Domestic Violence in Gay and Lesbian Couples: Introduction



Stages of Healthy Gay Relationships

Intro To Domestic Violence

Introduction to Gay Male Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

DV Links


Domestic violence in heterosexual relationships is a serious issue, with 20% of women reporting they have been assaulted by their partners, and this is true among married adult women as well as dating college women (IPARV, 2002). However, domestic violence against men is often ignored in clinical discussions because it is assumed that the overwhelming majority of victims are women (Steinmetz & Lucca, 1988). Some have in the past gone so far as to argue that men are more likely to initiate violence, and initiate more severe violence at that, and so warrant little attention as victims (Walker, 1984). While Steinmetz and Lucca (1988) reported that cases of domestic violence harming women outnumber violence harming men by a factor of 12 or 13 to 1, such views ignore gay and lesbian relationships. Gay men are not intimately involved with female lovers, and lesbians are not intimately involved with male lovers. Thus, adhering to this conceptualization means that lesbians can not be battered because there is no male to serve as perpetrator of the violence, and gay men can not batter as there is no female to serve as victim.

This kind of view has, for some, led to excluding gay and lesbian victims from clinical services and research. For example, although the 1995 Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy, a venerable review of a range of couple therapy issues, does include a chapter on domestic violence (Holtzworth-Munroe et al, 1995), there is no mention of domestic violence in gay and lesbian couples. While there is a chapter on couple therapy with gay and lesbian couples (Brown, 1995), there is only passing mention that domestic violence is an issue for same-sex couples too. More recent publications show little improvement. A recent book about domestic violence, Couples in Conflict, (Booth et al, 2001) includes 17 chapters on recognizing and responding to domestic violence, but does not include any chapters on domestic violence in gay and lesbian couples.

This does a great disservice to the gay and lesbian community. Even where gay and lesbian domestic violence is recognized, it may still be misunderstood. One study found counselors in training, when given a vignette about a lesbian couple experiencing domestic violence, were more likely to recommend inappropriate interventions (e.g. couples therapy). However, when given the same vignette with an unmarried straight couple, counselors in training were more likely to recommend appropriate interventions (e.g., police involvement and referral to a shelter for battered women). Further, respondents rated straight violence as more serious and aggressive compared to lesbian violence (Wise and Bowman, 1997). This is not surprising given older studies indicating that that people viewed gay victims of violence more negatively compared to straight victims of violence (Harris and Cook, 1994)

However, others have focused in detail on domestic violence in gay and lesbian couples, citing some higher estimates of gay domestic violence to support a view of gay and lesbian relationships as inherently dysfunctional, and the gay and lesbian community as aware but hiding this from mainstream society. There are two ways to respond to this.

On the one hand, these numbers may not be accurate. For example, some research shows that the lifetime prevalence of physical assault among women living with female partners was 35.4%, compared to 20.4% among women living with male partners. However, looking deeper, women living with female partners were almost three times more likely to report having been victimized by a previous male, rather than a female partner (IPARV, 2002). Thus, some sources carelessly misquote research to support their negative views of gays and lesbians, simply to promote their own agenda.

On the other hand, the reasoning displayed may be flawed. For example, some would argue that women are at risk for violence because they are women in a patriarchal society that devalues women. As a result, one would expect higher levels of domestic violence in heterosexual couples because it is easier to victimize a woman than a man (Burke and Follingstad, 1999).

As a result, discussing gay and lesbian domestic violence has the potential to be of aid to the Gay and Lesbian community, but also to be of harm. In order to explore the issue but minimize the potential harm, this paper begins with a discussion of normal gay couple development, and then moves to a discussion of domestic violence, referencing research from straight and lesbian couple violence as well. It should be noted that being lesbian involves being a minority person who seeks socially disfavored intimate relationships with members of the same sex. In as much as gays and lesbians are thus similar, the contents of this article would apply to lesbians. However, being lesbian involves being a woman in a male dominated society, and seeking an intimate relationship with another women. As a result, being lesbian is rather different from being gay, and so the contents of this article would not apply to lesbians, and generalization to lesbian couples should be made with caution.

Similarly, domestic violence is about violence, control, and abuse. In as much as this is true for any violent relationship, the material here could be generalized to any kind of relationship, dating or married, gay or straight. However, gay relationships are not privileged with the same social, religious, legal, and family support as the vast majority of straight relationships. As a result, domestic violence in straight relationships is very different, and generalization to straight couples should be made with caution.