Domestic and sexual violence occurring in same-sex (two men or two women) couple relationships has increasingly been acknowledged in the last decade, but services continue to be limited. Most mainstream service agencies do not address same-sex partner violence in their outreach materials, and there continues to be a lack of trust on the part of abused survivors that they can call crisis lines and be treated with dignity. Societal homophobia—the belief that same-sex relationships are wrong and unnatural—is the main hindrance to access to shelters and other services. One positive development is the increase in anti-violence projects around the country started by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people providing services for LGBT survivors of violence.
Studies over the past 2 decades have shown that similar numbers of same-sex couples experience battering in their relationships as do heterosexual couples. Fewer studies have examined sexual violence, but results do show high numbers of sexual assaults that are same-sex. Whether the numbers are higher or lower, however, is not the point; lesbians, gay men, and bisexual individuals experience battering and sexual violence and need the same recognition, validation, and services for their healing and recovery as heterosexual survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV).
It is important to examine both similarities and differences between same-sex partner violence and what is known about heterosexual domestic and sexual violence. It is the unique aspects of same-sex IPV that have prevented same-sex domestic and sexual violence from achieving the same level of attention that heterosexual violence has gained.
The types of abuse in same-sex and heterosexual relationships are the same in that the abuse may be verbal, psychological, physical, sexual, or financial. The patterns of behavior of the abusive person, the threats and isolation, and the fact that battering occurs across racial-ethnic, social class, and religious groups are also the same. Abusers in same-sex relationships feel the same entitlement as heterosexual abusers do; they also choose to abuse their partners while often blaming their partners, the children’s behavior, stress at work, or alcohol for their abuse. Domestic violence can be lethal, regardless of sex of the perpetrator or victim. Child witnesses to domestic violence are affected similarly, regardless of the sex of their parents.
Victims of same-sex IPV have fewer services and less support available to them than heterosexual victims do. Not only might the LGBT survivor be isolated from family and friends because of the control of the abusive person, but also he or she might be concealing his or her homosexual relationship. Furthermore, LGBT communities have often been silent about domestic and sexual violence, adding to the sense of isolation of the survivor. There is little spoken or written about same-sex sexual violence, so the vast majority of survivors do not seek help after a sexual assault. This reaction differs from a heterosexual woman raped by a man, who may call a rape crisis center or law enforcement. A major difference, therefore, is that a survivor of same-sex violence has to “come out” about his or her relationship in a societal environment that questions the legitimacy of these relationships. Isolation is also extended to friendship circles—the LGBT subcommunity is often small within the towns or cities where LGBT people live, and a survivor often cannot confide in a friend. This friend is often friends with the abusive person as well.
Another difference is that due to homophobia, an abusive person has another source of control over his or her partner: the threat to tell family, employers, or others about the relationship (to “out” the victim). As a control mechanism, the abused person might fear losing his or her job, family ties, or even his or her children if an exspouse or family member takes him or her to court as an unfit parent based on his or her sexual orientation. These are real fears adding to the pain and terror of domestic violence.
Gay males have an additional stigma to confront in that people question the masculinity of the survivor of battering or sexual assault. Coming out as gay as well as being a man who could not prevent an assault are two significant barriers that prevent gay males from seeking help. There are no battered men’s shelters and only a handful of services that pay for a few nights of safety in a motel. There are truly fewer options for male survivors of same-sex IPV.
Same-sex partner violence has been impacted on every level by the unique issues of homophobia and heterosexism (i.e., the belief that heterosexuality is normal, natural, and right). Homophobia and heterosexism are standards in society, in the media, and in social institutions to the extent that the majority of people have some level of doubt about the acceptability of same-sex behaviors. All the major religions teach that homosexuality is wrong, for example. Some politicians make significant campaigns by condemning homosexuality and homosexual relationships. An example of this is the “one man–one woman” marriage amendments that are being considered or adopted in many states. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military is another example of federally sanctioned homophobia. Given this political and social climate, domestic and sexual violence agencies often ignore survivors of same-sex abuses.
The LGBT media nationwide have also been affected, and they tend to ignore the issues of partner abuse. Primarily this reaction is a self-defensive measure. To admit to this violence might give more negative “talking points” to homophobic individuals who campaign against LGBT civil rights or even commit hate crimes against LGBT people. Consequently, there has been silence around this issue, minimizing such problems in the LGBT community.
LGBT survivors of domestic and sexual violence suffer in many of the same ways as other victims of abuse. Yet their needs have been ignored. The posttraumatic stress symptoms, lack of safety, and real physical injuries continue undetected by outsiders who ignore that battering and sexual assaults affect LGBT people. Homophobia and heterosexism prevent LGBT people from being honest about what is happening in their lives. All survivors of abuse need access to services as do the perpetrators of this violence.
- Girshick, L. B. (2002). Woman-to-woman sexual violence: Does she call it rape? Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Kaschak, E. (Ed.). (2001). Intimate betrayal: Domestic violence in lesbian relationships. New York: Haworth Press.
- Leventhal, B., & Lundy, S. (Eds.). (1999). Same-sex domestic violence: Strategies for change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Renzetti, C. M. (1992). Violent betrayal: Partner abuse in lesbian relationships. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Scarce, M. (1997). Male on male rape: The hidden toll of stigma and shame. Cambridge: Perseus.
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