What's Love Got to Do With It! Examining Abuse in Lesbian Relationships

Publication Date: 
2001
Resource Origin: 
Springtide

by Jacqui Williams and Kathleen O'Connell

Much is known and understood about violence in heterosexual relationships. The campaign against 'wife assault' and domestic violence has enlightened many about violence in intimate male-female relationships. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about violence in same-sex relationships. Education is needed so that violence in lesbian relationships will be seen as an issue in need of attention and intervention. Addressing violence in same-sex relationships means challenging our theories about gender-based violence as well as our stereotypes about women and about lesbians/bisexual women.

In 1997 and 1998, two ten week support groups for women who had been abused were sponsored by Parkdale Community Health Centre. From the beginning, there were a number of challenges. Providing a safe location was important and there were pros and cons for having a group in an identifiable gay/lesbian location and for a location that provides mainstream services.

We found that a comprehensive intake process was critical in order to screen out women who were in fact abusive to their partners. Some women defend themselves from an abusive partner and other women believe they may have joined in and were abusive as well to their partners. This continues to be a complex issue and raises questions around who should be included and excluded from a group.

The support groups provided lesbians/bisexual women with a space to talk about their losses, their fears and ways to rebuild their lives. Feelings such as anger, embarrassment, sadness and shame were focused on. Anger at oneself, at an abusive partner and at the community for not addressing the issue more openly were discussed in the group. Rebuilding trust with self and others was an important theme. We discussed patterns of abusive behaviour and developed a list of "warning signs" which could indicate that a partner might become abusive. The tremendous support and validation women offered each other in the groups reduced feelings of isolation, self blame and guilt and helped women move forward in their lives.

Barriers for women in seeking support

Resources are scarce for women in same-sex relationships who have experienced abuse or who have been abusive. Homophobia is usually present in agencies and institutions. Lesbians/bisexual women who attempt to get help from institutions are often met with homophobia, disbelief and blame. We have heard some reports of lesbians/bisexual women having positive experiences with systems, for example, the police and legal system, but many have described attitudes that are oppressive: misogynist, homophobic, racist, etc. This results in lesbians feeling reluctant to seek out these avenues of support. Lesbians/bisexual women told us that they often felt triply victimized: initially by their partners, by services/institutions that are supposed to be there to help and by the lack of positive response in their communities. Furthermore, if a lesbian does decide to seek support, it may create a double crisis. First, she has to "come out" to a stranger at a time when she is very distressed, and then she has to disclose the violence in her relationship.

When other oppressions such as racism, classism, anti-Semitism, ageism and ableism exist, the abused lesbian may feel further deterred from disclosing abuse. This can be experienced as a triple whammy; for example, a Black lesbian already deals with sexism, racism and homophobia, and now she is faced with disclosing that she is being abused. Lesbian/bisexual communities are small, and even smaller for Black lesbians, lesbians of colour and Aboriginal women. As a result, women from these communities can feel even more concerned about privacy and confidentiality. Sometimes a woman and her abusive partner may approach the same services requesting help, which can raise difficult issues for agencies providing support.

If a lesbian/bisexual woman decides to go to a shelter or the police, for example, she may find that she feels inhibited from disclosing her sexuality and thus may not receive the thorough and adequate attention she may desperately need. Shelters are supposed to be safe spaces for women, but when a woman uses a shelter to escape from the violence of another woman, the methods shelters use to keep out abusive male partners do not work in deterring female abusers from gaining access to shelters. Some lesbians/bisexual women have spoken about their experiences in shelters--that they did not feel safe and accepted because of the homophobia that exists in shelters.

Other challenges faced by lesbians/bisexual women seeking support are the attitudes and perceptions of others in the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered communities. There is an assumption that women interact in a caring and supportive manner and therefore cannot be abusive. This stereotype and the invisibility of same-sex partner abuse make it even more difficult for lesbians/bisexual women themselves to recognize they are being abused, and create barriers when women reach out for help, because the attitude that women would not be abusive exists in the larger community as well.

Most theories about the causes of violence are gender-based and assume that the violence is being perpetrated by men---men raised in a patriarchal and sexist society. How then are these theories to be transferred or utilized in the incidence of violence between female and intimate partners? Without accepting some stereotypes about the nature and dynamics of lesbian relationships (namely that lesbian relationships have a "butch/male" partner and a "femme/female partner"), this theory is not very helpful. Even when lesbians do adopt explicit roles, these roles do not predict who has the power in a relationship and who in the relationship might be abusive.

A number of women expressed their surprise and shock that their female partner was violent. Women spoke about their beliefs that women would not be violent and because of this, when violence did happen, it was doubly hard to name and address.

Safety, confidentiality and upholding a woman's right to privacy is always a concern for lesbians/ bisexual women who are seeking support. When a woman finally decides to come forward and name the violence which has been perpetrated against her, it can be a frightening and overwhelming experience. It is extremely important that disclosure is made in an environment that is safe and lesbian-positive.

Anti-homophobia and anti-heterosexism training and education about violence in same-sex relationships are crucial in this work. Some shelters and other agencies have begun this work. We need to be allies in addressing the issue of violence in same-sex relationships, so that the statement that all women deserve to live free of violence has meaning for us all.

In 1997 and 1998, two ten week support groups for women who had been abused were sponsored by Parkdale Community Health Centre. From the beginning, there were a number of challenges. Providing a safe location was important and there were pros and cons for having a group in an identifiable gay/lesbian location and for a location that provides mainstream services.

We found that a comprehensive intake process was critical in order to screen out women who were in fact abusive to their partners. Some women defend themselves from an abusive partner and other women believe they may have joined in and were abusive as well to their partners. This continues to be a complex issue and raises questions around who should be included and excluded from a group.

The support groups provided lesbians/bisexual women with a space to talk about their losses, their fears and ways to rebuild their lives. Feelings such as anger, embarrassment, sadness and shame were focused on. Anger at oneself, at an abusive partner and at the community for not addressing the issue more openly were discussed in the group. Rebuilding trust with self and others was an important theme. We discussed patterns of abusive behaviour and developed a list of "warning signs" which could indicate that a partner might become abusive. The tremendous support and validation women offered each other in the groups reduced feelings of isolation, self blame and guilt and helped women move forward in their lives.

Jacqueline Williams has her Masters degree in Social Work. Her thesis proposal explored the effects of same-sex violence on future non-abusive relationships. She sits on the Coalition Against Same-Sex Partner Abuse (CASSPA) and facilitates groups on lesbian relationships and violence in lesbian relationships.

Kathleen O'Connell is a lesbian and social worker who currently provides individual and group counselling at Parkdale Community Health Centre to women who are at risk of or have experienced violence in their lives. She is a member of CASSPA and facilitates groups for lesbians. She is also an educator/consultant in feminist counselling and anti-oppression work.