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Fact sheet: Intimate partner violence (IPV) among gay women

The impression that Intimate partner violence (IPV) only occurs in heterosexual relationships where the man is stereotypically the aggressor is a false and dated idea. Lesbian women can, in fact, be perpetrators and victims of this form of violence.

What is lesbian partner violence?
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is domestic violence by a current or former spouse or partner in an intimate relationship against the other spouse or partner. Partner violence in lesbian (and gay) relationships have recently been identified as an important social problem. It has been defined as including physical, sexual and psychological abuse, although researchers have most often studied physical violence.

An intimate partner is a person with whom one has a close personal relationship that can be characterized by the following: Emotional connectedness, regular contact, ongoing physical contact and/or sexual behaviour, identity as a couple and familiarity and knowledge about each other’s lives.

The relationship need not involve all of these dimensions. Examples of intimate partners include current or former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, dating partners, or sexual partners. IPV can vary in frequency and severity. It occurs on a continuum, ranging from one episode that might or might not have lasting impact to chronic and severe episodes over a period of years.

Research on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people’s experiences of intimate partner violence and sexual abuse has grown considerably in the past decades. Past reviews of the research have suggested that the prevalence of IPV and IPSA (Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse) may be as high as or even higher among LGBT individuals than the general population.

Read: A double-edged sword: The internet and the struggle for equality of LGBTQI people in Africa

Why would a lesbian batter another woman?
Lesbians who abuse other women may do so for reasons similar to those that motivate heterosexual male batterers. Lesbians abuse their partners to gain and maintain control motivated by the need to avoid feelings of loss and abandonment. Therefore, many violent incidents occur during threatened separations.

Many lesbian batterers grew up in violent households and were physically, sexually, or verbally abused and/or witnessed abuse.

Sexual Intimate Partner Violence

The most discounted form of Intimate partner violence in lesbian relations is sexual violence. Sexual violence is divided into five categories and any of these acts constitute sexual violence, whether attempted or completed. Additionally all of these acts occur without the victim’s freely given consent, including cases in which the victim is unable to consent due to being too intoxicated (e.g., incapacitation, lack of consciousness, or lack of awareness) through their voluntary or involuntary use of alcohol or drugs.

  • Rape – This includes completed or attempted, forced or alcohol/drug-facilitated unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal groping and insertion. Forced sexual encounters occurs through the perpetrator’s use of physical force against the victim or threats to physically harm the victim.
  • Victim was made to conduct in sexual activity with someone else – This includes completed or attempted, forced or alcohol/drug-facilitated incidents when the victim was made to sexually grope or penetrate a perpetrator or someone else without the victim’s consent.
  • Non-physically pressured unwanted sexual encounters – This includes incidents in which the victim was pressured verbally or through intimidation or misuse of authority to consent or acquiesce to a sexual encounter.
  • Unwanted sexual contact – This includes intentional touching of the victim or making the victim touch the perpetrator, either directly or through the clothing, on the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks without the victim’s consent
  • Non-contact unwanted sexual experiences – This includes unwanted sexual events that are not of a physical nature that occur without the victim’s consent. Examples include unwanted exposure to sexual situations (e.g., pornography); verbal or behavioral sexual harassment; threats of sexual violence to accomplish some other end; and /or unwanted filming, taking or disseminating photographs of a sexual nature of another person.

Four myths about intimate partner violence in lesbian relationships

As is a basic tenet of intersectionality, oppression affects people of intersecting identities differently and as such, women in same-gender relationships experience multiple layers of oppression, and therefore experience intimate partner violence in unique ways

#1 Myth: Women have equal power in a relationship, so the violence must be mutual.

Many people believe that because women are supposed to be caring and nurturing, they don’t behave violently in relationships, and that since they may be of relatively equal size and strength, there should be no way that one woman can truly dominate and abuse another woman.

Fact: Physical violence and threats do occur in lesbian relationships, despite the fact that many like to believe that women are incapable of it. According to a CDC report 17-45% of lesbians have reported being a victim of at least one act of physical violence at the hands of a lesbian partner, and up to 50% of lesbians have reported some type of sexual abuse. In a survey of over 1,100 lesbians, slightly more than half reported being abused by a lesbian partner at some point in her lifetime.

#2 Myth: Sexual abuse doesn’t occur in lesbian relationships.

Society has a hard time accepting that sexual abuse is anything other than violent, forced penetration (usually in this case, penis-in-vagina penetration is implied), so it’s not surprising that people don’t believe sexual abuse doesn’t occur in lesbian relationships. But the truth is that sexual abuse includes much more than this limited definition.

Fact: Coercion plays a huge role in sexual abuse, as does the threat of violence. Sexual degradation can systematically tear down someone’s sexual self-esteem and can lead a person to submit to sex, or sex they find painful or humiliating, just to get their partner to leave them alone.

it’s also important to note that forced sex can (and does) occur in lesbian relationships. A woman can overpower another woman, it does happen.

#3 Myth: Lesbians and heterosexual women have the same challenges when leaving an abusive relationship

Fact: Lesbians have unique challenges to leaving abusive relationships that heterosexual women do not face. Homophobia (in conjunction with heterosexism), for example, is a major societal barrier that doesn’t impact heterosexual women, but frequently prevents lesbians from seeking help.

Further complicating things, some lesbians might struggle greatly with internalized homophobia. Abusive lesbians can use (both social and internalized) homophobia to their advantage when trying to control and maintain power over their partner. In some countries where homosexuality is a crime they can threaten to “out” their partner to the authorities and have them prosecuted for engaging in homosexuality or at their workplace, effectively jeopardizing their employment. For lesbians with children, the threat may be to “out” them to their child’s father, setting in motion the terrifying thought of losing custody of their children since the court system is just as likely to be critical of her sexual orientation.

This is compacted by the fact that many abusers use isolation as a tactic to keep their partners from having access to reach out to loved ones.

#4 Myth: The abuser is always ‘the butch.’

Fact: A butch is not always present in lesbian relationships as gender based roles do not apply and second, there is no inherent link between masculine women and violent behavior. If there were, then we would expect every masculine being to be violent.

Read: State of relationship counselling services for the LGBTI community in Africa

Barriers to assistance

Research shows that LGBT people face barriers to seeking help that are unique to their sexual
orientation and gender identity. These include:

  • Legal definitions of domestic violence that exclude same-sex couples
  • Dangers of “outing” oneself when seeking help and the risk of rejection and isolation from
    family, friends, and society
  • The lack of, or survivors not knowing about, LGBT-specific or LGBT-friendly assistance
  • Potential homophobia from staff of service providers or from non-LGBT survivors of IPV and
    IPSA with whom they may interact
  • Low levels of confidence in the sensitivity and effectiveness of law enforcement officials and
    courts for LGBT people

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