Domestic violence in lesbian relationships

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Domestic violence within lesbian relationships is the pattern of violent and coercive behavior in a female same-sex relationship wherein a lesbian or other non-heterosexual woman seeks to control the thoughts, beliefs, or conduct of her female intimate partner.[1][2] In the case of multiple forms of domestic partner abuse, it is also referred to as lesbian battering.[3]


The issue of domestic violence among lesbians has become a serious social concern,[4] but the topic has often been ignored, both in academic analyses and in the establishment of social services for battered women.[5] The CDC has stated that 43.8% of lesbian women reported experiencing physical violence, stalking, or rape by their partners. The study notes that, out of those 43.8%, two thirds (67.4%) reported exclusively female perpetrators. The other third reported at least one perpetrator being male, however the study made no distinction between victims who experienced violence from male perpetrators only and those who reported both male and female perpetrators. Similarly, 61.1% of bisexual women reported physical violence, stalking, or rape by their partners in the same study with 89.5% reporting at least one perpetrator being male. In contrast, 35% of heterosexual women reported having been victim of intimate partner violence, with 98.7% of them reporting male perpetrators exclusively.[6]

The Encyclopedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention states, "For several methodological reasons – nonrandom sampling procedures and self-selection factors, among others – it is not possible to assess the extent of same-sex domestic violence. Studies on abuse between gay male or lesbian partners usually rely on small convenience samples such as lesbian or gay male members of an association."[7] Some sources state that gay and lesbian couples experience domestic violence at the same frequency as heterosexual couples,[8] while other sources state domestic violence among gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals might be higher than that among heterosexual individuals, that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals are less likely to report domestic violence that has occurred in their intimate relationships than heterosexual couples are, or that lesbian couples experience domestic violence less than heterosexual couples do.[9] By contrast, some researchers commonly assume that lesbian couples experience domestic violence at the same rate as heterosexual couples, and have been more cautious when reporting domestic violence among gay male couples.[7]

The issue of domestic violence among lesbian couples may be underreported due to the gender roles that women are expected to play in society; violence perpetrated by women may be ignored due to beliefs that the male social construction itself is a primary source of violence.[10] The social construction of women is characterized as passive, dependent, nurturing, and highly emotional, and the social construction of men is characterized as competitive, aggressive, strong, and even prone to violence. Due to forms of discrimination, homophobia, and heterosexism, and the belief that heterosexuality is normative within society, domestic violence has been characterized as being between the male perpetrator and the female victim.[4] This contributes to the invisibility of all domestic violence perpetrated by women. Further, the fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes could lead some community members, activists, and victims to deny the extent of violence among lesbians.[11] Social service agencies are often unwilling to assist victims of domestic violence perpetrated by women.[11] Victims of domestic violence in lesbian relationships are less likely to have the case prosecuted within existing legal systems.[5]

In an effort to overcome the denial of domestic violence in lesbian relationships, advocates for abused women often concentrate on similarities between homosexual and heterosexual domestic violence. The main goal of activists is to legitimize lesbian domestic violence as real abuse and validate the experience of its victims.[5]

Other factors of unreliability[edit]

Literature and research regarding domestic violence in lesbian relationships is relatively limited, including in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Many different factors play into this, such as "different definitions of domestic violence, non-random, self selected and opportunistic sampling methods (often organisation or agency based, or advertising for participants who have experienced violence) and different methods and types of data collected".[12] This causes results to be unreliable, thus making it difficult to make general assumptions about the rates of lesbian domestic violence. This has caused rates of violence in lesbian relationships to range from 17 to 73 percent as of the 1990s, being too large of a scale to accurately determine the pervasiveness of lesbian abuse in the community.[12]

Since not all lesbians are open about their sexuality, large random samples are difficult to obtain and therefore are unable to show trends in the general lesbian community.[12] Research samples tend to be smaller, causing report rates of violence to be lower than they may be. This is "a consequence of the invisibility of such violence and fear of homophobic reactions".[12]

Theoretical analysis of domestic violence in lesbian relationships is heavily debated. Popular approaches mainly discuss "the comparability of violence in lesbian and gay male relationships (same sex violence) or draw on feminist theories of gendered power relations, comparing domestic violence between lesbians and heterosexual women".[12] Some theorists also study same sex violence by defining gender as anatomy, and claim that gender is not relevant in any case of domestic violence due to its prevalence in same-sex relationships that is perpetrated as a form of homophobic behavior and occurs without consequence.[12] Other theorists argue that gay men and lesbians still internalize feminine and masculine behaviors, causing lesbians to "mimic traditional heterosexual relationships" and create blatant power dynamics between dominant and submissive partners.[12]


The scope of domestic violence among lesbian relationships displays the pattern of intimidation, coercion, terrorism, or violence that achieves enhanced power and control for the perpetrator over her partner.[5] The forms of domestic violence in lesbian relationships include physical abuse, such as hitting, choking, using weapons, or restraining, often referred to as "battering"; emotional abuse, such as lying, neglecting, and degrading; intimidation threats, such as threats to harm the victim, their family, or their pets; sexual abuse, such as forcing sex or refusing safe sex; destruction of property, such as vandalizing the home and damaging furniture, clothing, or personal objects; economic, such as controlling the victim's money and forcing financial dependence.[13] In addition, psychological abuse was found to be common among lesbian victims. Outing is a specific and unique form of psychological abuse found in the LGBTQ community. This includes threatening to disclose someone's sexuality or relationship status to family, friends, and workplace as a form of control.[14] Findings from studies have shown that slapping was the most commonly reported form of abuse, while beatings and assaults with weapons were less frequent.[4] Sexual violence within lesbian relationships was found to be as high as 55%. The most frequent type included forced kissing, breast, and genital fondling, and oral, anal, or vaginal penetration. Eighty percent of victims reported psychological abuse and verbal abuse. Lesbians are also less likely to use physical force or threats than gay men.[15]

Contributing factors[edit]


Factors that contribute to domestic violence include the belief that abuse (physical or verbal) is acceptable, substance abuse, unemployment, mental health problems, lack of coping skills, isolation, and excessive dependence on the abuser.[16]

Stigma towards lesbians[edit]

Lesbian couples frequently experience social stigma against them, including experiences of discrimination and bias against them, as well as other minority stress factors which can include the fear of outing, internalized homophobia, the butch/femme identity, and relationship quality.[17]

The stressors associated with this stigmatization can increase emotional distress in lesbians, including higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders.[18] These stressors increase the likelihood of alcohol being used as a coping mechanism.[18] Sexual minorities, including lesbians, have higher rates of alcohol consumption which can factor into domestic violence.[19]

Alcohol use[edit]

Alcohol use, especially discrepant drinking, and domestic violence have found to have significant association.[20] Discrepant drinking is the difference in alcohol use between partners.[20] Alcohol use has been linked with physical and psychological aggression in same-sex relationships.[20] It has also been found that physical and psychological aggression in a relationship can predict alcohol use in the future.[20] This demonstrates the cyclical nature of intimate partner violence and alcohol use.[20] Alcohol use is an important risk factor for domestic violence in lesbian relationships.[20]

Internalized homophobia[edit]

A perpetrator may use her partner's internalized homophobia to justify her own violence. This may cause a general distaste or negative conception of the lesbian identity, both of oneself and others. This behavior is described as horizontal hostility, or minority groups becoming hostile or violent toward each other.[21] This stems from both finding it easier to direct hatred toward other oppressed groups and internalized homophobia and misogyny. In the case of domestic violence in lesbian relationships, this hostility is perpetuated in the form of intimate partner abuse.[21]

In some cases, the lesbian community can dismiss cases of domestic violence in lesbian relationships or shame victims of domestic violence.[22] This contributes to low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, denial of group membership, and difficulty being in committed and trusting relationships. These negative feelings are then acted out in the form of lesbian battering. Also women fear that they might suffer from isolation, risk of losing their job, housing or family as consequences to homophobia and internalized homophobia.[1] A woman who abuses her female partner can use homophobic control as a method of psychological abuse, which further isolates the victim.[4] For example, an abuser may out her partner without permission by revealing her sexual orientation to others, including relatives, employers, and landlords, and in child custody cases. This form of abuse could result in a variety of negative consequences for the victim, such as being shunned by family members and the loss of children, a job, and housing. In fearing isolation due to homophobia, lesbians also experience the phenomenon of living in the "second closet", or that they must keep both their sexualities and experiences with domestic violence hidden from others due to fear of negative repercussions.[22] These homophobic roots also integrate themselves into how lesbians raise their children.[23]

Past experiences with domestic violence and abuse[edit]

Many lesbians who are either battered or batter have had experience with domestic violence and sexual assault, often familial or as a child, including beatings, incest, molestation, and verbal abuse.[23] In growing up in living situations where violence is "normalized", the partner often does not label the problem or recognize that the violence within the relationship is an issue. This can also translate into how the couple raise potential children and implement discipline.[23]

Power and control[edit]

Domestic violence in lesbian relationships happens for many reasons. Domestic violence can occur due to control. Violence is most frequently employed as a tactic for achieving interpersonal power or control over their partner.[5] Also perceived loss of power or control may also lead to increased violence within the relationship. The alienation and isolation imposed by internalized and external oppression may construct loss of control, and the need to reclaim it becomes the central concern for lesbians. Lesbians may be denied control over numerous aspects of their lives.[22] However, if she remains in the closet, she is also denied control, subjected to continuous self-monitoring, and forced to deal with stress so that she could hide her identity and her intimate relationship from the eyes of others. The perpetrator of violence in an intimate relationship can also threaten their partner to abduct their children if only one has legal custody of their children.[22] On the contrary, there have also been cases of lesbians and lesbian couples that become guardian ad litems and households that have been licensed to provide temporary foster care for children that are vulnerable to domestic violence.[22] Power and control take advantage the most intimate parts of lesbian relationships, including sex life and the individual agency of the victim in the relationship.[22]

Dependency and self-esteem factors[edit]

Another reason why domestic violence can occur is dependency.[5] The need to achieve balance between separateness and connection has been identified as the primary task in relationships, and is a specifically frequent problem in lesbian relationships.[15] The degree of dependence on a relationship and on one's intimate partner causes abuse. Lesbians who report more frequent use of violent tactics in conflict with their partner will report a higher level of dependency as a personality trait.

Dependency in lesbian relationships is also a result of female-specific socialization.[15] Since women have been socialized for "togetherness" and cooperative living, women often struggle with balancing social life and being alone. A study found that lesbians are more likely to spend free time at home than homosexual men are.[15] In lesbian relationships, women often find it difficult to spend time apart because they feel pressured to take care of one another. Women may assume that spending time away from their partner would make them upset or angry. Without proper communication, improper management of time may lead to unhealthy discourse within a relationship, and partner equality remains difficult to maintain.[15]

Self-esteem is another underlying factor of domestic abuse. Low self-esteem and a negative self-image are qualities that characterize both perpetrators and victims of heterosexual domestic violence. The jealousy and the possessiveness that are frequently linked to battering behavior are associated with problems of low self-esteem and negative self-concept. Lesbians who report more frequent use of violent tactics in conflicts with their partners will report a lower level of self-esteem as a personality trait.[5]

Erasure of homosexuality in domestic violence shelters[edit]

Domestic violence shelters also provide heterocentric services for battered women, which further isolates battered lesbians and silences the pervasiveness of domestic violence in lesbian relationships. The perpetrator of violence in an abusive relationship is often assumed to be male, while the victim of the violence is assumed to be straight.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bornstein, Danica R.; Fawcett, Jake; Sullivan, Marianne; Senturia, Kirsten D.; Shiu-Thornton, Sharyne (June 2006). "Understanding the experiences of lesbian, bisexual and trans survivors of domestic violence: a qualitative study". Journal of Homosexuality. 51 (1): 159–181. doi:10.1300/J082v51n01_08. PMID 16893830. S2CID 12763557.
  2. ^ Healey, Justin. (2005). Domestic violence. Spinney Press. ISBN 1-920801-38-3. OCLC 62547585.
  3. ^ Renzetti, Claire (1992). Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships. Newbury Park: SAGE Publications.
  4. ^ a b c d West, Carolyn M. (March 2002). "Lesbian intimate partner violence: prevalence and dynamics". Journal of Lesbian Studies. 6 (1): 121–127. doi:10.1300/J155v06n01_11. PMID 24803054. S2CID 30945308.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Miller, Diane Helene; Greene, Kathryn; Causby, Vickie; White, Barbara W.; Lockhart, Lettie L. (October 2001). "Domestic violence in lesbian relationships". Women & Therapy. 23 (3): 107–127. doi:10.1300/J015v23n03_08. S2CID 145490138.
  6. ^ Walters, Mikel L., Jieru Chen, and Matthew J. Breiding. "The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation." Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 648, no. 73 (2013): 6.
  7. ^ a b Bonnie S. Fisher; Steven P. Lab (2010). Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, Volume 1. SAGE. p. 312. ISBN 978-1412960472. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  8. ^ Andrew Karmen (2010). Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology. Cengage Learning. p. 255. ISBN 978-0495599296. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  9. ^ Robert L. Hampton; Thomas P. Gullotta (2010). Interpersonal Violence in the African-American Community: Evidence-Based Prevention and Treatment Practices. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 49. ISBN 978-0387295985. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  10. ^ Little, Betsi; Terrance, Cheryl (March 2010). "Perceptions of domestic violence in lesbian relationships: stereotypes and gender role expectations". Journal of Homosexuality. 57 (3): 429–440. doi:10.1080/00918360903543170. PMID 20391003. S2CID 44933182.
  11. ^ a b Brown, Michael J.; Groscup, Jennifer (February 2009). "Perceptions of same-sex domestic violence among crisis center staff". Journal of Family Violence. 24 (2): 87–93. doi:10.1007/s10896-008-9212-5. S2CID 26062487.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Irwin, Jude (June 2008). "(Dis)counted Stories: Domestic Violence and Lesbians". Qualitative Social Work: Research and Practice. 7 (2): 199–215. doi:10.1177/1473325008089630. S2CID 145674226.
  13. ^ Bimbi, David S.; Palmadessa, Nancy A.; Parsons, Jeffrey T. (2008). "Substance use and domestic violence among urban gays, lesbians and bisexuals". Journal of LGBT Health Research. 3 (2): 1–7. doi:10.1300/J463v03n02_01. PMID 19835036.
  14. ^ Carvalho, Amana F.; Lewis, Robin J.; Derlega, Valerian J.; Winstead, Barbara A.; Viggiano, Claudia (October 2011). "Internalized Sexual Minority Stressors and Same-Sex Intimate Partner Violence". Journal of Family Violence. 26 (7): 501–509. doi:10.1007/s10896-011-9384-2. ISSN 0885-7482. S2CID 21930863.
  15. ^ a b c d e Darty, Trudy; Potter, Sandee (1984). Women-Identified Women. Palo Alto: Mayfield.
  16. ^ Newman, Willis C.; Newman, Esmeralda (2008), "What is domestic violence? (What causes domestic violence?)", in Newman, Willis C.; Newman, Esmeralda (eds.), Domestic violence: causes and cures and anger management, Tacoma, Washington: Newman International LLC, p. 11, ISBN 9781452843230, archived from the original on 2015-10-22
  17. ^ Balsam, Kimberly F.; Szymanski, Dawn M. (September 2005). "Relationship quality and domestic violence in women's same-sex relationships: the role of minority stress". Psychology of Women Quarterly. 29 (3): 258–269. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2005.00220.x. S2CID 144366701.
  18. ^ a b Lewis, Robin J.; Padilla, Miguel A.; Milletich, Robert J.; Kelley, Michelle L.; Winstead, Barbara A.; Lau-Barraco, Cathy; Mason, Tyler B. (August 2015). "Emotional Distress, Alcohol Use, and Bidirectional Partner Violence Among Lesbian Women". Violence Against Women. 21 (8): 917–938. doi:10.1177/1077801215589375. ISSN 1077-8012. PMC 4490938. PMID 26062874.
  19. ^ Kelley, Michelle L.; Lewis, Robin J.; Mason, Tyler B. (November 2015). "Discrepant Alcohol Use, Intimate Partner Violence, and Relationship Adjustment among Lesbian Women and their Same-Sex Intimate Partners". Journal of Family Violence. 30 (8): 977–986. doi:10.1007/s10896-015-9743-5. ISSN 0885-7482. PMC 4607288. PMID 26478657.
  20. ^ a b c d e f Lewis, Robin J.; Winstead, Barbara A.; Braitman, Abby L.; Hitson, Phoebe (August 2018). "Discrepant Drinking and Partner Violence Perpetration Over Time in Lesbians' Relationships". Violence Against Women. 24 (10): 1149–1165. doi:10.1177/1077801218781925. ISSN 1077-8012. PMC 6071314. PMID 30037320.
  21. ^ a b Pharr, Suzanne (1988). Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. Chardon. ISBN 9780962022210.
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  23. ^ a b c Clunis, Merilee; Green, Dorsey (1993). Lesbian Couples: Creating Healthy Relationships for the '90's. Seal. ISBN 9781878067371.