Perceptions of Domestic Violence
Most people generally define domestic violence as a social problem between men and women. Specifically, it is believed that domestic violence involves men physically, sexually, or emotionally assaulting women with the specific intent of causing them harm. Therefore, domestic violence is frequently considered a problem that occurs only between men and women—with men engaged as batterers and women engaged as victims. This understanding of domestic violence is linked to society’s gendered socialization process wherein one learns that it is appropriate, and sometimes even expected and required, for a man to engage in violent activity. Defining women as the polar opposite of men, societal norms perpetuate the belief that being a woman is not defined by acts of violence, but by acts of compassion. One is taught that women are caretakers, kind and emotional people who rarely, if ever, respond aggressively and violently. These same gender messages are further reinforced by cultural images depicting men as the ones who fend off the enemy through violent actions, and women as the ones prepared to comfort the men when the violent confrontation has ended. The corollary to this is that such messages reinforce a heterosexual norm. If such gender stereotypes do not, in reality, apply to all men and women who identify as heterosexual, still less do they apply to men and women who identify as gay or lesbian. Furthermore, if one has not been taught about gay or lesbian domestic violence, if one has not read about gay or lesbian domestic violence, if one has not viewed depictions of gay and lesbian domestic violence in popular entertainment, or if the community is not engaged in gay and lesbian domestic violence prevention efforts, then surely it must not exist.
Domestic Violence in Gay and Lesbian Relationships
When one utilizes a newer terminology, substituting the term ‘‘intimate partner violence’’ for ‘‘domestic violence,’’ one can begin to understand that this type of violence is not an issue of being male or female, but is an issue of power. One can come to recognize that violence can occur in gay and lesbian relationships. In fact, studies have reported that the levels of violence found in both gay and lesbian relationships mirror the amounts of domestic violence found in heterosexual relationships. While the numbers are not exact, researchers consistently argue that between 25 and 40 percent of both heterosexual and gay/lesbian couples have engaged in acts of violence with an intimate partner. Also, as with heterosexual couples, acts of domestic violence within gay and lesbian relationships include a myriad of harmful actions, from physical and sexual assaults to financial and emotional abuse. These acts of domestic violence have high costs for gay and lesbian victims, just as they do for victims in heterosexual relationships. Costs to all victims of domestic violence include physical injuries, psychological and emotional damages, and feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and fear.
Acknowledging the rates, types, and costs of violence in all situations of domestic violence, there still exist differences between acts of domestic violence within heterosexual couples versus gay and lesbian couples. One difference is found in specific ways in which gays and lesbians may be vulnerable to abuse. For example, while the gay or lesbian abuser, just like the heterosexual abuser, may push, shove, hit, and kick, the gay or lesbian abuser might also use threats of ‘‘outing’’ his or her partner. For those persons who are accepting of alternative lifestyles, it is difficult to image how ‘‘outing’’ someone can be abusive. However, for the victim who does not live an open lifestyle, who fears for loss of family ties, the loss of professional networks, or backlash from the larger community, this single threat produces anxiety and fear. Scholars have also argued that HIV/AIDS plays a role in some domestic violence situations within the gay community. While HIV/AIDS is certainly not a problem exclusive to the gay population, studies have reported that HIV-positive men have higher rates of being abused than all others in the gay community.
Responding to Gay and Lesbian Domestic Violence
Because domestic violence is not only a serious social problem within the heterosexual community, but also a serious social problem within the gay and lesbian community, it is imperative that every victim regardless of sexual orientation have someone to turn to for help. Intervention by a third party is vitally important in helping any victim escape a violent situation. Unfortunately, however, those who often serve as third parties for members of the heterosexual community are not always inclusive of gay and lesbian victims of domestic violence.
Law enforcement officers are among the most important resources for victims of domestic violence, as it is an officer who is frequently the first responder in such situations. For that reason, law enforcement personnel are specially trained to respond to domestic violence situations, though such training centers on domestic violence involving heterosexual couples. The officer’s role in these cases is simple: to enforce the laws that protect the victim and her or his children. However, for gays and lesbians, it is often intimidating and/or discouraging to report acts of domestic violence to law enforcement. More often than not, law enforcement officers are not specially trained to deal with domestic violence situations among gay and lesbian couples, making it difficult for an officer to define— and therefore to properly, sensitively, and effectively respond to—same-sex domestic violence. Without an understanding of such situations it becomes too easy for law enforcement to define an act of lesbian domestic violence as a ‘‘catfight’’ between two women, or an act of gay domestic violence as just another fight between two men. Studies have also indicated that gays and lesbians who report acts of domestic violence are often confronted with the arresting officer’s homophobia or disdain for the gay/lesbian lifestyle. As harsh as it sounds, sometimes it is too easy for the arresting officer to walk away, believing that persons who live ‘‘that way’’ deserve what they get. The end result is that when a law enforcement officer does not intervene and leaves the victim in the abusive situation, the victim is further traumatized.
In the same fashion, prosecutors and judges have committed themselves to taking a strong stand against perpetrators of domestic violence in heterosexual relationships and have increased efforts to prosecute and punish abusers. However, in cases of gay and lesbian domestic violence, the law is not always helpful. Scholars have pointed out the negative impact of states defining marriage as ‘‘a union between two persons of the opposite sex’’ and attempts at the federal level to create a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Prohibiting states from recognizing a relationship between two adults living together outside of the legalized union of marriage often means that they cannot be granted the same legal rights as two adults who are married. Therefore, if domestic violence laws are written to indicate that domestic violence reflects violence between ‘‘married people,’’ gays, lesbians, and, in some cases, heterosexual couples who are cohabiting do not have legal grounds to use such laws. While gays and lesbians can invoke the use of less weighty laws, such as misdemeanor assault charges, the use of domestic violence charges often carry more severe penalties. Further, few states offer domestic violence laws that allow gays and lesbians the right to secure a restraining order against an abusive partner, apply for a protective order, or prosecute their batterer.
Like law enforcement officers, medical personnel and community leaders have also been trained to take action in situations where it is suspected that the victim’s injuries are the result of domestic violence. However, like law enforcement personnel, few professionals in these fields have been trained in issues relevant to gay and lesbian domestic violence. If the same homophobia found in the general population is played out in the responses of professionals who assist domestic violence victims, gay and lesbian victims have little hope of receiving an effective response to their immediate situation.
Perhaps one of the most important steps in a community’s response to domestic violence is the funding and establishment of shelters where victims are offered safe space and physical safety from their abusers. The reality is, however, that emergency shelters are not generally prepared to deal with gays and lesbians seeking refuge from situations of domestic violence. Too often shelter staffs are trained to think of acts of domestic violence in terms of men abusing women, leaving lesbians and, even more so, gay males feeling unwelcome. It is the rare domestic violence shelter that has the facilities, or the willingness, to offer safe space to a gay male who has been abused. Without access to a shelter, the victim of domestic violence does not have access to information, advocacy, counseling, support groups, legal and protective aid, or any number of services that shelter staffs provide.
In cases of gay and lesbian domestic violence, if the criminal justice system, the medical institution, and the staffs at emergency shelters cannot or will not respond to or meet the needs of the victim, many gays and lesbians are left with only the option of turning to family and friends for help. Again, however, this is not always possible for many. If friends or relatives do not know that the individual is gay or lesbian, or do not approve of the gay or lesbian lifestyle, there is little, if any, support to be offered. Without some understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, even one’s closest friends can harbor a victim-blaming attitude and wonder what the victim did to deserve the abuse; this difficulty is also faced by many heterosexual domestic violence victims. This fosters the belief that the violence is the fault of the victim and that it is the victim, not the abuser, who must change her or his behaviors.
Change for the Future
With few resources available to victims of gay and lesbian domestic violence, it is not surprising to find advocates calling for change. Some of the most comprehensive recommendations for change have come from the National Coalition of Anti- Violence Programs. These recommendations call for, among other things, an expansion of existing community-based services for domestic violence victims and their inclusion of services for gay and lesbian victims of domestic violence. It is imperative that the services provided for heterosexual victims of domestic violence be extended to gay and lesbian victims. Preventative education aimed at gays and lesbians is also necessary. Educational programming that addresses the existence and dynamics of gay and lesbian domestic violence must be established for all professionals who assist domestic violence victims. Most importantly, the law must protect all victims of domestic violence and hold all abusers accountable for their actions. Helping the victim is vital, but holding the abuser accountable for her or his actions is one of the most important steps toward ending the violence.
Without challenging societal perceptions of victims and perpetrators of domestic violence and without taking seriously the recommendations for future changes toward assisting all victims and ending domestic violence in all relationships, a significant portion of the population is left to face a very serious, and sometimes deadly, situation on their own. This is unacceptable and unnecessary, as everyone has the right to live their lives free from violence.
- Burke, T., and S. Owen. ‘‘Same-Sex Domestic Violence: Is Anyone Listening?’’ Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 13, no. 1 (2006): 6.
- Kaschak,E. ‘‘Intimate Betrayal: Domestic Violence in Lesbian Relationships.’’ Women and Therapy 23, no. 3 (2001): 1. Landolt, M., and D. Dutton. ‘‘Power and Personality: An Analysis of Gay Male Intimate Abuse.’’ Sex Roles 37, no. 5/6 (1997): 335.
- McClennen, J. ‘‘Domestic Violence between Same-Gender Partners.’’ Journal of Interpersonal Violence 20, no. 2 (2005): 149.
- Renzetti, C. M. Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992.
- Seelau, E., S. Seelau, and P. Poorman. ‘‘Gender and Role- Based Perceptions of Domestic Abuse: Does Sexual Orientation Matter?’’ Behavioral Sciences and the Law 21 (2003): 199.