Talking About Lesbian Partner Abuse


BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 1998, 2000
Originally published in Siren, Oct/Nov 1998

Many of us, when we first come out, are drawn to the lesbian community with the dream of finding an all-embracing, welcoming community. Abuse in lesbian relationships doesn’t even enter the picture. After all, we are eager to meet other lesbians, find a sexual partner, make friends, fall in love, and at long last, find a place where being lesbian is not only accepted, but celebrated. The road getting there may have been a hard one, with people trying to stop us from being who we are, and ridiculing, rejecting, or hating us, but finally we have a community.

The rejection, isolation, and violence in our lives as marginalized people can intensify our desire for a safe and united community. But sometimes this desire can be so strong, we can make the mistake of dismissing, ignoring, and even denying problems that exist within the lesbian community.

I have repeatedly made this mistake. When I first heard about violence in lesbian relationships, I found it hard to believe. It did not fit my idealized image of the lesbian community. Even when I acknowledged that it happened, I minimized the reality. “At least it doesn’t happen as often as it does in straight relationships,” I would say. I was trying to avoid how I truly felt about the issue.

I soon realized that it was only by facing the painful truth about lesbian partner abuse that we could truly make our community the safe place we want it to be. By dodging or ignoring the issue, we become part of the problem. We create an environment which isn’t receptive to hearing lesbians speak of their abuse, or to helping them find the safety and support they deserve.

When we don’t listen to and support survivors of abuse in lesbian relationships, we fail to support other lesbians who need us. For it is lesbians who are in the best position to understand the issues that are particular to abuse in lesbian relationships — such as an abused lesbian who insists to her parents that her relationship is wonderful for fear that if they knew, it would confirm their believe that lesbian relationships aren’t stable. Or the lesbian who knows about abuse dynamics in straight relationships, but is unable to admit or even talk about the emotional abuse that goes on in hers.

As a community, we are beginning to offer some support to abused lesbians, but it’s usually limited to lesbians that we do not personally know. Somehow, we have a much harder time believing abuse took place when the lesbian disclosing it, or her partner, is someone we know. Perhaps it becomes too real to us. Or maybe it confronts our stereotypes.

Too often I’ve heard lesbians say that when they disclosed abuse to another lesbian, they were told: “But I’ve met her, I can’t see her doing that,” or “But you’re a strong woman — why didn’t you just leave?”

For most of us, it can be hard to disclose problems we’re having in our relationships. We might feel embarrassed, ashamed, or protective of our partner and relationship, and so put on a protective front. Imagine those feelings of shame and embarrassment being magnified one hundred times, then another hundred, to the point where you feel the abuse is a negative reflection on you.

An abused woman will often believe that the abuse proves there is something wrong with her. Of course, this makes her reluctant to tell anyone. If the victim is a survivor of child abuse, her shame and trauma are increased even more, as well as the likelihood for her silence. And of course, no one likes to be the topic of gossip, and that is one thing that spreads quickly through the lesbian community.

If the couple has been together for a significant amount of time, or if either partner is a well-known figure in the lesbian community, there may be even greater pressure to pretend everything is fine. This may also be true if the abusive woman is a woman of colour or a member of another oppressed group; the abused woman may refrain from saying anything in an effort not to fuel racism or any other “ism.”

Partner abuse may not be overt. If may happen inconsistently, both of which leave the woman feeling confused and uncertain whether or not abuse has taken place. Pressure for sex can be misinterpreted by the abused partner as romantic overtures. Constant criticism may be excused as attempts to help. But whether the abuse is overt (such as hitting, kicking, pushing, shoving, and forced participation in any sex acts), or covert (such as emotional manipulation, isolation, use of control, humiliation, and undermining someone’s self-esteem or free will), it is devastating to a woman’s sense of herself and her ability to make informed choices. It’s precisely because abuse makes a person feel confused, fearful, self-blaming, and ashamed that she is limited in her ability to trust her feelings, to make decisions, and to protect herself by leaving.

The impact of partner abuse, whether experienced by lesbians or straight women, is the same in many ways. However, because the abuse occurs in the context of homophobia and sexism, there are a number of things that are different for abused lesbians:

  • Because the abuse involves two women, many people do not take it seriously, viewing it as “mutual abuse.” This is a myth.
  • Many people don’t believe that a woman is capable of causing significant physical damage. Another myth.
  • A lesbian who chooses to call the police may face all kinds of homophobia, preventing many lesbians from making that call in the first place.
  • The criminal justice system often does not take abuse in lesbian relationships seriously, putting lesbians at further risk by not intervening when called.
  • Parents and friends may be homophobic, making it harder to talk about the abuse, for fear of proving them right about so-called “dysfunctional and miserable” lesbian relationships.
  • With the occasional and limited exception, there are no support services specifically for abused lesbians.

While we know about the kind of violence men can perpetrate against women, we’re usually unprepared for it coming from a woman. It may be more of a shock, feel like a deeper betrayal, be more isolating, and be harder to define, given most definitions of abuse exclude lesbians. And worse, if you and your relationship is closeted, you may find yourself with even less support than others, and feeling very much alone.

Having safe and supportive places to talk openly about partner abuse is critical to healing. Lesbians are rarely provided with opportunities to feel their pain and anger at having been abused, to reflect on what happened, and to untangle self-blaming beliefs so that they can move on from their abusive ex-partners. They often feel they have to avoid social outings, and may become very isolated in an attempt to avoid the woman who abused them.

In fact, many lesbians have no one they can turn to, because everyone they might be able to talk to, including support services, know, or know of, her partner. Some survivors of partner abuse recall how they turned to other lesbians for support and received little or nothing, while their abusers received great amounts. If they mention this, the women giving support to the abuser might say that they have no way of knowing who is telling the truth. This is rarely an issue a straight woman will have to face.

The whole issue of who to support needs to be looked at in depth on its own. But what I can say here is that both women need support – the abused woman, to overcome the damage, and the abuser, to stop the abuse and look at what fueled it. However, the abused woman takes priority, and needs to be given a place of safety.

As a community, we have struggled with little success to find ways to hold abusers accountable. Some lesbians have spoken of going to a woman’s shelter, only to find their abuser there already, and being turned away themselves. Other lesbians have talked about how, before or after they disclosed the abuse, they heard that their abusers were claiming that they had been the abused ones in the relationship.

Partner abuse in the lesbian community is an important issue that I hope we can keep on trying to address. If a lesbian shares her story with you, I hope you can recognize the great strength it took for her to do that, and I hope you’ll listen supportively, without blame or judgment. There is much strength and love in our community that we can draw on for inspiration when dealing with this difficult subject.

Copyright © KALI MUNRO. All rights reserved.