Maybe it's Just Different with Girls: A Social-Ecological Analysis of Intimate Partner Violence in Female-on-Female Relationships.

AuthorRegister, Sophie E.

As more light is shed upon the serious social issue of intimate partner violence (IPV) in heterosexual relationships, there continues to be a distinct lack of information surrounding abuse in homosexual relationships, specifically lesbian partnerships. This research paper employs Beth Hart's definition of lesbian IPV as a "pattern of violent or coercive behaviors whereby a lesbian seeks to control the thoughts, beliefs, or conduct of her intimate partner or to punish the intimate for resisting the perpetrator's control." (1) This definition encompasses multiple forms of IPV, including physical, psychological, social, and emotional abuse. Although IPV in lesbian relationships has been the subject of scholarly discourse for over thirty years, there are still major gaps in the knowledge surrounding this topic. This is in part due to society's framing of IPV and sexual assault within "patriarchal and heterosexual assumptions [about gender performances], including the appeal to the laws of nature." (2) These assumptions focus on men's privileged societal status and view the prototypical large male form as a more natural mechanism for violence than the bodies of women. However, by labeling IPV as a gendered power imbalance, past studies have often overlooked and even discounted the occurrence of female-on-female violence.

This research paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by exploring IPV in same-sex relationships and challenging the myth that female-on-female IPV does not occur because women are not "supposed" to act as sexual perpetrators or batterers. (3) Using qualitative interviews and a social-ecology model, this paper examines the interplay between abused individuals, lesbian relationships, gay communities, and the aforementioned societal expectations of lesbian relationships. How these four levels overlap with one another to silence lesbian IPV victims and perpetuate abuse is then explored. Utilizing the social-ecological perspective allows for a more nuanced view of IPV that explains the phenomenon as more than male attempts to maintain dominance over their female partners.

Statistical and Linguistic Barriers to Study

Although IPV is often thought of solely in terms of a male-female dichotomy, studies suggest that domestic violence within lesbian relationships occurs nearly as often as it does in heterosexual relationships. (4) Unfortunately, there is currently no consensus on the percentage of lesbians who experience IPV. Studies from the early 1990s report 17 to 52 percent of lesbians experience IPV, and the range of reports has only widened with current data suggesting that 11 to 73 percent of lesbians experience IPV in their lifetimes. (5) Ineffective data collection, inconsistent definitions of IPV, and societal stigma have all contributed to the inability to gather reliable data on the number of lesbians who experience IPV and why such IPV occurs.

In their article, "Exploring Measurement Error Issues in Reporting of Same-Sex Couples," U.S. Census Bureau statisticians and researchers describe why it is so difficult to accurately measure not only how many lesbians experience IPV, but even how many lesbians there are in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) estimates the number of same-sex couples through two questionnaire items: relationship and sex. As same-sex partnership laws varied from state to state until the summer of 2015, even some the most recent ACS reports followed edit rules that changed data values for what was assumed to be contradictory answers. For example, if two women were living together in 2000 and they both marked themselves as women and that they were married, the Census Bureau would fix their seemingly contradictory answers by changing their answers to report that they were both single. (6) However, in 2010, this coding procedure evolved so that the respondents' answers remained unaltered and an additional martial status category, unmarried partner, was added. While the inclusion of a category for unmarried partners aids in identifying same-sex couples, societal stigma still prevents some lesbians from self-identifying and thus being included in ACS estimates. Without an accurate count of the lesbian population living in the United States it is impossible to know the percentage of lesbians who experience IPV.

There are also numerous obstacles in studying IPV within the lesbian population. To begin with, identifying individuals who experience IPV is hindered by our society's lack of a single term to describe IPV. When discussing this topic, the phrases "intimate partner violence," "domestic abuse," "partner manipulation," "domestic violence," "physical abuse," "intimate partner intimidation," and "sexual assault" are used seemingly interchangeably but can have very different interpretations. Some of these phrases are meant to focus solely on physical harm, while others are meant to include many types of abuse including physical, psychological, or emotional. The inconsistent use of terminology hinders data collection because research participants may be unsure whether to identify as abused. Without accurate classification and enumeration it is impossible to know how often same-sex IPV occurs and how greatly our country is in need of social services and legal protections for these groups.

Many researchers are also hesitant to explore lesbian IPV for fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes about an already pathologized group of people. They worry that studies that focus on a negative aspect of lesbian relationships will only perpetuate dominant society's heteronormative culture and pervasive homophobia, by confirming that lesbians are part of a deviant subgroup that does not adhere to societal norms. (7) Similarly, due to the prevalence of studies about male-on-female IPV, which often focus on variables such as family-of-origin violence, power imbalance, and dependency on intimate partners, lesbian IPV studies often focus on these same variables. (8) While some of these factors have been shown to be important in both heterosexual and homosexual partnerships, most studies did not find such correlations. Thus, when studying same-sex IPV, scholars must be cautious about relying on heterosexual research models and assuming that they will find the same data that is produced in research on heterosexual IPV.

Hesitancies Lesbians Face to Partaking in Research

The aforementioned obstacles may discourage researchers from embarking in studies about IPV in female-on-female relationships, and lesbians who are invited to participate in these studies, often experience similar hesitancies. These women often express distress about negative reactions from the heteronormative superstructure and from their own social spheres within lesbian communities. Dominant culture may affect a lesbian's willingness to talk about past abuses to service providers, such as counselors, because these women assume that the provider will try to force their experiences into the paradigm of domestic violence within heteronormative relationships. (9) Most lesbian study participants in North America state that they struggled when seeking resources to help them escape or cope with their abusive relationship. There are few shelters and programs specifically created for the abused in same-sex relationships and in many places LGBTQ shelters are rare or non-existent. This lack of cultural competency and informed support from both therapists and researchers can retraumatize the victim, encouraging them to stop seeking help and instead to simply stay with their abusive partner. (10) The absence of such services compounded with whether the individual is out as queer can make it impossible for lesbians experiencing IPV to find the help they need.

During their study in Canada on the barriers homosexual IPV victims face when leaving their abusers, sociologists Melissa St. Pierre and Charlene Y. Senn found statistically significant evidence that lesbians who were not out about their sexuality were less likely to seek help or to tell anyone they were being harmed and were more likely to stay in their abusive relationships. (11) Pierre and Senn's participants feared being outed as gay in the process of getting legal help or therapy. "Outing may result in being shunned by relatives and friends, the loss of a job, and a range of other discriminatory consequences with little or no legal recourse for victims," and thus even when they want to get help, the fear of being outed silences many LGBTQ individuals. (12) Not only does the fear of being outed create barriers, but "prior psychological or physical trauma, whether in the form of rejection by their families of origin, hate speech or hate crimes in their communities," make lesbians and other LGBTQ individuals hesitant to rely on the dominant culture's institutions. (13) Thus a partner's threat to out the individual as LGBTQ-identifying may be a tool of abuse and discourage the abused from relying on a dominant culture that labels them as deviant and has failed them in the past. Unable to rely upon institutional forms of help, the abused partner usually remains with their abusive partners within their shared lesbian community.

Internalized Heteronormative Assumptions

Despite the difficulties associated with researching IPV in lesbian relationships and the hesitancies lesbians face when asked to participate in such studies, past research demonstrates that types and patterns of IPV are similar across homosexual and heterosexual relationships. As outlined by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence's Power and Control Wheel, there are eight common forms of IPV in heterosexual relationships. (14) These eight include: 1) coercion and threats, threatening to hurt or kill oneself or their partner; 2) intimidation, making a partner afraid using looks, actions, and gestures; 3) emotional abuse, making a partner feel bad about...

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