“Imagine that after working your tail off all day, your boss springs a last-minute meeting just when you're on your way out the door. Of course, it has to start right away, which doesn't give you time to call home to your partner to tell her you're running late. It's really no surprise to you that the meeting runs a half-hour longer than it's supposed to, and the boss wants to chit-chat on the way to the parking lot. By the time you get in your car and on the road, it's nearly 7:00. Your heart rate quickens and your palms smooth over with dampness. You recite how you will explain your late arrival over and over in your head until you start doubting reality yourself. As you pull up the driveway, a dark, sinking feeling pulls deep in your gut, and you somehow try to prepare yourself for the wrath that awaits you. You sheepishly walk in the front door, and your heart stops when you see her sitting in the living room--waiting. Everything about her demeanor indicates that tonight isn't going to be any different than last night--or the night before.
Before words of explanation can pass through your lips, your lover is out of her chair and stomping toward you in one swift motion. With one hand she grasps your throat, pushing your already bruised, sore body hard against the door, and with the other she cracks you across your face. But it doesn't stop there. She wants to know who you've been fucking and for how long. She wants to know one good reason she should keep a slut like you in her life. She wants to know why she shouldn't just snap your neck right now. And you don't know the answers to any of her questions--or if you ever will” (Hwing, 2001).
has been a growing issue in the fields of sociology
, and criminology
in the past few decades. Recent statistics show that nearly 1.5 million women and 830,000 men are the victims of physical domestic abuse every year (Berlinger, 2004). Even more cases of physical abuse go unreported, and these numbers don’t take into account any cases of non-physical violence
While these statistics are disturbing, they beg the question: what, precisely, constitutes domestic abuse? In a paper from the University of Miami, it is defined as “a pattern of violent or coercive behaviors whereby a lesbian or gay man seeks to control the thoughts, beliefs, or conduct of an intimate partner or to punish the intimate for resisting the perpetrator’s control (Potoczniak, 2003).” Domestic abuse can be further divided into two major subsets: physical and non-physical.
Physical domestic violence includes sexual and non-sexual assault, and normally follows three predictable phases. Though the names for the phases vary between researchers, the behaviors are similar. The first phase, tension building, involves the abuser becoming moody or critical. Threats are often made toward the intimate partner, their children, or pets. The victim will often attempt to calm the abuser down. The second phase, the event, involves actual physical battery which can include pushing, slapping, punching, kicking, or assault with a weapon. This phase tends to increase in severity as the abusive relationship progresses. Frequently, the victim will fight back or attempt to contact authorities. The third phase, calm, occurs after the physical abuse has finished. The abuser will often apologize profusely, promise to never repeat his/her actions, and even offer gifts or sex to the victim (Berlinger, 2004).
Non-physical violence is not nearly as predictable as physical violence. Just like physical violence, it is an attempt by the abuser to control the victim, though in this instance through non-physical coercion. This sort of abuse is subdivided into many different categories. Emotional and verbal abuse involves harsh insulting and criticism of the victim. Sometimes the abuser will make the victim feel guilty or humiliate him/her. Finally, the abuser might threaten to leave the victim or even to commit suicide, effectively trapping the victim in a dependent role.
Abusers can keep their victims dependent in other ways as well. Financial abuse occurs when the abuser prevents the victim from getting a job, or somehow gets the victim fired from a current job. The abuser might also take or otherwise control the victim’s money, thereby strongly restricting their social contact. Another route that abusers pursue is to control with whom the victim interacts within the community. Threats against the victim’s family, property, and pets are also common methods of non-physical abuse (Peterman, 2003). One method of abuse that is unique to the homosexual community is the threat of revealing a victim’s homosexuality or, in some cases, HIV infection to family, friends, or employers (Burke, 2006).
In a recent issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, it was estimated that 22.1% of women and 7.4% of men experience some sort of domestic violence during their lifetime, while the factsheet on domestic violence from the Center for Disease Control placed the numbers higher at 29% and 22%, respectively (Domestic, 2005; Intimate, 2006). While these numbers are representative of both homosexual and heterosexual people, a study by Stephen S. Owen and Tod W. Burke specifically focusing on self-identified homosexuals revealed that 56.1% of the respondents had been the victims in some sort of domestic violence. When they compared these findings to a representative group of heterosexuals, they found that “intimate partner assault may be more prevalent against gay men than against heterosexual men, but there was no significant difference between lesbians and heterosexual females” (129). Due to the highly controlling nature of the abuser in domestic violence situations, however, it tends to be a crime that is grossly underreported, and in cases of non-physical abuse, can be difficult to prove. Also, reporting domestic violence does not necessarily stop an abuser’s ability to “out” his/her partner, or an abuser’s final and possibly lethal session of battering.
Domestic violence remains a huge problem in our modern American society, but it is one that is receiving increasing attention from the media, law enforcement, and various support organizations. One aspect of domestic violence that is frequently overlooked, however, is its occurrence in the homosexual community. Because various sociological trends are currently rendering our society unable to adequately address the problem of same-sex domestic violence (SSDV), many homosexuals have nowhere to turn for support and inadequate legal protection if they become victims of domestic abuse.
One of the major problems that face homosexual abuse victims in our modern society is the lack of protection within the criminal justice system. A victim of opposite-sex domestic violence (OSDV) can report an incident, and have it judged as a felony in many states. However, victims of SSDV are not always this lucky. In fact, the only state in the USA that explicitly guarantees homosexual victims protection under domestic violence laws is Vermont. The states of Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Indiana, Michigan Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington use heterosexual-specific language, thus excluding homosexual victims from legal defense (Potoczniak, 2003). Problems in the legal system, however, can arise even before the case reaches the courts. In order to even receive consideration by courts, a victim of domestic violence must first convince a local prosecutor’s office to officially file the charge. Potoczniak claims can be an incredibly difficult task, considering that “police response to same-sex domestic violence has been called ‘misguided at best and homophobic at worst’” (2003).
Once a SSDV case does go to court, there are other complications. The opinions of judges and juries really determine what sort of action will be taken against the abuser. In one case, a judge reduced the restraining orderprotecting a homosexual male from his abusive partner from one year to three months after learning that the victim was a black belt in karate, stating that “the victim could ‘take care of himself’” (Burke, 2006). This sort of attitude completely disregards the psychological effects that abuse can have on a victim in addition to being sexist and insensitive.
More problems arise from homophobic juries and the myth that much of homosexual domestic abuse takes the form of “mutual abuse.” This is the idea that abuse within homosexual relationships often flows both ways; both partners fill the role of abuser and victim (Peterman, 2003; Potoczniak, 2003). This thinking tends to disregard the severity of the violence by making no difference between abusive violence and self-defense. Studies have shown that lesbian women are more likely to fight back than women who are battered by men. This could perhaps occur “because self-defense courses are more widespread in the feminist/lesbian community…Also, same-sex partners can more easily fight back because their physical size tends to be closer to that of their partners’ size” (Peterman, 2003). The lack of informed, sensitive police, judges, and juries makes receiving legal protection incredibly difficult for a victim of SSDV.
Society never changes quickly, however, and one phenomenon that sways the public’s views on SSDV is the social construct of gender roles. These templates provide a norm for the behaviors and mindsets for males and females. For example, a “typical male” is someone who enjoys sports, cars, and women. A “typical female” is nurturing, enjoys shopping, and is generally non-aggressive. When these norms are disrupted through exceptions to the expected “rules” (homosexuals are an excellent example of this), society has a difficult time realigning itself to accommodate for these exceptions. In the case of homosexuals and domestic violence, this difficulty has manifested itself as a reduced ability to give adequate social support to both abusers and victims. In modern American, men are should supposed to be physically powerful, and thus able to take care of themselves. Therefore, one could reason that a man would not allow himself to become the victim of domestic violence. If he were to become a victim, it would devalue him as a male and put him in a subordinate “feminine” role where he would face not only abuse, but also societal sanctions. Conversely, women are traditionally seen as non-aggressive and nurturing. While it would be possible for a woman to be abused by a male, a woman physically battering a man, or even another woman seems inconceivable (Potoczniak, 2003). Reality has shown, however, that these assumptions are simply not true.
As the modern North American society is still generally negative (if not actively hostile) toward homosexuals, another problem springs to the forefront. Homosexuals tend to live in tight, non-blood related communities of “kin.” These networks form a large portion of social and emotional support for homosexuals, who often face ostracism from their childhood families, communities, and religious circles. The relative isolation that this produces can be a major barrier for a victim attempting to escape from SSDV. The victim may decide to protect their partner and him/herself from embarrassment by refusing help from any outside sources, thus making the abuse into a shared, binding, and guilty secret. There is also the possibility for a lesbian who accuses her partner of domestic abuse to be labeled as a “traitor to lesbianism or feminism” (Peterman, 2003), thus estranging her from her community.
This acute isolation has also begun to have an effect on the elderly homosexual population. In years past, homosexuals have faced harsher societal sanctions, providing incentive for homosexuals to turn inward to themselves as individuals as opposed to communities. This move toward independence has left many elder homosexuals unable to adequately deal with abusive situations. They often feel that society has changed little in the past years, making them fearful of reaching out to official sources of relief (law enforcement, shelters, etc.). Due to their old age, there is also a fear that they will not find another partner if they leave a long-standing relationship. As members of longer-standing relationships, the elderly homosexual couple would also likely have various funds and assets in joint accounts to which their legal claim would be tenuous at best if it were to go to the courts. Thus, the possibility of financial instability is another hurdle that they must face (Peterman 2003).
The overwhelming presence of society’s general ignorance of the problem of SSDV, in addition to causing difficulties within the legal system, has also brought about difficulties for homosexual abuse victims post-incident. If a victim wishes to leave an abusive relationship, they must first deal with all sorts of emotional barricades: fear of retaliatory violence, lack support from family and law enforcement, and feelings of guilt (Peterman, 2003). Of course, there are also logistical barriers to their leaving. One of the most difficult is the lack of suitable abuse shelters (especially for men). According to an article by Pam Huwing, “in the entire United States, there's only something like 25 agencies specifically devoted to LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual) domestic violence. Knowing that, people are understandably going to be hesitant to seek services" (2001). Also, there is also the possibility of a lesbian abuser posing as an abused victim in order to enter a shelter and find her partner. Yet another tactic that has been used includes an abuser calling a shelter before a victim in an attempt to prevent them from receiving assistance (Peterman, 2003).
While it seems that the state of SSDV in today’s society is grim, the question must be raised: what can be done to better address these problems in the future? The first advances must be made in the political arena. Domestic violence laws must be addressed nationwide. They must first be made applicable to any sort of domestic pairing, whether it is hetero- or homosexual. The changes must make the laws more quickly and effectively enforceable, thus making the legal reporting of cases a more desirable and effective solution for both OSDV and SSDV.
The next change that must occur is much more difficult: work must be done to educate society about the full range of the domestic violence spectrum. In addition, the battle against homophobia and homonegativity must be constantly advanced. The societal changes necessary to defeat this problem will not come about unless homosexuals receive the same equality that every other American citizen receives. This includes equal protection under the law and freedom from fear of governmental institutions. In order to achieve this, new sensitivity training must be seriously administered to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The creation of more organizations to provide shelter and support for homosexual abuse victims and to increase awareness of the issue must take place.
Though our society is currently unprepared to adequately deal with the problems that SSDV presents, the education and increasing sensitivity of the public coupled with an increasingly effective judicial and legal system will eventually be the key to bringing this epidemic to an end. Only when homosexual community feels that it can begin to trust law enforcement and integrate into the larger body of society will we be able to start working earnestly at the problem of same-sex domestic violence.
Berlinger, J. (2004, October ). Taking an intimate look at domestic violence. Nursing, 34(10). Retrieved March 21, 2006, from Academic Search Premier.
Burke, T. W., & Owen, S. S. (2006, January ). Same-sex domestic violence: is anyone listening?. Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 13(1). Retrieved Mar 22, 2006, from Academic Search Premier.
Center for Disease Control, (2006). Intimate partner violence prevention, facts - ncipc. Retrieved Mar. 23, 2006, from National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/factsheets/ipvfacts.htm.
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Hwing, P. (2001, March ). A look at lesbian domestic violence. Lesbian News, 26(8). Retrieved March 21, 2006, from Academic Search Premier.
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Peterman, L. M., & Dixon, C. G. (2003). Domestic violence between same-sex partners: implications for counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 81(1). Retrieved Mar 22, 2006, from Academic Search Premier.
Potoczniak, M. J., Mourot J. E., Crosbie-Burnett M., and Potoczniak, D. J. (2003, June ). Legal and psychological perspectives on same-sex domestic violence : a multisystemic approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 17(2). Retrieved Mar 21, 2006, from PsychARTICLES.