Sarah's lover shoves her, lies to her, taunts her and criticizes her sexual performance. Sarah puts up with it though, because it usually only happens after a night of drinking, and the good times outweigh the bad. There is nothing unusual in how Sarah's batterer treats her; theirs is, for the most part, a typical domestic abuse situation. But what makes Sarah and her lover different is that they are both women.
Domestic abuse doesn't just happen between men and women. Studies show violence happens just as often in the domestic partnerships of women as it does in heterosexual relationships. And yet, this form of abuse is rarely heard of in the mainstream community and not often discussed in the gay community. It's a "don't ask, don't tell" of a different kind.
Most people know what domestic abuse between a man and woman entails, but for lesbians, it goes beyond that. In same sex relationships, the abuser may threaten to "out" the partner being abused, a serious threat with sometimes dire consequences in a society that barely tolerates gay relationships and is unlikely to take seriously abuse between same-sex partners. An abused lesbian, if outed, may run the risk of losing her job, her friends, her family support and even her children. Because lesbian relationships are often not validated by society -- let alone by a woman's family and straight friends -- many lesbians are forced to form family units within the lesbian community. These communities tend to be protective of all lesbians, and the results are that batterers tend to go unpunished and victims go unprotected. Some lesbians would rather this happen than destroy their community.
A number of myths exist about abuse within same-sex relationships. Some people think only men abuse women, when the reality is anyone can choose to abuse anyone else. Other people think a stereotypical lesbian relationship consists of a "butch" (a masculine woman) and a "femme" (a feminine woman), and only butches abuse femmes, not the other way around. The reality is lesbian relationships can consist of any combination: two feminine women, two masculine women, or one masculine woman and one feminine woman. When it comes to lesbian couples, there is no "norm" anymore. And within these relationships, anyone can be the abuser. Many people also think that lesbians are in a more equal relationship than are a man and a woman. Abuse of one woman by another is not really abuse, but merely mutual fighting, a power struggle within the relationship. The reality is that just because the relationship consists of two women, it isn't automatically equal. Abuse of anyone by anyone is still abuse.
There are certain facts that are universally true across all domestic abuse relationships:
- Abuse is a choice and the responsibility of only the abuser, never the victim
- Victims are sometimes blamed for the abuse they incur by society, their family and their friends
- It isn't easy to leave any relationship
- Victims often feel responsible for their partner's violence
- Abuse tends to escalate over time
- The abuser is often apologetic after the abuse, and gives false hope that the abuse will stop
- Victims of any type of domestic abuse may suffer from shame, self-blame, physical injuries, sleep disturbances, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression
Lesbians in abusive relationships deal with all of these facts and more. Homophobia and a general lack of understanding about lesbian relationships have left lesbians in a position of having far fewer resources than other battered women. Domestic abuse workers are often unfamiliar in how to deal with a battered lesbian, and some shelters don't even acknowledge this type of violence. If lesbians are admitted, it is likely their abusers will be too, since they are also women, and these shelters typically are trained to bar only male abusers. Homophobic police don't want to intervene in a "cat fight." Uneducated judges don't understand why an order of protection is necessary against someone of the same sex. A society that doesn't validate these relationships may not care when a lesbian is abused, or may even think she deserves it for being in an "abnormal" relationship.
The sad reality is that battered lesbians are more likely to stay in an abusive relationship than are straight women. It's hard enough being rejected by society and maybe even their family and friends. But to also be rejected by the close-knit community they've deliberately chosen to live in is just more than some lesbians can bear. They'd rather stay in an abusive relationship. And having so few choices is not only wrong, but also an indictment on our society. No one should ever have to live that way.
Bio: Kyle Looby is a freelance writer from Springfield, IL. While Looby writes on a wide variety of topics, her most favorite are those that affect women everywhere. Don't Ask, Don't Tell of a Different Kind was originally published at Suite101.com.