined
closely as it may be mistakenly construed either as initiating
or equally contributing to abuse.
Myth: Abusive lesbian relationships involve
apolitical lesbians or lesbians who are part of the lesbian
Fact: Violence in lesbian relationships
is not limited to any particular "type" of lesbian.
Abuse transcends race, class, age, political affiliation,
Myth: Lesbian violence is caused by substance
abuse, stress, childhood violence, or provocation.
Fact: While these factors may account for
an abuser's patterns of abusive behavior, there is no simple
cause-and-effect relationship. Abusers have choices and can
control their behavior. Abusers must assume responsibility for
their actions; there's no excuse or justification for violence.
Domestic Violence in the Lesbian Community — Part I
This article at Suite101.com explores violence in lesbian relationship and discusses four factors which may make it harder for lesbians to leave an abusive partner.
Domestic Violence in the Lesbian Community — Part 2
This article at Suite101.com provides some tips for lesbians who are in or who have left abusive relationships. It also looks at ways the lesbian community can better support victims of same-sex domestic violence.