Domestic violence in lesbian relationships

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


The discussion about 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 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."[6] Some sources state that gay and lesbian couples experience domestic violence at the same frequency as heterosexual couples,[7] while other sources state domestic violence among gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals might be higher than 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.[8] 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.[6]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reports on the lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, focusing for the first time on victimization by sexual orientation. It finds a victimization prevalence of 43.8 percent for lesbians, making it the second most affected group after bisexual women (61.1 percent), ahead of bisexual men (37.3 percent), heterosexual women (35 percent), heterosexual men (29 percent) and homosexual men (26 percent).[9]

The issue of domestic violence among lesbian couples is highly ignored due to the social construction of gender roles that women are expected to play in society.[3] The social construction of women is characterized as passive, dependent, nurturing, and highly emotional. 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 the frequency of domestic violence that constantly takes place within lesbian relationships. Moreover, the fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes has led some community members, activists, and victims to deny the extent of violence among lesbians.[10] Social service agencies are often unwilling to assist lesbian victims of domestic violence.[10] Victims of domestic violence in lesbian relationships are less likely to have the case prosecuted within a legal system.[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

Literature and research regarding domestic violence in lesbian relationships is relatively limited, especially 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".[11] 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.[11]

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.[11] 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".[11]

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 ad heterosexual women".[11] 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.[11] 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.[11]


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 lies, neglect, and degradation; intimidation threats such as harming 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 and clothing, and personal objects; economic such as controlling the victim's money and forcing financial dependence.[12] In addition, psychological abuse was found to be common among lesbian victims. Findings from studies have shown that slapping was most the commonly reported form of abuse, while beatings and assaults with weapons were less frequent.[4] Sexual violence within lesbian relationships was as high as 55%. The most frequent type included forced kissing, breast and genital fondling, and oral, anal, or vaginal penetration. 80% of victims reported psychological abuse and verbal abuse. Lesbians are also less likely to use physical force or threats than gay men.[13]

Contributing factors


Factors that contribute to domestic violence specifically in lesbian relationships include: heterosexism and homophobia, minority stress, emotional isolation, lack of community ties, and the re-victimization of women who have previously suffered abuse.[4] The political context of homophobia and heterosexism is essential for understanding the experience of lesbian victims of domestic violence. Also homophobia is an important factor in shaping the experience of domestic violence in lesbian relationships.[1] For instance, mental health agencies still contain homophobic and heterosexual beliefs which limit the extent of the services provided to the victims.[10] These victims experience violence within the context of a world that is not only misogynistic but is also homophobic.[1]

Stigma towards lesbians

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.[14] Unlike heterosexual women, lesbian women must accept that they live in a society in which their lives are not the norm. A degree of self-disclosure or outness, experiences of discrimination and hate crimes, internalized homophobia, and sexual and gender identity are associated with relationship quality and domestic violence.The lack of disclosure can lead to women becoming isolated within their relationship, potentially increasing pressure to maintain the status quo and becoming hesitant instead of addressing the problems directly. This secrecy and isolation may place additional stress on the relationship by depriving the couple of external validation and support for their relationship, which may lead to increased risk for domestic violence. Furthermore, not being out reduces the visibility of a woman's same-sex relationship and exposure to role models, which may create a sense that she lacks other options, making her more likely to tolerate abuse from her partner. Women who hide their sexuality feel hesitant to seek help for problems associated with domestic violence.

Internalized homophobia

Internalized homophobia has also been hypothesized to be associated with violence against members of one's own group.[14] Thus, a woman with negative feelings about lesbians might engage in violence against her own partner. Internalized homophobia may also be associated with both current and past victimization. A woman who believes that she is unworthy may believe that she deserves to be treated abusively. Also, 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.[15] 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.[15]

In some cases, the lesbian community can dismiss cases of domestic violence in lesbian relationships or shame victims of domestic violence.[16] 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.[16] These homophobic roots also integrate themselves into how lesbians raise their children.[17]

Past experiences with domestic violence and abuse

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.[17] 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.[17]

Power and control

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.[16] 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.[16] 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.[16] 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.[16]

Dependency and self-esteem factors

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.[13] 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.[13] 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.[13] 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, it 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.[13]

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]


As we know, domestic violence is often a result of underlying issues in relationships. One struggle we see lesbian couples face is the inability to have children, problems that arise in the process of having children, or hostility due to complications with partners having children from previous relationships. Having a child is oftentimes the ultimate declaration of love and commitment in a couples relationship and the inability to produce or raise a child is a very open ended issue many lesbian couples face. The Department of Women and Children's Health at Uppsala University in Sweden conducted a study analyzing the quality of lesbian relationships undergoing treatment for assisted reproduction.[18] 166 lesbian couples and 151 heterosexual couples undergoing regular IVF treatment accepted participation in the study and submitted responses on their relationship quality throughout their treatment. At the beginning of IVF treatment, each couple was given a survey to fill out individually about their relationship quality, they evaluated aspects to their relationship such as egalitarian roles, communication, conflict resolution, financial management, family and friends, sexual relationship and parenting skills. At the beginning lesbian couples rated their relationships higher in total quality than the heterosexual couples surveyed. They also found that a higher educational level led to a decrease in relationship quality. The study concludes that there was a significant decrease in the quality of lesbian relationships where one partner has a child from a previous relationship.[18] Not to say that the inability to have children directly causes domestic violence within lesbian relationships, but the hostility in relationship quality that arrises because of it shows potential causes of dispute.

Erasure of homosexuality in domestic violence shelters

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.[16] These services can be improved by ensuring that the case statement of an agency unit is LGBTQ friendly, providing training services for faculty and staff at shelters, making sure that all services does not have heterosexist language, and providing opportunities for lesbians to take leadership positions in these endeavors.[16]


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