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Violence against women

Sexual assault
Learn about rape trauma syndrome, date rape, and the impact of rape on relationships

Domestic violence
Learn why it happens and how to get help.

Child sexual abuse/incest
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Domestic violence

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, and psychologically.

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 community.

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 bar culture.

    Fact: Violence in lesbian relationships is not limited to any particular "type" of lesbian. Abuse transcends race, class, age, political affiliation, and interests.

  • 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.

Related articles

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.

Domestic violence

Editor's picks

Following are just some of the wonderful books on this topic available from Amazon.com. Click on the cover art to learn more.

Why Does He Do That?

The Verbally Abusive Relationship

Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence

It's My Life Now

For even more resources, visit Amazon.com

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Mary Kay Inc. Supports Women's Shelters
Since 2000, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation has awarded millions of dollars to women's shelters across the United States. From 2005 through 2007, the Foundation has awarded $20,000 grants, totaling $3 million, to 150 shelters in all 50 states for each of these years.

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