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Domestic violence is not restricted to heterosexual couples. Gay and bisexual males have also been the victims and perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse. This research paper will examine some of the issues concerning gay and bisexual male domestic violence, with particular attention devoted to: defining what constitutes domestic violence; a brief historical perspective; some unique concerns for gay and bisexual domestic violence; profiles of the victims and offenders; discussion of the cycle of abuse; attempting to understand why victims stay; and prevention and treatment strategies. Because most domestic violence research has focused on male– female encounters, studies concerning gay and bisexual male domestic violence have been neglected. The few studies that do exist reveal that the frequency of gay and bisexual male domestic violence does not significantly differ from that of heterosexual domestic violence. For instance, one study found that approximately one-quarter of gay and bisexual men were victims of same-sex domestic violence. It is clear that domestic violence has no sexual or gender boundaries.
It is important to note that it is difficult to obtain accurate domestic violence statistics, for a number of reasons. First, domestic violence, in general, is underreported. Many victims believe that what happens in the home should stay in the home. This is particularly true for gay and bisexual men. They may not wish to disclose their victimization to the police or others for fear of outing—the nonconsensual disclosing of their sexual orientation. Second, socialization implies that ‘‘men should be men’’ and that they should be able to handle physical aggression without outside interference. Third, gay and bisexual men may be reluctant to report their victimization to authorities, particularly the police, for fear of further victimization through police ridicule, discrimination, or violence. Fourth, the concept of domestic violence may be vague. Is yelling considered domestic violence? Is pushing a violent act? Should the victim wait until blood is drawn before contacting authorities?
I. Defining Domestic Violence
II. Brief Historical Perspective
III. Some Unique Concerns
IV. Profiling the Victim
V. Profile of the Abuser/Batterer
VI. The Cycle of Abuse
VII. Why Do They Stay?
VIII. Prevention and Treatment Strategies
Defining Domestic Violence
Domestic violence has numerous definitions, ranging from narrow to broad. For the purpose of this research paper, gay and bisexual male domestic violence will be defined broadly to include the control of others through power, including verbal and nonverbal harassment, physical and psychological threat or injury to the victim or to others, isolation (preventing or minimizing social contacts), economic deprivation, outing, sexual assaults (including being pressured into sexual activity), destruction of property, animal or pet abuse, withholding medication, or any combination of these methods.
Brief Historical Perspective
As noted above, domestic violence among heterosexual, bisexual, and gay couples has been around for as long as relationships have existed, although the focus of the majority of the research on domestic violence has been devoted to heterosexual relationships. Heterosexual domestic violence was first recognized as a problem only in the mid- to late twentieth century; at the start of the twenty-first century, much work remains to raise similar levels of awareness for gay and bisexual male domestic violence.
Prior to the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, domestic violence was minimized— often by blaming the victim—through the ‘‘you deserved what you got’’ mentality. Nearly forty years later, programs and resources for victimized women are well established. Ironically, while these resources exist for women, comparable resources are often unavailable to male victims—be they gay, bisexual, or straight. Gay and bisexual men are more likely to be killed by their partners than by gay bashers. For instance, Patrick Letellier found that in San Francisco in 1991–1992, one-third of murdered gay men were killed by their partners and one-third were killed by ‘‘roommates’’—a term used by police who either do not know the relationship between the parties or do not wish to know.
As a consequence of the lack of attention devoted to gay and bisexual domestic violence, victims often believe that they must fend for themselves. Some have resorted to alcohol and/or drug abuse as a means of escape; others have attempted or committed suicide. There has been at least one documented case of a victim who went so far as to create a new identity, complete with a new name, Social Security number, change in physical appearance, etc., in order to avoid his abuser.
It would be unfair to simply blame the women’s movement for the nonattention concerning gay and bisexual domestic violence. The gay and bisexual community must take some responsibility as well, for keeping the topic in the closet. Measures to raise awareness are necessary and will be addressed in greater detail in the final section of this research paper.
Some Unique Concerns
As noted above, previous studies have found that the prevalence of heterosexual domestic violence is roughly the same as that of gay and bisexual male domestic violence. However, gay and bisexual male domestic violence is complicated by homophobia (regardless of whether one self-identifies as being straight, gay, or bisexual) and the ‘‘HIV/ AIDS effect.’’ It is recognized that HIV/AIDS is not limited to the gay and bisexual male population; however, gay and bisexual men are considered to be within a ‘‘high risk’’ population.
Homophobia is a fear of homosexuals. Batterers frequently use homophobia to control the victim. This may include threats to disclose the victim’s sexual orientation to friends, family, employers, etc., unless the victim complies with his demands. Basically, this amounts to emotional blackmail. In addition, homophobia can cause many in society, including victims’ family members and law enforcement, to not recognize gay and bisexual male domestic violence as a problem.
Gay and bisexual male victims sometimes fail to leave an abusive relationship due to the HIV/AIDS effect. Some victims of HIV or AIDS fear an imminent death and do not wish to die alone (at the time of this writing, a cure for AIDS has not been discovered; however, the use of medications and positive personal health choices have substantially prolonged the quality of life of many HIV/AIDS victims). Some HIV/AIDS victims believe that finding another relationship may be extremely difficult due to their health status and would rather remain in their current relationship, even though abusive.
Research suggests that although the occurrence is rare, HIV-positive abusers may deliberately infect their partners to prevent them from leaving. As a means of controlling the victim, some abusers have used the ‘‘guilt card.’’ For example, an HIV-positive abuser may actually feign serious illness to prevent his victimized partner from leaving or to make him return. The victim may not wish to abandon his abusive partner in a time of need (be it real or imagined), in part because of how he would be judged by others. Some abusers have prevented their partners from seeking medical attention, or have withheld medication, as a means to control the relationship and to promote future abuse. Some abusers have even threatened to communicate the status of their ill partners to others, including employers, parents, and/or health care providers.
Why would someone subject himself to such abuse? What would prompt a person to commit such abuse? In the next two sections, the characteristics of the victim and offender are profiled. Profiling is a process whereby people are placed into categories based upon shared characteristics. It is important to note that while profiling may prove useful for classification purposes, it serves merely to aid in understanding and should not be seen as a panacea for identification.
Profiling the Victim
Victims of domestic violence often share common characteristics. This holds true regardless of sexual orientation. It is important to note that individuals do not have to possess each of these traits to be victims of abuse.
Victims of gay or bisexual domestic violence often possess anger toward their partners, withdraw from social activities and other people, have a lack of trust, demonstrate or internalize fear, blame themselves for the abusers’ actions, experience frustration, show signs of depression, and/or have low self-esteem. Additionally, victims may overestimate their ability to handle the violence; attempt to avoid conflict; deny the abuse; trivialize the abuse; attempt to leave the relationship only to return; find leaving the abuser to be difficult; believe they are trapped in the relationship and that there are no alternatives to leaving; and/or believe that they must endure the violence.
Victims often develop coping strategies as means to compensate for the violence, including appeasing or avoiding their abusers or simply justifying the abuse (i.e., believing that they ‘‘deserved it’’). Sometimes the victim may actually attempt to seek some outside assistance, only to be ridiculed by the abuser. Many victims stay in the relationship because they believe (or imagine) that eventually the violence will cease.
Profile of the Abuser/Batterer
Abusers come in all sizes and shapes; they are not limited by socioeconomic status, age, physical strength, or racial, ethnic, religious, or occupational backgrounds. However, batterers do share some common characteristics. For example, many batterers deny the violence they inflict upon others; blame the victim by making statements such as, ‘‘He deserved what he got’’; have anger management issues or explosive personalities; are loners—due to their lack of outside friendships, they may attempt to bully their partners into submission so they will not leave; lack control over their lives and therefore attempt to control the lives of others; and, like their victims, possess low self-esteem and self-worth.
In addition to the above characteristics, gay or bisexual batterers may also possess a number of other traits. These include tendencies to: manipulate, control, and dominate others; restrict the freedom and movement of the victim; use cruel, demeaning, and aggressive behavior to coerce the victim to submit to the batterer’s demands; and attempt to stifle the victim through threats and physical violence, preventing others from learning of the abuse. Batterers often have histories of failed relationships and academic, occupational, and/or financial problems. They are prone to jealousy, insecurity, deceitfulness, and/or unrealistic expectations of self and partner; they may also exhibit a pattern of emotional dependency toward their victims, including obsession.
Furthermore, the profile of the batterer will most likely include a lifelong history of violence (known as the ‘‘cycle of violence’’ or ‘‘intergenerational transmission of violence’’). Batterers in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships often experienced or witnessed violence in childhood prior to becoming violent themselves. As a result of the ‘‘cycle of violence,’’ batterers often have experienced one or more of the following: witnessing physical and/or psychological abuse of family members; being victims of abuse or neglect by parents or siblings; bullying in school as either victims or abusers; and histories of victimizing previous partners. The abuser may also have threatened, harmed, or killed a family pet or other animal as a means to either control others or to show a propensity toward future violence. There is a strong relationship between animal abuse and human violence.
The abuser will most likely target those that he deems ‘‘weaker.’’ Rarely will batterers display violence toward persons of higher status or authority. Batterers are also reluctant to seek assistance for their problem(s). It is not until they are mandated by law or have witnessed their lives completely at rock bottom that they ask for outside, professional counseling. Even then, batterers may not seek the help they desperately require.
It is not uncommon for domestic abusers (again, regardless of sexual orientation) to be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs during the violent encounter. However, there is debate regarding the intensity of the abuse during intoxication. For instance, some research has found that alcohol intoxication may actually reduce aggression, whereas other research has found an increase in violence, particularly when drugs and alcohol are combined. Regardless of the impact of alcohol and/ or drugs on an incident of gay or bisexual male domestic violence, voluntary intoxication is never the cause of the violence; it is merely an unacceptable excuse.
The Cycle of Abuse
One of the many problems associated with domestic violence is that once it begins, it rarely stops. While it may be true that relationship violence does not continue twenty-four hours a day, research indicates that there is a cyclical pattern to the abuse. Lenore Walker noted that there are three phases to domestic violence abuse. These stages pertain to all types of domestic relationships, including those of gay or bisexual males.
The first is the tension-building stage. This is characterized by verbal abuse (or the silent treatment) and may include assaults resulting in minor injuries. The second is known as the acute-battering stage. Violence often goes beyond inflicting minor injuries and escalates to severe battering of the victim, which may include punching, slapping, kicking, and/or choking. Often these injuries result in visible bruises or broken bones. The abuser may even resort to weapons to control the victim. This stage may last anywhere from a few minutes to days. The final stage is often referred to as the calm period. During this stage the abuser is apologetic for his actions and promises that he will never do it again. Along with his plea for forgiveness, he will likely shower the victim with gifts to show how much ‘‘he really cares’’ and repents for his actions. This ‘‘honeymoon’’ phase can last from days to years. This stage may actually be the most dangerous, since the victim is lulled into a false sense of security and decides to stay in the abusive relationship.
These three stages work together in a cyclical pattern. As the frequency of the cycle increases, so does the frequency and severity of the violence. In other words, the more times the cycle is completed, the shorter time it takes to actually complete the cycle. Without intervention, the cycle will likely continue.
Why Do They Stay?
People often ask, ‘‘Why would someone stay in an abusive relationship? If I were them, I would get out.’’ Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Gay and bisexual men stay in abusive relationships for a number of reasons:
- Fear of escalated violence. Victims often fear that if they leave the relationship and return, their batterers will likely increase the violence level. This would be consistent with the cycle of abuse described above.
- Threats. Abusers often threaten their victims that if they leave or tell others, the violence will continue or become more severe. Some victims express concern that their batterers will harm not only them, but also others (i.e., friends, pets, etc.).
- Poor self-esteem. Many victims believe that they deserve the abuse and that they are at fault.
- Loyalty. Some victims remain loyal to their partners and believe that it is incumbent upon them to remain in the relationship. This may include a commitment to honoring their vows (whether personal or through a formal ceremony).
- Fear. This includes not just the fear of the potential consequences of leaving the relationship, but the fear of being alone. This may also include the fear of not finding another relationship because the victim deems himself as unworthy (having poor self-esteem).
- Hope to change the batterer. A victim often believes that he should remain in an abusive relationship because the batterer is really the victim and is in need of special care and attention that only the victim can provide. He may also believe the abuser’s pleas of forgiveness and promises to seek help.
- Lack of understanding. It is not surprising that some victims do not even realize they are victims of abuse. They may be unaware that gay or bisexual battering actually exists, thinking that the violent act was merely an isolated incident and will not likely occur again; or victims may perceive that only severe cases of battery (violence that requires medical attention) are considered domestic violence.
- Denial. Similar to lack of understanding, victims may make excuses for the violence or pretend that it never occurred.
- Stalking. Some batterers will stalk their victims out of jealousy or in attempts to convince the victims to return to the relationship (providing they ever left).
- Love. Regardless of the abuse they have received, many victims remain in love with their abusers. Some victims believe that they would be unable to fall in love again if they left the relationship.
- Dependence. This includes both financial and emotional dependence. There is some debate concerning financial dependence as an explanation for remaining in a violent gay or bisexual relationship. Some believe that gay and bisexual male relationships are no different than heterosexual or lesbian relationships in that whoever manages the financial purse strings possesses the ultimate control in the relationship, which can later be used as leverage in a domestic violence encounter. Others believe that gay men, in particular, have greater financial independence. Because gay men are (with few exceptions) not permitted to marry, partners often maintain separate financial accounts. In addition, because gay or bisexual male couples are less likely than heterosexual couples to have children, they may have more financial freedom than heterosexual couples with children.
- HIV/AIDS. As discussed earlier, HIV/AIDS plays a special role in gay and bisexual relationships. Victims of domestic violence who are HIV positive or who have AIDS may fear that if they do not abide by their abusers’ demands, the abusers may withhold necessary medication. Fear of dying alone is also a concern; some victims would rather remain in an abusive relationship than deal with their illness in isolation. Additionally, a victim of domestic violence who is the caretaker of a partner with HIV/AIDS may not wish to abandon his partner in time of need.
- Physical attraction. Not to be confused with love, some bisexual and gay males may remain in an abusive relationship because they continue to possess a physical attraction toward their partner, which appears to outweigh the abuse. Although undocumented, this may apply for those who have abusive ‘‘trophy’’ boyfriends. The victim would rather endure the physical violence as long as he has an attractive boyfriend to parade around in public. If this is valid, it may coincide with the victim’s low self-esteem and self-worth.
- Socialization. Men have been socialized to ‘‘take it like a man.’’ A macho attitude is not isolated to the abuser. Victims often feel they need to stay in a violent relationship because they perceive that it would reflect negatively upon them to leave or report the incident to authorities, believing that men should be able to take care of themselves. Victims may also fear that the police, or others to whom abuse is reported, would ridicule them for being unable to defend themselves.
- Guilt. Some victims who do engage in physical confrontations with their abusers may believe that they are no better than the abusers themselves. They may not understand the concept of self-defense and see themselves as being equally at fault.
- Lack of support. Gay or bisexual male victims who wish to seek help often find that there is a lack of available resources, including shelters and professional contacts, or that they simply do not know where to look for help.
Prevention and Treatment Strategies
Prevention and treatment programs for female victims of domestic violence are abundant. It certainly is not the purpose of this research paper to minimize their importance; quite the contrary. The more resources available for abuse victims, the better. However, resources and treatment programs for abused men, be they gay, bisexual, or heterosexual, are severely lacking.
Shelters for men need to be established, complete with trained counselors to better serve male victims of domestic violence. These shelters or safe houses should also include services for pets. As previously stated, there is a strong relationship between a person who harms animals and one who commits physical violence toward humans. Batterers may threaten to harm or kill pets to control their victims and make the victims adhere to the abusers’ demands. These may be household pets or even farm animals.
Due to the lack of available resources, some male victims of domestic violence may attempt to receive assistance from HIV/AIDS service providers or other social service agencies that focus on gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender issues, only to be told that these agencies are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle problems of domestic violence. Referrals to other agencies are unlikely (this is especially true if there are no agencies serving male domestic violence victims in a jurisdiction). If separate facilities are unavailable, partnerships with gay community centers may provide useful alternatives.
Professionals need to be trained in gay and bisexual male domestic violence issues. This is particularly important for criminal justice personnel, who are often first responders to domestic violence cases, and for health care professionals, who are mandatory reporters for domestic violence incidents. Research suggests that victims in same-sex relationships are often reluctant to report domestic violence to police personnel for fear of retaliation from their abusers, ridicule from officers, police homophobia (real or perceived), or officers’ lack of understanding of male victims in domestic violence encounters.
For instance, police officers who respond to a gay or bisexual male domestic violence call may believe that since two men are involved, it is simply mutual combat. This is consistent with the socialization process exemplified by stereotypical statements such as: ‘‘Men should be able to fend for themselves’’ or ‘‘It is an equal fight, since two men are involved.’’ Sometimes officers are unwilling to make an arrest where one is warranted; in other incidents, they may arrest the victim or both parties. The latter two options may be particularly true where a law enforcement agency is bound by a mandatory arrest policy, requiring officers to make an arrest whenever physical injury is present. Police academy and in-service training should include an awareness of and proper response to gay and bisexual male domestic violence encounters.
Additionally, other members of the criminal justice community should be educated concerning the special needs of gay and bisexual male victims of domestic violence. Research suggests that victims of gay and bisexual male domestic violence lack confidence in the court system. Accordingly, prosecutors should be encouraged to prosecute abusers in domestic violence cases and judges should be consistent in their sentencing when dealing with domestic violence victims, regardless of gender or sexuality.
Many health care professionals are also socialized to believe that gay or bisexual male victims of domestic violence do not need special treatment. This may be due to homophobia or perhaps a lack of knowledge concerning gay or bisexual male domestic violence. Mental health care training should include proper interviewing techniques for victims appropriate to gender and sexual orientation, with an assessment of history of abuse and previous injuries. Mental health professionals should be able to aid and counsel gay and bisexual male victims who miss work due to injuries suffered as a result of abuse. They should recognize signs and symptoms of abuse and serve as advocates for the victim, including during victim–police interactions.
Other solutions may include support or self-help group counseling for victims of gay or bisexual male domestic violence. Couple counseling is not recommended. The problem with couple counseling is that the abuser is sitting in the room with the victim. The victim may not feel free to discuss problems openly for fear of future retaliation and assaults; the abuser will likely deny the abuse and make it appear that the victim is to blame.
In addition, mental health counselors should work to develop counseling programs for the abusive partners in gay and bisexual male relationships. Some effective programs have been developed for counseling abusers in heterosexual relationships; programs of this type need to be extended to include issues pertinent to gay and bisexual relationships.
Policymakers should be aware of gay and bisexual male domestic violence issues. After identifying and acknowledging the problem, lawmakers should develop measures to ensure the safety of the victims, including recognizing and amending language within the law that does not appear to be inclusive of all victims. It is important that domestic violence be conceptualized as a potential problem in all types of relationships, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
Finally, community education is critical. This includes the gay, bisexual, and heterosexual community. Communication must be open, not hidden behind a cloud of secrecy and shame. Information about gay and bisexual male domestic violence should be made available through gay establishments (including bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops), gay pride events, and gay community organizations. Gay media sources, including gay newspapers and magazines, gay Internet sites, and gay television networks, should be contacted and encouraged to provide domestic violence public service announcements that include contacts and referral agencies. Of course, this awareness should apply to all media sources, although it is unlikely that the ‘‘straight’’ or ‘‘mainstream’’ media will concern itself with gay or bisexual male domestic violence until the gay community itself initially acknowledges and addresses the problem.
The purpose of this research paper was to explore the various issues concerning gay and bisexual male domestic violence. As noted, little attention has been devoted to this topic. Community awareness and prevention strategies are needed to minimize the dangers associated with domestic violence, regardless of sexual orientation of victims and abusers. Without proper resources and treatment programs, the cycles of violence and abuse among gay and bisexual male couples will likely continue.
- Burke, Tod W. ‘‘Male to Male Gay Domestic Violence: The Dark Closet.’’ In Violence in Intimate Relationships: Examining Sociological and Psychological Issues, edited by Nicky Jackson and Gisele Oates. Boston: Butterworth- Heinemann, 1998, pp. 161–179.
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- Merrill, Gregory. ‘‘Ruling the Exceptions: Same-Sex Domestic Violence and Domestic Violence Theory.’’ Journal of Lesbian/Gay Social Services 4, no. 1 (1996): 9–21.
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