Domestic Abuse in Same-Sex Relationships – Part A

Domestic violence affects over one million people in the United States every year in all kinds of relationships (Rennison & Welchans, 2000). The victims often sustain serious injuries, some even killed. It is estimated that the medical costs of treating patients who are presenting due to undiagnosed domestic violence is $67 million per year (Family Violence Prevention Fund, 2000). In the gay community it is described as the third most severe health problem among gay men, after AIDS and substance abuse.Furthermore, victims of domestic violence were found to have higher rates of depression, hypertension, obesity, sexually transmitted infections and behaviors such as unprotected sex and substance abuse (Houston and McKirnan, 2007). Yet, even the gay community discourages reporting the abuse for fear of bad “public relations” (Mendieta, 1999)

One of the most misunderstood factors in domestic violence is the myth that there is no such thing as abuse in same-sex relationships. The words “battering” and “domestic and family violence” are usually associated with the images of men abusing women. The truth is that the ratio of reported abuse is very similar to that of heterosexual relationships, generally reported at between 25% and 33% (Seelau and Seelau, 2005). Some surveys have shown the rates to be as much as three times higher than those reported by men involved with women (Houston and McKirnan, 2007).

However, these are generally accepted as estimates which fly in the face of the fact that the gay community believes most same-sex violence is grossly underreported and that those who do not come forward far outnumber those who do (Skolnik, et al, 2008). This is because of the stigma and denial associated with violence; the gay community doesn’t want the negative attention that comes along with it. Therefore, the abused feel like they’re betraying the community if they report the event (Ristock, 2005).

To make matters worse, the abused person in a gay relationship has the added fear of being “outed” that doesn’t exist in a heterosexual relationship. Add to that the fact that the authorities have a tendency to look the other way when there is evidence of abuse in a same sex relationship (Turrell, 2000).

This paper will examine several myths about gay relationships. However, it will concentrate on the unspoken, often ignored, idea that abuse occurs in all types of relationships, even in gay relationships where the stereotype has always been that gay men were “too sensitive” to be abusive. Equally as wrong is the stereotype that the “butch” woman in the relationship is in control and therefore the aggressor in any abusive event (Finnigan and MacAulay, 1996). Additionally, this paper will attempt to make recommendations for therapists and clinicians to do a better, more consistent job in their handling of same-sex domestic abuse.

Let’s begin by using the proper terminology. Domestic abuse in any relationship, but particularly in same-sex relationships, is known as intimate partner violence. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs defines intimate partner violence as “a pattern of behavior where one partner coerces, dominates, and isolates the other to maintain power and control over their partner” (Skolnik, et al, 2008). There is no specific mention of physical violence. Most research indicates that intimate partner violence occurs when there are instances of one or more of the following:

  • Abuse which is physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, or involves verbal behavior used to coerce, threaten or humiliate.
  • The abuse often occurs and is most dangerous when one partner in the relationship seeks to leave.
  • The purpose of the abuse is to maintain control and power over one’s partner.
  • The abused partner feels alone, isolated and afraid, and is usually convinced that the abuse is somehow her or his fault, or could have been avoided if she or he knew what to do.
  • A pattern of violence or behaviors exists where one seeks to control the thoughts, beliefs, or conduct 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.
  • Abuse often occurs in a cyclical fashion, known as the “cycle of abuse”.

The cycle of abuse is an important factor in the continuation of abuse that occurs in a violent relationship. This model describes three stages: honeymoon, tension- building, and blow-up. As this cycle occurs over and over again it usually increases in frequency and severity.

In the honeymoon stage the victim is likely to see the abusive partner in a positive light at all times, including the discussion of past abusive instances. There is some minimizing and denial on the part of the victim.

In the tension-building stage the victim is often anxious and uncomfortable about the relationship. There is a feeling of “walking on eggshells” by the victim.

In the blow-up stage the victim is focusing on his/her safety. They are afraid to take action for fear that it will provoke the abuser. During this stage, especially if the cycle is repeated many times, the victim is at an increased risk of harm. Most serious injuries occur when the blow-up has occurred many times. Even if there is no physical violence there will be consequences to the victim. The consequences might include the destruction of a precious item, loss of contact with a close friend or family member, or injury. After the blow-up stage the cycle begins again with the honeymoon cycle (Pitt and Dolan-Soto, 2001).

There are distinctions between same-sex intimate partner violence and that which exists in heterosexual relationships. Some of the differences, making it additionally challenging for the abused, are as follows:

  • There is often the threat, either spoken or not, that the abuser will “out” the abused to his family, his employer, or his landlord.
  • Resources for dealing with same-sex abuse are limited and where they exist are often manned by people who are not properly trained, have sensitivity to the issues, or can properly recognize and address abusive Gay Lesbian Bisexual or Transsexual (GLBT) relationships.
  • It is frequently incorrectly assumed that GLBT abuse must be mutual since they are both the same sex. However, there are studies which suggest that establishing a distinction between perpetrator and victim is often hard to do because the roles may change (Stanley, Bartholomew, Taylor, Oram, and Landolt, 2006).
  • Using the limited resources might require “coming out”, which is a major life decision for a GLBT.
  • There is concern about telling heterosexual social workers about abuse at a shelter because it might reinforce another myth, that the relationships are “abnormal”.
  • The abuser often uses racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, immigration, and HIV status, even the abuser’s own vulnerabilities, to inflict harm (Skolnik, et al, 2008).

Some of the other myths which are perpetrated regarding same-sex relationships are:

  1. Only straight women get battered. Men are not victims of domestic violence, and women never batter;
  2. Domestic violence is more common in heterosexual relationships that it is in same-sex relationships. Every survey I found has shown very similar percentages;
  3. It really isn’t violence when a same-sex-couple fights. It’s just a lover’s quarrel, a fair fight among equals;
  4. It really isn’t violence when gay men fight. It is boys being boys. A man should be able to defend himself.
  5. The batterer is always bigger, stronger, more “butch”. Victims will always be smaller, weaker, more feminine.
  6. Lesbian and Gay domestic violence is sexual behavior, a version of S & M. The victim actually likes it.
  7. The law does not and will not protect victims of same-sex domestic violence.
  8. It is easier for lesbian or gay victims of domestic violence to leave the abusive relationship than it is for heterosexual battered women who are married (Domestic Violence in Same-Sex Relationships).


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