How professionals can respond
While many emergency services personnel have received training
in domestic violence, some perhaps lack understanding of women
in abusive relationships, and in particaluar, an understanding
of abuse within lesbian relationships.
Professionals and caregivers must therefore examine their own
feelings about women—both heterosexual women and lesbians—and
acknowledge and address any ill feelings they may have. It's important
to identify any reservations, homophobic feelings, or other negative
responses in order to change those stemming from stereotypes and
In abusive situations, it's important for emergency service personnel
to acknowledge the major difference between heterosexuals and
lesbians—to look at the larger social and political context
and in particular, homophobia and heterosexism.
Homophobia is an irrational and often unconscious fear
and hatred of lesbians and gays. It also defines the fear of getting
close to someone of the same sex. For example, it's homophobic
to subscribe to myths about lesbians
or to approach the idea of helping a lesbian without acknowledging
the positive aspects of her orientation, choosing instead to focus
on the negatives.
Heterosexism is based on societal structures and institutions,
often patriarchal, which establish and perpetuate heterosexuality
as the norm. An example is the common question on many forms that
asks about marital status: this assumes that all respondents are
Regardless of whether we are friends, social service providers,
police, legal workers or judges, regardless of whether we are
in an abusive relationship, and regardless of our sexual orientation—lesbian,
gay, bisexual or straight—homophobia and heterosexism affect
all of us. Therefore, when working with lesbians
in abusive relationships, it's important to remember that
the many reasons for staying in an abusive
relationship are similar for lesbians and heterosexual women.
During periods of calm, (see The Cycle of Abuse)
abusers may appear charming, supportive, nurturing, friendly, and outgoing.
There may be economic factors that keep a woman from leaving. She may continue
to blame herself for the abuse, and she may be convinced that if she tries
hard enough, she can stop it. (See The Effects of Abuse.)
There are many additional reasons that keep women in abusive
situations. These include issues of disclosure and fear. In addition,
lesbians may feel added anxiety relating to having to disclose
their sexual orientation. In some cases, internalized homophobia—believing
that negative myths and stereotypes
about lesbians are true—can significantly hinder a lesbian's
self-esteem. Internalized homophobia and fear of homophobic responses
often isolate lesbian couples and add stress to their relationships.
Fear of homophobia often keeps lesbians who have been abused from
seeking help. It adds to fears they will not be believed, that
there are inadequate resources available to help them, and they
and their partners will be chastised for being lesbians.
Lesbians who are abused may also believe women are not intentionally
abusive, and as a result of this thinking, they may excuse or deny the
abuse. Many believe that giving up a lesbian relationship and leaving a
lesbian partner is giving in to the stereotype that lesbian relationships
are pathological or transitory.
Guidelines for professionals
In dealing with women who are abused:
- Don't assume that an abused woman's
partner is male.
- In initial contacts with emergency, legal, or medical services, an
abused woman, if she is lesbian, may try to pretend her abuser is male.
She is more likely to reveal that her abuser is female only after the
helping process is initiated and particularly if she feels the responses
she's received aren't judgmental and don't automatically assume
her partner is male.
- Upon disclosure, remain supportive.
- In the case of a lesbian who has been abused, it's all the more
important to impart an attitude of acceptance about her sexual
orientation and to continue to support her in her acceptance of
herself as a lesbian. In some cases, unlike heterosexual women who
have a mistrust of men, lesbians who have been abused may have an
initial wariness and mistrust of women caregivers.
- Be aware of stereotypes.
- Be aware of the prevailing myths
about lesbian relationships.
- Remember what's important.
- The first priority is to assess safety issues and to help set up a
- Document the abuse.
- Document the abuse and begin to address the medical and legal issues.
- Respect confidentiality.
- Women who have been abused fear future violent incidents by their abusers.
They fear negative responses by friends and family, and they are often
embarrassed or ashamed to disclose their abuse. A woman's choice to
make disclosures to family, caregivers, children, friends, co-workers,
or members of her ethnic or racial group is hers and hers alone. Her
choices need to be respected and supported. As professionals, it's important
to respect women's choice and to offer verbal reassurance that her
choices will be respected.
- Understand the emotional effects of abuse.
- Abuse has far-reaching emotional consequences
that are just as frightening and devastating as the incident of physical
assault itself. Self-blame, guilt, and shame are common emotional responses
for women abused in their relationships. It's important to address these
issues when counseling abused women. Women who have been abused will
need to talk and to express their feelings about their abuse. In order
to do this, women must feel they are in a safe, accepting environment.
They need to know they are not being blamed for what's happened to them.
They will want to understand their situation and to continue to make
choices about courses of action.
It's helpful to women to know they are not alone in their experience and
that others have been similarly abused. It's also helpful for a victim of
domestic violence to understand that abuse is a means for her partner to
gain and maintain control. As a caregiver, your main objective should
always be to assist women in rebuilding their self-esteem and confidence.
Only once they have regained a healthy view of themselves can women
once again be in control over their lives.
- Sexual assault and sexual coercion are not
- It's important for caregivers to recognize this fact and to give abused
women freedom to talk about it. It's particularly hard for lesbians to
talk about this type of abuse, just as it's
difficult for heterosexual women to talk about it. Caregivers need to
not only be comfortable exploring sexual assault and sexual abuse,
they also need to be prepared to return to these topics with victims
since initially, abused women may be reluctant to discuss them.
- If you suspect domestic violence within
a relationship, interview partners separately.
- In cases where you offer counseling to couples and you suspect there
is violence within the relationship, interview partners separately.
If violence has been disclosed,
don't engage in couple counseling unless the abuse has stopped for a
reasonable period of time, the abuser is receiving help, and the
abused partner is no longer afraid. If you dismiss these guidelines,
you risk perpetuating the abuse.
- Consider the importance of establishing
supportive social networks.
Following are just some of the wonderful books on this topic
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For even more resources, visit Amazon.com
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Since 2000, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation has awarded millions of dollars
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