Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence in Lesbian Relationships

Domestic violence in the lesbian community is a serious issue. Ironically, the rates of domestic violence in lesbian relationships do not differ from that of domestic violence directed at heterosexual women. This is only anecdotal evidence, since empirical research in this area in the South African context is very limited. South Africa has one of the highest levels of domestic violence, but sadly, very underreported.

What we know, is that lesbian woman often have difficulty acknowledging the abuse taking place in their relationships, both to themselves and others, especially when the abused is still closeted and not out and open about her relationship.

The Domestic Violence Act (Act 116) was introduced in 1998 with the aim of affording women protection from domestic violence by creating obligations on law enforcement bodies to protect women (victims) as far as is possible. The Act sets out a broad range of behaviours that constitute domestic violence; including physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, stalking, intimidation, harassment, malicious damage to property, unauthorized access to the complainant’s property, as well as other forms of controlling behaviour which may cause harm to the safety, health or well being of the complainant.

The Act also extends the notion of ‘domestic relationship’, affording to protection to married couples; same-sex relationships; couples who are (or were) in a dating, engagement or customary relationship, including an actual or perceived relationship; any person in an intimate relationship; parents of a child; and people who do or have recently shared a residence.(Dissel & Ngubeni, CSVR, Giving Women their Voice: Domestic Violence and Restorative Justice in South Africa, 2003).

So although same sex relationships are included in the Domestic Violence Act and afford these couples protection, the justice system and individuals within, often ignore it. Facing a system which is often oppressive, judgmental and hostile towards those who identify as anything other than heterosexual, those involved in same-gender battering frequently report being afraid of revealing their sexual orientation or the nature of their relationship.

Additionally, even those who attempt to report violence in their alterative relationship run into obstacles. Police officers, prosecutors, judges and others to whom a lesbian victim may turn to for help may have difficulty in providing the same level of service as to a heterosexual victim. Not only might personal attitudes towards the lesbian (and rest of GBT) community hinder the process, but these providers may have inadequate levels of experience and training to work with LGBT victims.

An example of how the same sex intimate partner abuse is mostly ignored in mainstream projects is the “16 Days of Activism Campaign”.  This is a national awareness-raising campaign in South Africa that begins on 25 November (International Day for No Violence against Women) each year and runs through to 10 December (International Human Rights Day). This campaign hardly ever mentions issues of domestic violence within same sex couples. It is important for you to be aware of your rights and options as they relate to your attempt to escape an abusive relationship.

In general:

  • No one deserves to be abused.
  • Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and involve verbal behavior used to coerce, threaten or humiliate. Subtle verbal abuse, e.g. constant critique and lack of encouragement, are often overlooked and not given the necessary attention.
  • Abuse is often a cycle, not necessarily a once off event.
  • Abuse often occurs and is most dangerous when one partner in a relationship tries or threatens to leave.
  • The abuser has a deep need to maintain control and power over their partner.
  • The abused partner feels alone, isolated and afraid, and is usually convinced that the abuse is somehow her fault, or could have been avoided if she knew what to do.
  • A pattern of violence or behaviors exists where one seeks to control the thoughts, beliefs, or behavior of their intimate partner, or to punish their partner for resisting their control. This may be seen as physical or sexual violence, or emotional and verbal abuse.

Specific issues in abusive lesbian relationships

As mentioned before, emotional abuse towards a lesbian woman may be to out them to family, friends or their work.

Mainstream domestic violence services lack the training, sensitivity, and expertise to adequately recognize and address abusive lesbian relationships. A lesbian who is being battered must overcome homophobia, internalized homophobia and denial of the issue of battering.

Utilizing existing mainstream services (such as a shelter, attending support groups or calling a crisis line) either means lying or hiding the gender of the batterer to be perceived (and thus accepted) as a heterosexual. It can mean “coming out”, which is a major life decision and could be traumatizing when not planned. If a lesbian woman comes out to service providers who are not discreet with this information, it could lead to losing her home, job, custody of children, etc.

If the couple relies on each other financially, such as “building a home and life together”, without having a legal contract, they have no legal process to assist in making sure assets are evenly divided, especially when the abused partner contributed less financially, because of a smaller or no income.

To talk about battering in a lesbian relationship can reinforce the myth many, even unconsciously for some lesbian women, believe that these relationships are “abnormal.” This can further cause the victim to feel isolated and unsupported. The LGBT community itself is often not supportive of victims of battering because many want to maintain the myth that there are no problems (such as child abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc.) in LGBT relationships.

Receiving support services to help one escape a battering relationship is more difficult when there are also oppressions faced. Battered lesbians and female bisexuals automatically encounter sexism and homophobia. Lesbian women of color who are battered also face racism. These forms of social oppressions make it more difficult to get the support needed (legal, financial, social, housing, medical, etc.) to escape and live freely from an abusive relationship.

Lesbian survivors of battering may not know others who are lesbian, bi or gay, thus leaving the abuser in total isolation.

The lesbian community within their area may be small, and in all likelihood everyone the survivor knows will soon know of their abuse. Sides could be drawn and support may be difficult to find.