Lesbian Battering Research Paper

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In the 1970s, the women’s movement raised public awareness relative to the extent and magnitude of domestic violence in American society. Victim rights advocates urged the criminal justice system to increase the certainty and celerity of the legal response to domestic violence. They demanded that the system protect victims by arresting, prosecuting, and punishing batterers. By 1988, most states had adopted an array of legislative and procedural reforms, including mandatory arrest policies and stricter enforcement of restraining orders.

These reforms were intended to increase victim reporting as well as to encourage the arrest and prosecution of batterers. At the same time, researchers began to focus considerable attention on domestic violence, and numerous theories were advanced to explain its prevalence. Despite the increased attention, very few studies were conducted examining same sex battering.


I. Introduction

II. Types of Abuse

III. Correlates of Abuse

A. Substance Abuse

B. Intergenerational Transmission of Violence

C. The Role of Power

D. Dependency

E. Personality Disorders

IV. Victim Reporting

V. Obstacles to Leaving Abusive Relationships

VI. Strategies for Change


A number of factors may combine to explain why researchers neglected to study the problem of same sex battering. First, many state laws limit domestic violence to couples who are married. By definition, these statutes fail to recognize same sex battering and therefore deny gay and lesbian victims legal protection and services. This further isolates victims of same sex battering making it that much more difficult to study this type of intimate violence. Secondly, the first domestic violence theories were developed by feminist scholars who attributed wife battering to patriarchy and male dominance over women. It was argued that men are socialized to control women and treat them as subordinates. Feminists maintained that battering is always perpetrated by men against women. Same sex battering challenged the perception that domestic violence is a gender issue. As a result, same sex battering was ignored because it was not compatible with early domestic violence theories. Third, the gay and lesbian community contributed to the lack of information on same sex battering. The gay and lesbian community was reluctant to recognize the problem of partner abuse among same sex couples. In particular, lesbians wanted to perpetuate the idea that women are less violent than men. In addition, many gay and lesbian leaders were afraid that the problem of same sex battering would be used by society to further condemn homosexuality. Lesbian and gay victims of intimate violence were often pressured by the community to remain silent. Consequently, the gay and lesbian community was slow to acknowledge or support victims of same sex battering.

Types of Abuse

In the early 1990s, a number of precedent-setting studies were conducted to gauge the prevalence of same sex battering. However, researchers studying same sex battering faced a number of obstacles relative to sampling. Researchers often had to rely on nonrandom sampling, which limited the generalizability of their findings. Some of the methods that have been used to generate data on same sex battering include: (1) advertising in gay publications, (2) surveying individuals at gay-identified events or locations such as pride parades or gay bars, (3) recruiting participants through a gay social service organization, and (4) snowballing. Participants secured through these various sampling techniques are in all likelihood not representative of the gay community. They usually have stronger ties to the community and do not reflect that segment of the population who remain ‘‘closeted.’’ As a result, studies examining gay and lesbian partner abuse are unable to measure the actual prevalence of same sex battering. This body of research, however, is still significant because it shows that gays and lesbians do experience violence in their intimate relationships.

Most of the research on same sex battering has focused on the problem of intimate violence in lesbian relationships. It has been reported that a significant number of lesbians suffer the same types of abuse as their heterosexual counterparts. Several studies discovered that between 25 percent and 46 percent of lesbians have been in an abusive same sex relationship. This pattern is comparable to partner abuse among heterosexual couples. It has been estimated that between 25 percent and 33 percent of heterosexual relationships are abusive.

Initial research revealed that many lesbians experience physical abuse and aggression at the hands of their partners. The violence can consist of slapping, biting, strangulation, or assault with a weapon to murder. Physical signs of the abuse include bruises, welts, burns, bleeding, broken bones, and internal injuries. In general, it appears that the most common forms of physical abuse involve pushing, hitting, and/or throwing objects. However, a significant percentage of battered lesbians endure serious personal crimes, including assault with a weapon and rape.

Preliminary research also found support for escalating violence in same sex relationships. In her seminal study of lesbian partner abuse, Elizabeth Leeder discovered evidence of what she referred to as chronic battering. Chronic battering involves abuse that intensifies over time, eventually escalating into a potentially life-threatening situation. A large percentage of battered lesbians have suffered prior abuse. A significant number of battered lesbians have disclosed that the abuse became more frequent and violent over time. In addition, repeat incidents tended to be more violent in nature than first-time incidents and therefore were more likely to require that victims seek medical attention.

Like heterosexual abuse, same sex battering involves sexual coercion, economic control, and psychological abuse. It has been suggested that lesbians suffer the same types of sexual abuse as heterosexual women, including unwanted touching, rape, and forced sex with others. However, there has been no definitive study examining sexual abuse in lesbian relationships. As a result, there is a lack of empirical evidence concerning this form of intimate violence.

Prior research has shown that batterers usually control the couple’s assets and income in abusive heterosexual relationships. Thus, the victim may not possess the monetary means to leave the abusive relationship because she is financially dependent on the batterer. Interestingly, there is a lack of evidence supporting economic dependency among lesbian victims of same sex battering. Preliminary results actually suggest that victims and batterers are very similar in terms of employment status. However, victims tend to earn more money and have a higher level of educational attainment and greater occupational prestige than their partners. These findings are not consistent with heterosexual abuse.

Psychological abuse appears to be widespread among same sex couples. Research has found that lesbian victims of intimate violence frequently experience verbal assaults, insults, threats, humiliation, and manipulation. Psychological abuse tends to occur more frequently than physical abuse. Many battered lesbians report that the psychological abuse is as damaging as the physical violence. The verbal threats often serve as a harbinger of other types of abuse. Victims learn that the verbal threats usually precede the physical violence. As a result, victims will attempt to delay the onset of the physical violence by placating the batterer. The victim may engage in activities that will please the batterer, such as cooking her favorite meal.

Another form of psychological abuse is when the batterer threatens to harm the victim’s children or pet(s) and/or destroy her property. When the batterer actually follows through on such threats, she is sending a clear message that she is capable of destroying the victim as well. This is intended to instill fear and terror in the victim.

A unique form of psychological abuse that exists in same sex relationships but not in heterosexual relationships is the threat of ‘‘outing.’’ Here the abuser threatens to reveal to family, friends, employers, and others that the victim is a lesbian. The victim may fear being ostracized by her family and friends. She could also be afraid of losing her job or custody of her children. The abuser threatens to disclose the victim’s sexual orientation in an effort to further control and manipulate her.

Correlates of Abuse

The contributors to partner abuse in homosexual relationships are similar to those in heterosexual relationships. Substance abuse, an imbalance of power between partners, violence or abuse in one partner’s past, overdependency on one partner, and personality disorders have been suggested as some of the factors. These factors appear to be interrelated, increasing the risk that abuse will occur in a lesbian relationship.

Substance Abuse

The ‘‘demon rum’’ theory of violence and abuse is one of the most widely believed explanations for family violence. Most research on the correlation of substance abuse and intimate violence show, however, that a number of variables intervene in the relationship between alcohol and interpersonal violence. Alcohol’s effects appear to be mediated by several factors, such as the amount of alcohol consumed, the preconsumption personality of the drinker, and the expectations by both the drinker and others as to how alcohol influences behavior.

Research on the use of alcohol and same sex partner abuse has indicated mixed results, with some studies reporting that alcohol or drug use was related to violence. Recent research suggests that batterers may decide to be abusive even before they decide to drink. And while there appears to be a strong positive relationship between substance abuse and the frequency and severity of partner abuse, this relationship disappears when the batterer’s dependency on her partner is statistically removed.

Hence both substance abuse and partner abuse in lesbian relationships may be related to dependency of one partner on another. Drinking may offer lesbians a way to overcome their dependency, and abusing a partner may also be a way to feel powerful. Lesbians who have been victimized often rationalize their partner’s behavior, and substance abuse is a logical and acceptable way to do so.

Intergenerational Transmission of Violence

In interviews with victims, Claire Renzetti found that nearly one-third of same sex battering incidents occurred when neither partner was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These women frequently cited a history of abuse in their own or their partner’s family of origin. This suggests some support for the intergenerational transmission hypothesis that individuals who as children witnessed or experienced violence in their families of origin are more likely to be abusive toward their own partners.

A history of abuse may increase the risk of being both an abuser and a victim of abuse by an intimate partner. This ‘‘double whammy’’ effect has been found in studies of heterosexual battering, and the research on lesbian battering also suggests it. Lesbians who have witnessed and experienced intimate violence as children were significantly more likely to be victimized or to abuse their own partners.

Overall, the research has not provided strong evidence for the intergenerational transmission theory. Instead researchers have hypothesized that in those cases in which abuse had been present in the family of origin, this history of abuse was used by respondents and their partners to excuse the current violence. Similar to the use of substance abuse as a rationalization, the belief that exposure to abuse in the family of origin leads to abuse may be a way to justify the batterer’s current abuse.

The Role of Power

The feminist emphasis on domestic violence as coercive control, as a way to get a partner to do what another wants even if she/he doesn’t want to do so, has been applied to abusive same sex relationships. However, research on lesbian battering finds that power in intimate relationships is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon. A difficulty in the research stems from the measurement of power as a contributor to intimate violence. It has been measured in several ways; namely, which partner makes the most decisions and what status differences exist between partners in money and education.

Research on heterosexual couples has found a strong association between balance of power in the relationship and the incidence of battering; however, the relationship has been less strong in studies of abusive homosexual couples. In same sex relationships, an association has been found between the division of labor and victimization in that the partner who handled domestic issues was more likely to be a victim. Differences in social class and in intellectual abilities between partners were also factors in the likelihood of battering. In addition, when there was a difference between a partner’s achieved status and expected status, given her background, this partner was more likely to be abusive. These studies on same sex couples highlight that the balance of power is multifaceted in intimate relationships.


Emotional interdependence is generally a necessity in an intimate relationship, with each partner relying on the other for emotional support. In heterosexual relationships, it is often assumed that women are more dependent on their male partners. Men, while they may have a need for dependency, are less likely to express their need overtly according to cultural norms. Batterers are often individuals who are highly dependent on their partners but feel ashamed because they perceive it as a weakness. Research in heterosexual relationships has demonstrated that the likelihood of violence increases when a highly dependent husband attempts to control his wife and meets with resistance. A similar trend has been found in lesbian relationships. Research has found that the greater the batterer’s dependency and the greater the victim’s resistance, the more likely the batterer is to inflict more types of abuse. The abuse is also more likely to occur with greater frequency.

There are exceptionally high levels of attachment between partners in lesbian relationships. This is partly related to socialization and identity issues in females and partly related to lesbian couples’ lack of support in the outside community. Lesbian couples insulate themselves by nurturing their relationships, creating emotionally intense relationships in closed systems. This closeness can generate insecurity, and one partner may feel threatened when the other partner has separate friends or different views. In particular, the dependent partner is likely to feel weak and ashamed. Researchers have suggested that self-destructive behavior, such as alcohol abuse, may be a way that some lesbians cope with their fear/shame of dependency.

Personality Disorders

Substance abuse, overdependency, a feeling of powerlessness, and the need to be powerful can be considered symptoms of an underlying personality disorder. Some support for underlying personality disorders of batterers has been found in heterosexual relationships. Research on personality traits or disorders has been limited with respect to same sex couples.

It has been argued, though, that batterers often have personality disorders, the most prevalent of which are borderline and narcissistic. The basis for this position is that characteristic symptoms for both disorders are often found in batterers. These symptoms include an unclear sense of self, a need for power, and a sense of entitlement. And all have been found to be associated with partner abuse in same sex relationships, as discussed in this section.

Victim Reporting

Despite the prevalence of intimate violence, a significant number of victims do not report the abuse to the police. Researchers have attempted to identify the factors that affect the reporting practices of crime victims. Studies have shown that crimes committed by strangers are more likely to be reported than those committed by relatives or intimate partners. As a result, many victims of domestic violence fail to bring partner abuse to the attention of law enforcement.

Domestic violence has a long tradition of underreporting. Moreover, the legal system for much of its history treated domestic violence as a private matter. Hence, victims of domestic violence may have been reluctant to report the abuse because they expected police to be unresponsive. Prior research has found that victims of domestic violence who did report the abuse to the police were often dissatisfied with how they were treated. Specifically, several studies revealed that victims of domestic violence identified police as the least helpful and most indifferent of all criminal justice personnel. These findings suggest that victims of domestic violence may not report the abuse because they do not want to be mistreated by police.

There are other factors that impact the decision of victims to report domestic violence to the police. Victims may fear that their batterers will retaliate and perhaps attempt to kill them if they report the abuse to the authorities. In addition, many victims love and are financially dependent on their batterers. As a result, a large number of victims will not report the violence because they do not want to get the batterer in trouble with the law. Lastly, some victims continue to believe that domestic violence is a private matter, and therefore they will not seek assistance from the criminal justice system. Lesbian victims face these as well as additional obstacles that contribute to the underreporting of same sex battering.

Specifically, there is a long history of police harassment against gays and lesbians. As a result, lesbian victims of intimate violence may be more distrustful of the police than their heterosexual counterparts. It has been estimated that only one out of four battered lesbians reports battering incidents to the police. Moreover, many battered lesbians who have contacted law enforcement claim that police reacted negatively to them and did not take their allegations of abuse seriously.

Furthermore, lesbian victims of intimate violence may fear that police will treat the incident as mutual battering and not recognize their victimization. Mutual battering implies that both the victim and the perpetrator are equally responsible for the violence. Police may minimize the abuse because they consider the incident ‘‘two dykes acting butch.’’ Similarly, police may be uncertain about how to respond to lesbian battering. They have been trained that domestic violence involves a female victim who has been assaulted by a physically stronger male aggressor. When the incident involves two women, the ability of police to determine who is at fault becomes far more difficult. As with heterosexual abuse, the police may mistakenly assume that the larger or more ‘‘butch’’ female is the batterer. Conversely, the police may be more inclined to assign blame to both the victim and the perpetrator by arresting both parties. Consequently, lesbian victims may forgo seeking help from the criminal justice system because they fear being arrested and held partially responsible for the violence.

As noted earlier, police have not received positive ratings from heterosexual victims of domestic violence. It appears that the law enforcement response to lesbian battering is even less satisfactory. Evidence suggests that police are not only indifferent to lesbian victims of same sex battering—they are at times outright hostile. Therefore, lesbian victims may be more hesitant than heterosexual victims to report domestic violence to the police.

Another hurdle that gays and lesbians face is the fact that many states’ domestic violence laws do not cover same sex couples. In these states, gay and lesbian victims of domestic violence are denied assistance and protection from the legal system. Consequently, there would be no reason for victims of same sex abuse to report the incident to the police.

Similarly, lesbian victims of same sex battering confront the added threat of ‘‘outing,’’ which serves as another barrier to reporting. Lesbians who are ‘‘closeted’’ are likely to remain silent. They are not likely to come forward to report intimate violence to the authorities. Although it has been estimated that between 25 and 46 percent of lesbians have been in abusive same sex relationships, they have remained relatively invisible.

Obstacles to Leaving Abusive Relationships

Lesbian victims of same sex battering face many obstacles relative to leaving abusive relationships. In particular, many states narrowly define domestic violence and therefore deny legal protection to battered lesbians. By definition, a number of states restrict domestic violence to incidents involving members of the opposite sex. Several other states limit domestic violence to situations involving spouses, former spouses, or family members related by blood. Moreover, states that refuse to provide protection to gay and lesbian victims of same sex battering also hinder their ability to prevent further violence by denying them the opportunity to obtain restraining orders.

Some states subtly fail to recognize same sex battering. These states offer legal protections and services to unmarried couples who engage in ‘‘socially approved’’ sexual relations. In turn, these same states have laws prohibiting and criminalizing homosexual activities such as sodomy.

Many states offer protection to victims of same sex battering but fail to provide gays and lesbians with the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. For example, a number of states restrict access to domestic violence shelters to heterosexual women, thereby excluding battered lesbians. It is not surprising, then, that many battered lesbians do not seek help from domestic violence shelters. They simply assume that these shelters provide assistance exclusively to female victims of heterosexual domestic abuse.

Claire Renzetti analyzed data from a survey of domestic service providers to determine whether the perceptions of lesbians were accurate relative to services being for battered heterosexual women only. She found that 96 percent of the respondents maintained that services were available to battered lesbians. However, the majority of respondents also reported that the agency did not engage in outreach to the gay and lesbian community to inform battered lesbians about the availability of services. Many of these agencies neglected to generate literature specifically addressing lesbian battering or offer support groups for female victims of same sex domestic violence. Furthermore, the staff in the majority of these agencies did not receive training on lesbian battering and its unique dimensions. Renzetti’s findings suggest that many social service agencies profess to provide services to battered lesbians. At the same time, however, these agencies do little to make lesbians aware that such services are available to them.

Additionally, gay and lesbian victims of intimate violence, like their heterosexual counterparts, want to obtain restraining orders against their batterers. They are often informed that a mutual restraining order will be issued by the court. Mutual restraining orders serve to perpetuate the myth that same sex domestic violence constitutes mutual battering. In these cases, victims of same sex battering end up being held equally responsible for the abuse. As a result, battered gays and lesbians feel betrayed by the legal system when a mutual restraining order is issued because their victimization has not been validated. Rather, it has been called into question. A mutual restraining order also places the victim at risk for further abuse because the perpetrator may feel bolstered by the system’s response. In other words, the perpetrator may believe that she can continue to abuse the victim with impunity.

Another problem that gays and lesbians often encounter is the homophobic attitudes of criminal justice professionals, including police, prosecutors, and judges, as well as social service providers. Many battered lesbians have reported that police responded negatively to them. Claire Renzetti recounts the actual experience of a battered lesbian who reported an incident of abuse to police. The victim maintains that the police told her that she deserved the abuse because she was a lesbian.

Similarly, the courts have been hostile to gays and lesbians. As noted earlier, battered lesbians often remain in abusive relationships because of the threat of ‘‘outing’’ and its potentially devastating consequences, such as losing custody of their children. The courts have done little to ease the fears of lesbian parents. For example, in a Florida case the court awarded custody of a young girl to her father, a convicted murderer, rather than to her mother, a lesbian. The judge ruled that the girl should be raised in a nonlesbian household, asserting that it would provide a better environment regardless of the fact that the father was a convicted murderer.

Strategies for Change

One of the first reforms that advocates for gays and lesbians need to pursue is equal protection for victims of same sex battering. Domestic violence laws in many states need to be revised to recognize same sex battering and to extend legal rights to gay and lesbian victims. Once these statutory changes have occurred, then advocates need to monitor the criminal justice system to ensure that police consistently enforce the law on behalf of victims of same sex battering.

This will require that police be educated about the nuances of same sex battering. Educators and trainers should dispel some of the myths associated with domestic violence. First, police have to learn that domestic violence is not exclusively a gender issue. It does not always involve a female victim and a male batterer. Similarly, police have to receive adequate training relative to investigating same sex battering so they will not treat these cases as mutual battering. When both parties show signs of injury, police need to be trained to take the time to consider the possibility of self-defense. Likewise, police cannot automatically assume that the physically larger partner is the aggressor.

Within the legal community, activities that have proved to be successful in confronting heterosexual violence can be used to combat same sex battering. Training and educating judges, lawyers, and advocates is necessary. Many states now require general domestic violence training for police and courtroom personnel. Some states, such as Massachusetts, have incorporated education about homophobia into the training.

In the courtroom, creative advocacy can empower lesbian survivors to insist on equal treatment under the law. Many states have codes of courtroom procedures that allow these cases to be heard in as private a forum as possible and that encourage judges and courtroom personnel to be sensitive to privacy interests. All states have procedures for impounding files or closing courtrooms. Creative advocacy can minimize the public airing of a case by utilizing different strategies. Sidebar hearings, impoundment motions, and motions to close the courtroom are ways to guarantee privacy. These strategies also allow the judge an opportunity to assess a case without the glare of the courtroom public.

A victim’s safety is paramount in the prevention of further victimization. Therefore, the courtroom should be fully utilized to increase safety. In some states, though, judges routinely issue mutual restraining orders in same sex cases, and batterers often use the order as a basis to take out a criminal complaint against the victim, prolonging abusive contact. Mutual restraining orders can and should be appealed. In Massachusetts, for example, a person seeking an abuse protection order can ask the court for different relief measures to keep her or him safe. This opens up an array of protections for the victim: asking for no contact orders or orders to stay away from the workplace, the home, or a child’s school. For increased safety, advocates have suggested requiring that car keys and garage door openers be returned. In addition, it is recommended that the victim be provided a police escort while moving out of the house.

Victims of same sex battering have lacked access to formal services within the community. Historically, battered women’s programs have largely been heterosexually focused in their services, outreach materials, and staff training. Programs that do exist for lesbian victims are located in large urban areas; as a consequence, many victims can remain isolated from family as well as much needed services. However, it is important that lesbian victims seek out shelter when placed in danger. The primary problem in creating shelters specifically for battered lesbians is funding; therefore, lesbians must feel comfortable in seeking support from battered women’s shelters. Staff and volunteers must be trained to understand the needs of lesbian victims better. Staff must also be trained to identify homophobia in other staff members and residents.

With little support from family and friends, some victims seek support from a therapist, psychologist, or member of the clergy. A number of experts have suggested that several issues be addressed during counseling. These include assessing the extent and severity of the abuse; assessing whether there is a question of mutual battering; distinguishing between abuse and appropriate behavior; developing protection plans; offering minimal cost support networking groups; and reassuring the victim that she is not to blame. It is also important for therapists to be patient and nonjudgmental; and heterosexual therapists must be able to determine any prejudgment they have toward lesbians.

Organizations within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) community have emerged to provide services. One example is the San Francisco Network for Battered Lesbians and Bisexual Women that was formed in 1992. Its mission is the elimination of battering within the lesbian and bisexual communities. The network’s goals are to support survivors, educate communities, and empower victims. The network consists of volunteers and relies on contributions from individuals. It offers training and educational presentations to the community and provides information, referrals, advocacy, and phone counseling.

Though resources for lesbians on college campuses have generally been geared toward providing a traditional social arena for white middle-class lesbians, GLBT organizations on campus can also be a resource for lesbian and bisexual women who are or have been in battering relationships. These organizations can act as an effective educational forum by sponsoring events that raise awareness about same sex battering, as well as through distribution of informational literature.

Many college campuses have developed policies on battering, though lesbian battering needs to be specifically addressed. College campuses should have policies on battering and complaint procedures that are separate from formal legal procedures. Lesbian organizations have recommended establishing a board to handle battering cases, and the board would be trained in the issues of domestic abuse, same sex battering, and screening. One area lacking services for battered lesbians is often campus security. Like traditional law enforcement, campus security has consisted primarily of white males, and therefore battered lesbians may be reluctant to report their victimization. Lesbians of color are also reluctant to report their victimization because of their orientation and their race. When campus security strives to develop a positive relationship with both the same sex community and communities of color, these segments can feel that services are accessible to them.

It is evident that, like their heterosexual counterparts, a significant number of lesbians experience violence in their intimate relationships. Similarly, the abuse often ranges from physical assault to sexual coercion to psychological exploitation. Victims of same sex battering have encountered more obstacles than heterosexual women to securing protection and services. Unlike their heterosexual counterparts, lesbians face the added threat of ‘‘outing’’ and possible loss of their children, job, and family ties. Clearly, more needs to be done by the legal system to ensure that battered lesbians are sufficiently protected from further violence and receive adequate services and that batterers are held responsible for their actions. Society as a whole, however, will have to accept homosexuality before the criminal justice system will be in a position to assist victims of same sex battering.

See also:


  1. Leeder, Elizabeth. ‘‘Enmeshed in Pain: Counseling the Lesbian Battering Couple.’’ Women and Therapy 7 (1988): 81–99.
  2. Renzetti, Claire. Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992.
  3. ———. ‘‘The Poverty of Services for Battered Lesbians.’’ In Violence in Gay and Lesbian Domestic Partnerships, edited by Claire Renzetti and Harvey Miley. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1996.

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