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Same-Sex Intimate Partner Violence

Domestic Violence in Lesbian and Bisexual Relationships

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Domestic Violence
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Updated February 29, 2012
For Kelly A. Blasko, the issue of lesbian domestic violence is real. She had a close lesbian friend who was in a violent relationship. Kelly A. Blasko is also an expert in the field of lesbian and same-sex domestic violence. Her masters and dissertation research is on same-sex intimate partner violence. Specifically she focused on how therapists can adequately assess same-sex intimate partner violence and provide the necessary interventions. She also wrote a chapter on lesbian intimate partner violence in the book Lesbian Health 101, which is how we found her.

Kelly spoke to us about the issue of same-sex domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

Lesbian Life: I was quite shocked to read in Lesbian Health 101 that 30-40% of lesbians have been in at least one physically abusive relationship. Is this statistic higher than for the general public? If so, why more violence amongst lesbian couples?

Kelly A. Blasko; The actual prevalence of lesbian intimate partner violence has been difficult to determine. Many studies that have tried to determine prevalence include very small nonrandom samples. Based on data from the National Violence Against Women Survey, Tjaden, Thoennes & Allison (1999) reported that 11.4% of female same-sex cohabitants (n =79) were physically assaulted by a female partner. It is believed that the actual incidence is higher but how much higher is unknown. Many lesbians are unwilling to report being physically abused in a relationship for several reasons.
  • First, intimate partner violence is viewed as a “heterosexual” issue and revealing their own abuse could fuel negative stereotypes of the lesbian community.
  • Second, finding help can be difficult. It is not unusual for professionals, friends, families, and other third-party resources to deny that intimate partner violence is an issue that occurs in lesbian couples.
  • Third, many lesbians fear seeking help because they not only have to reveal that they are in an abusive relationship but may experience homophobia when “coming out” to a someone who could help.

What are some factors that contribute to domestic violence for lesbians?

Intimate partner violence is about power and control. Feeling out of control in a lesbian relationship can be a big factor in contributing to physical abuse. Many abusers retain a feeling of control by physically or psychologically abusing their partners. Control is thought to be a contributing factor to violent behavior given the context of lesbians living in a community where they may feel both internal and external oppression related to their sexual orientation. Lesbian relationships that are enmeshed can often be abusive. A lack of autonomy can result in a power struggle where one partner may end up being abusive.

What is psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse can be used as a control tactic in abusive relationships and can often precede physical abuse. Psychological abuse refers to behavior that threatens or harms a partner just short of physical abuse. Some types of psychological abuse include verbal threats, isolation from friends, demeaning comments, or destruction of property. In all cases, these tactics are used to maintain control and power in the relationship. One psychological threat unique to lesbian relationships is the threat of outing their partner to family, friends, or co-workers. Often this is a big enough threat to maintain secrecy of the abuse. Lesbian couples can be isolated from the community and a partner psychologically abusing their partner will use that isolation to their advantage.

What can a friend or co-worker of someone who is in an abusive relationship do?

A friend or co-worker can help by working with their lesbian friend to figure out ways to be safe. Usually this means looking at ways for them to escape from harm. It is important for a friend or co-worker to believe their friend when they report their abuse. A lesbian reporting abuse is quite a big step and if they are not believed they may give up from trying to get help. Work with your friend to find help. Many areas do not have domestic shelters or police forces that recognize lesbian intimate partner violence. Therapists and health professionals may be good referrals as a first step in the help seeking process. Empower your friend to make choices about what they want to do. Offering choices and options can help a friend see ways to get out of the harmful situation they are in.

Where can lesbians turn for help if they are the victim of domestic violence?

Unfortunately not many services exist to help lesbians in violence situations. Some domestic violence agencies specific to lesbians are available in urban areas but not usually in rural areas. Domestic violence shelters often accept lesbians seeking help. Sometimes they are faced with a dilemma because both the victim and perpetrator may ask for help at the same time. Many lesbians seek help from friends and family. This may be a good first step so they have an ally to help them find ways to be safe until they can get the professional care they may need. More domestic violence hotlines are becoming helpful to lesbian victims when they reach out.

Can the relationship ever be saved?

This is a really tough question. Within the mental health profession there are mixed views on this. Obviously when there is intimate partner violence the power in the relationship is unbalanced. One partner is controlling the other through physical or psychological harm. An outside observer could automatically think, “They need to leave the relationship.” As a psychologist I would not want my client to be physically harmed and would do everything to keep her safe. Each relationship is different and whether it can be “saved” really depends on re-establishing balance in the relationship and removal of all physical and psychological controlling behaviors.
  1. About.com
  2. People & Relationships
  3. Lesbian Life
  4. Lesbian Health
  5. Interview with Lesbian Domestic Violence Expert Kelly A. Blasko, Ph.D.

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