Lesbian Partner Violence Fact Sheet

Suzana Rose, Ph.D.
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
University of Missouri at St. Louis

What is lesbian partner violence?
Partner violence in lesbian (and gay) relationships recently has been identified as an important social problem. Partner or domestic violence among lesbians has been defined as including physical, sexual and psychological abuse, although researchers have most often studied physical violence.

How common is lesbian partner violence?
About 17-45% of lesbians report having been the victim of a least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a lesbian partner (1,5,6,13). Types of physical abuse named by more than 10% of participants in one study included:

    Disrupting otherís eating or sleeping habits
    Pushing or shoving, driving recklessly to punish, and slapping, kicking, hitting, or biting (11).
    Sexual abuse by a woman partner has been reported by up to 50% of lesbians (12).
    Psychological abuse has been reported as occurring at least one time by 24% to 90% of lesbians (1,5,6,11,14).
The research usually has been done with mostly white, middle-class lesbians who are sufficiently open about their sexual orientation to have met researchers seeking participants in the lesbian community. Subsequently, these findings may not apply to women who are less open, less educated, or of other ethnic backgrounds.

Why would a lesbian batter another woman?
Lesbians who abuse another women may do so for reasons similar to those that motivate heterosexual male batterers. Lesbians abuse their partners to gain and maintain control (9). Lesbian batterers are motivated to avoid feelings of loss and abandonment. Therefore, many violent incidents occur during threatened separations. Many lesbian batterers grew up in violent households and were physically, sexually, or verbally abused and/or witnessed their mothers being abused by fathers or stepfathers (6,7,14).

How is lesbian partner violence different from heterosexual partner violence?
There are several similarities between lesbian and heterosexual partner violence. Violence appears to be about as common among lesbian couples as among heterosexual couples (1,5). In addition, the cycle of violence occurs in both types of relationships. However, there also are several differences.

In lesbian relationships, the "butch" (physically stronger, more masculine or wage-earning) member of the couple may be as likely to be the victim as the batterer, whereas in heterosexual relationships, the male partner (usually the stronger, more masculine, and wage-earning member) is most often the batterer (4). Some lesbians in abusive relationships report fighting back in their relationship (6,8).

In addition, a unique element for lesbians is the homophobic environment that surrounds them (4,10,14). This enables the abusive partner to exert "heterosexist control" over the victim by threatening to "out" the victim to friends, family, or employer or threatening to make reports to authorities that would jeopardize child custody, immigration, or legal status. The homophobic environment also makes it difficult for the victim to seek help from the police, victim service agencies, and battered women's shelters.

What legal rights do battered lesbians have?
In some states, police are required to treat cases of lesbian domestic violence the same way as they do heterosexual domestic violence. Many states have mandatory arrest laws that require the police to arrest the batterer in certain situations; this applies to lesbian and heterosexual batterers alike. Batterers can be prosecuted in a criminal court. Survivors may be entitled to an order of protection, a court order that prohibits a batterer from talking to or approaching the victim.

Same-sex couples are always excluded from obtaining a protective order in seven states (Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, New York, South Carolina, and Virginia) and often excluded in three states (Florida, Maryland, and Mississippi). These states either limit protective orders to opposite-sex couples or usually interpret the law to apply only to opposite-sex couples (2,9).

How often is lesbian partner violence reported to the police?
There are significant barriers to lesbians seeking help. Lesbian victims seldom report violent incidents to the police because many fear prejudicial treatment, and many state domestic violence laws fail to protect same-sex partners (9). Also, in cases of same-sex violence, police often assume the abuse is mutual (or believe an abuserís claim that the abuse is mutual) and are more likely to arrest both members of the couple (14). Battered womenís agencies also may not be open to serving lesbians (2,3).

How can you help a lesbian who is the victim of partner violence?
To support a lesbian who is the target of partner violence:
    Let her know that she can call you for help. Help her develop a safety plan concerning how she will get out if she needs to leave quickly, including having a bag prepared and easily accessible with essential documents (including identification, money, and anything else that might be needed), and arranging a place to stay in an emergency. Give her the keys to your house. Donít give up and donít criticize her or turn her away because she doesnít leave right away.

    If you are in a city that has an Anti-Violence Project connected to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (http://www.avp.org), tell her about the services of your local AVP (9). Many AVPs provide counseling, advocacy with the police and criminal justice system and support groups. Some therapists specialize in lesbian partner abuse, as well (3).
1. Burke, Leslie K., & Follingstad, Diane R. (1999). Violence in lesbian and gay relationships: theory, prevalence, and correlational factors. Clinical Psychology Review, 19 (5), 487-512.

2. Heer, Christine, Grogan, Eileen, Clark, Sandra, & Carson, Lynda M. (1998). Developing services for lesbians in abusive relationships: A macro and micro approach. In A. R. Roberts (Ed.), Battered women and their families: Intervention, strategies, and treatment programs (pp. 365-384). New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

3. Istar, Arlene. (1996). Couple assessment: Identifying and intervening in domestic violence in lesbian relationships. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, 4 (1), 93-106.

4. Leeder, Elaine. (1994). Treatment of battering in couples: Heterosexual, lesbian, and gay. In Elaine Leeder, Treating abuse in families: A feminist and community approach. New York: Springer Publishing Co.

5. Lie, Gwat-Yong, & Gentlewarrier, Sabrina. (1991). Intimate violence in lesbian relationships: Discussion of survey findings and practice implications. Journal of Social Service Research, 15 (1/2), 41-59.

6. Lie, Gwat-Yong, Schilit, Rebecca, Bush, Judy, Montagne, Marilyn, & Reyes, Lynn. Lesbians in currently aggressive relationships: How frequently do they report aggressive past relationships? Violence and Victims, 6, (2), 121-135.

7. Margolies, Liz, & Leeder, Elaine. (1995). Violence at the door: Treatment of lesbian batterers. Violence against Women, 1 (2), 139-157.

8. Marrujo, Becky, & Keger, Mary. (1995). Definition of roles in abusive lesbian relationships. In Claire M. Renzetti & Charles H. Miley (Eds.), Violence in gay and lesbian domestic partnerships (pp. 23-33). New York: Harrington Park Press.

9. National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (http://www.avp.org). (1999). Lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual domestic violence in 1998. New York: NCAVP. (See also 1997 and 1998 reports for information on state laws concerning same-sex domestic violence.)

10. Ristock, Janice L. (1997). The cultural politics of abuse in lesbian relationships: Challenges for community action. In N. V. Benodraitis (Ed.), Subtle sexism: Current practice and prospects for change (pp. 279-296). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

11. Scherzer, Teresa. (1998). Domestic violence in lesbian relationships: Findings of the lesbian relationships research project. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 2 (1), 29-47.

12. Waldner-Haugrud, Lisa K., & Vaden Gratch, Linda. (1997). Sexual coercion in gay/lesbian relationships: Descriptives and gender differences. Violence and Victims, 12 (1), 87-98.

13. Waldner-Haugrud, Lisa K., Vaden Gratch, Linda, & Magruder, Brian. (1997). Victimization and perpetration rates of violence in gay and lesbian relationships: Gender issues explored. Violence and Victims, 12 (2), 173-184.

14. West, Carolyn M. (1998). Leaving a second closet: Outing partner violence in same-sex couples. In Jana L. Jasinski & Linda M. Williams (Eds.), Partner violence: A comprehensive review of 20 years of research (pp. 163-183). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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