To launch our campaign for lesbian and bisexual women on abuse, Women's Programme volunteer Anna Nikoghosyan talks about power, norms and domestic abuse in relationships between women.

Kept in silence: power, norms and domestic abuse in relationships between women.

Anna Nikoghosyan

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.

Patriarchal societies pressurise women to stay home while men do ‘the important things’ in the ‘dangerous’ outside world.[1] This private/public dichotomy that positions women as passive, belonging in the home and in need of protection becomes even more difficult when we consider the fact that globally women are subjected to violence more in their families rather than elsewhere. The space that is ‘assigned’ to women appears to be the least safe for them.

Increasingly, the ‘personal is political’ struggle has led to the acknowledgement of the extent of domestic abuse that women face on a daily basis in their relationships. Yet, the assumption that violence happens exclusively in heterosexual relationships produces another ‘regime of truth’ that completely neglects the experiences of women who have been abused by other women: lesbian and bisexual women.

“She was manipulating me in every way possible. She wanted me to do what she wanted to do and she’d punish me if I wasn’t.” – remembers 24-year-old Mary* from Manchester. She recalls how her ex-girlfriend told her that she was not cleaver and worthy. Any time Mary suggested to take a break, her ex-partner would threaten her with self-harming. “She tried to isolate me from my friends at college saying ‘they don’t care about you; I care.’ She didn’t like my friendship group so when I finished college she twisted my thoughts so much that I deleted my friends from Facebook.”

Threatening to harm oneself, manipulating and controlling, shaming and insulting are common means of emotional abuse. In fact, the domestic abuse can be distinguished into four main types: physical, psychological/emotional, sexual and financial . Unsurprisingly, physical violence is often the only type of violence that gets recognition and is gradually acted upon. “The same is with health; physical problem is seen as something essential – it’s shown, it illustrates a problem. But in case of emotional abuse you might be seen as making it up”, Mary explains based on her own experience.

Heterosexual feminism and women’s movements over these last several decades explain the roots of domestic violence and abuse in cultural misogyny and sexism, in the exercise of men’s privilege and power over women. Patriarchal cultures socialise and teach their men to be dominant, aggressive, and strong, and their women to be weak, dependent and obedient, effectively ‘preparing’ them for abuser-victim roles. According to this analysis, domestic violence is a gender based phenomenon that is used by patriarchy to keep men in power and subordinate women.

However, the invisible stories of many lesbian and bisexual women survivors contest that gender is not the only dimension to be looked at. Domestic abuse should be explored taking into account all relationship configurations and all dimensions of power which expand beyond gender, including race, sexual orientation, age, environment, ethnicity, class, education, community knowledge and other spheres of oppressions. If any difference is to be made, feminist approaches should de-centre the heterosexual experience and focus on intersectionality instead.

For Mary, the abuse in her lesbian relationship was connected with bullying and age: “There are a lot of things, especially age as I was a teenager when we started going out together. I think bullying is a part of it. My ex-girlfriend was bullied in the school. Then she came hardened and she became the bully. This created a big power dynamic in our relationship which I think comes especially from the social pressures and oppression of sexuality.”

It was only last year that Mary understood she was in an abusive relationship even though she broke up with her ex-girlfriend a couple of years ago. She recalls the feeling of shame and uncomfortableness when she confessed to herself that what she was going through was abuse.

In fact, there are a number of reasons why lesbian or bisexual women stay in violent relationships. In addition to the conventional reasons such as love for the batterer, self-blame, fear of reprisal, financial dependence or hope to be able to change the batterer, there are many other challenges as well. For instance, lack of acceptance from family or friends and therefore absence of an alternative place to move. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia create an environment that isolates survivors and prevents them from accessing resources such as their relatives, appropriate social services, and even the legal systems.

It is therefore important to recognise the diverging experiences that women face in same-sex abusive relationships. In order to seek help as a lesbian or bisexual survivor who has been abused by another woman, you may have to “come out” and in many circumstances, this can be a major life decision. Many lesbians and bisexuals may feel isolated and double discriminated. Most of state services are not inclusive of LGBTQ people, so the survivors are not only harmed by their partners but are equally re-victimised by the state and the society. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to take into account the unequal positioning of LGBTQ people in the society, as this has an impact on the extent to which the community members seek and find support.

As Mary’s example shows, it is very difficult to define and recognise experiences of domestic violence abuse: “There isn’t enough awareness. There is a lot of denial and guilt.” Living in a heterosexist, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic society results in individuals feeling excluded from mainstream support. The nowadays public story of domestic violence abuse is understood to involve predominantly white, able-bodied heterosexual women subjected to violence by men. It seems then there is a hierarchy between the survivors of domestic violence based on their sexuality and other characteristics, suggesting that some experiences matter less than others.

Despite the fact that domestic abuse happens in lesbian relationships as often as it does in heterosexual relationships, violence within lesbian relationships is less likely to be reported by survivors of abuse and more likely to be disregarded by helping agencies and general public. Lesbian and bisexual women subjected to intimate violence are doubly stigmatized – because of their victimization and because of their sexual orientation. If abuse is something that is further stigmatized in general by their other communities, such as their ethnic or religious communities, they will likely face even more persecution.

The reason why domestic abuse in lesbian and bisexual relationships is not widely recognised is that there are a number of stereotypes concerning these relationships. For instance, it is believed that lesbian abuse does not occur because women are not prone to violence. Because women are supposed to be caring and nurturing, they are perceived not behaving violently in relationships. Or, since women are traditionally seen as weaker and less violent than men, lesbian partner abuse is not seen as much severe as when the same problem with the same lever of severity occurs between a man and a woman.

After leaving her abusive girlfriend Mary started to feel happy again. “I felt I’ve got Mary back. I’ve got back in contact with my friends whom I deleted from Facebook. I’ve started to get into control of my life. I wrote a list of goals I wanted to do. I needed to think about myself. I needed to remind myself who I am. I am so proud now of the goals I’ve achieved so far.”

Mary got enormous support from her sister and parents. She believes that a good support network is key. As she states, “There are support centers, help lines where women get empowered. They listen to you and help you come to your own conclusion. I wish I had known this before. I wish I had some support at that time.”

Indeed, there are ways to get out of a violent relationship but in order to do this we need to first deconstruct the heterosexist understanding and interpretation of domestic abuse that makes heterosexual women’s experiences universal and silences lesbian and bisexual women’s voices. Only when all women’s voices in all their diversity are listened to we can confidently speak about building healthy, non-violent relationships based on respect, equality and dignity, whatever our sexuality or gender is.

If you have been affected by abuse, you are not alone. If you want to get support following experiences of abuse, please click here to download our resource which contains a list of organisations you can contact for support.

[1]Patriarchal is defined as a characteristic of social system, such as a family, group or society controlled by men.