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Violence in lesbian relationship

jeudi 26 décembre 2002, par Dominique Foufelle

Violence in same-sex relationships has to be defined - no longer denied or ignored, to give the victims a chance to get a real protection. And then try to reach the main goal : stop the violent behaviour in any relationships.

Violence in lesbian relationship is not a myth – it is reality of almost every fifth or fourth lesbian relationships [1] Since 2001 German lesbian counselling services and lesbian help lines run statistics about the need for counselling with because of domestic violence. First valid results will be available in 2003.

Lesbian specific aspects of "domestic violence"

The more complex violence is defined, the more complex the dynamics of violent relationships become apparent. Violence includes physical attacks as well as mental, psychological, sexual and economical aspects. Perpetrators are usually defined as those persons initiating violence whereas victims are defined as those persons, trying to avoid violence. Within my research on violence in lesbian partnerships some lesbian-specific aspects became visible.
* Most heterosexual battering partnerships are defined by the tri-cycle model of tension building, explosion and honey moon and where roles of victims and perpetrators can be assigned to one or the other person. This model can be applied to same-sex relationships as well, but is – as research shows - not the one and only model.
* More than one third of the analysed violent partnerships show that both partners participate in the escalation of violence. Victims do not exclusively try to avoid violence and de-escalate the situation but want something like "revenge".. Perpetrators do not exclusively initiate violence and aim at escalating it. Some of the realise the escalation and want to get out but are hindered by the partner.
* Perpetrators are not only those exerting physical violence : Dominique criticised her partner Rebecca for not liking to read books and her "simple view on life". Reading books were a passion for Dominique. She wanted to share her passion with Rebecca. She decided to read books at night in bed to her partner Rebecca. She knew, one day she could get Rebecca devoted, too. Dominique knew of the working class background of Rebecca and became upset when her parents uttered their "unqualified" political opinion. In those situations Dominique could’nt bear it anymore and did not keep her mouth shut when Rebecca’s parents "had been talking nonsense once again"… When Dominique and Rebecca had been arguing, it was always Dominique who tried to talk about the situation and find explanations. When Dominique and Rebecca had been arguing again one day, Rebecca felt more and more manipulated. Dominique was much better with words and was able to explain every situation and persuade Rebecca of her "point of view". So, Rebecca avoided any verbal arguments because she felt having no chance. Once, after another fight, Dominique wanted to talk to Rebecca and explain to her what have had happened. But Rebecca did not want to listen anymore. Dominique went on. Rebecca was angry and felt powerless. She hit Dominique. Who is the perpetrator and who is the victim ? And why do you feel sympathy for Dominique ?
* There are at least two kinds of lesbian perpetrators : those, defining themselves as perpetrators ; those, defining themselves as victims.
Most lesbian perpetrators exerting physical violence against their partner define themselves as perpetrators. (Even though some of them feel as the other made them acting like this).
Most lesbian perpetrators exerting intellectual, mental, psychological violence see themselves more as victims in their partnership.
Lesbian perpetrators are highly manipulative.
Lesbian perpetrators who are looking for counselling show a high understanding of their behaviour and want to change it. (Which still is a very long process, though…)
* There are at least two kind of victims : those, trying to avoid violence, feeling guilty about the fight, blaming themselves for it, and so on ; those, participating in the fight, having feelings of revenge, paying back, not giving in, and so on.
Even though there can be several types of dynamics and several types of victims and perpetrators, all relationships show a high amount of interdependence.

How can violence in lesbian relationship be explained

Feminist theories explaining "domestic violence" are not able to explain violence in same-sex partnership. They try to explain domestic violence as an expression of patriarchy – defining the power structure between the sexes. One major consequence was to define women as victims and men as perpetrators. Without any doubt, in most violent heterosexual relationships women are the victims. But explanation models based on gender and gender specific socialisation cannot be applied to explain same-sex relationships. Feminist theories about domestic violence are hetero-centrist and victim-centred.
We need to explain violence in lesbian relationship in a gender-independent psycho-social model, meaning that we have two aspects : behaviour and society. Individual behaviour is embedded into a society with its culture and its valuations, deprecations and appreciations. One major factor in explaining violence in lesbian relationship is real or felt differences like education, money, eloquence – and its valuations. Lesbian relationships are embedded into a society which carries (cultural) values and evaluations : higher education has a higher reputation than lower education, more money is better than less money, eloquence is better than speechlessness. Having a job is better than having no job. Those differences and valuations do not stop at the border of sex. They are universal, cultural values. They are no genuine patriarchal values, they are shared by men and women.

Safety of the victim

Women’s institutions and organisations
Research done in 2001 in Austria, Belgium and Germany shows, that women specific institutions like women’s hotlines, women’s shelter houses and women’s counselling services cannot be recommended in general to lesbians. For example : most women shelter houses provide service for women who are victims of male violence. They are not prepared for lesbians being battered by their female partners. They cannot guarantee their safety. [2]

It can happen that police is arriving at a scene of domestic violence because neighbours or one of the partners had been calling them. Usually police officers are trained on domestic violence. Usually police officers are not trained on same-sex relationships and the possibility of violence. This makes it much more difficult for police officers to judge the situation. Usually men are designated perpetrators, but what, when there is no man present ? Usually women are designated victims, but what, when there is no woman present ? In one case which happened in Germany, police was called by an emergency call. The situation had been categorised as "domestic violence" and two police officers showed up. The officers checked the situation and analysed it as following : No male person present. Meaning : perpetrator has left the apartment. A second woman present. Meaning : the victim called her very best friend to support her. Police estimated the situation as safe and left the victim with her female perpetrator.

Legal possibilities
Some European Countries have laws against domestic violence. In some European countries they can be used by same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples, like in Germany. In other countries, like Austria and Belgium, the law does not explicitly include homosexual relationships. Thus, only parts of the law which is applicable for unmarried couples, can be used by homosexuals. In Germany the law is in force since January 2002. There are no numbers yet showing how many homosexual couples used this option already. One specific about the law is that no police needs to be involved. Victims can go to court and ask for legal remedy.

Counselling of perpetrators

Most feminist organisations provide service for women as victims of male violence. They developed ethics and standards aiming at supporting the victim, for example : empathy, affection, partiality.
In reality women only spaces are not free of violence. There might be present women beating their children or women abusing other women. Your rarely know to whom you are talking. Even in counselling it might not be clear at very first sight, whether the client is a victim or a perpetrator. As mentioned above, clients show characteristics of both quite often.

Women/Lesbians do not need to work with male perpetrators. I agree. But I demand that women/lesbians should work with female perpetrators. Including perpetrators into counselling demands a lot of basic changes in attitudes, insight, ethics, standards and so on.
This means, that ethics like empathy, affection or partiality have to be redefined in terms of client-centred definitions, not any longer victim-centred definitions. Even more, counsellors themselves have to reflect their own parts of both aspects before working with victims and perpetrators. Counsellors should have a strategy for, for example how useful is couple-counselling or is it better to have separate sessions and so on. They should be prepared for the attraction perpetrators might have to them – remember, they are highly manipulative.
Aim of counselling should be very clear : Stop the violent behaviour and safety of the victim.

What needs to be done is the following

- Sex/gender-independent parameters have to be developed to analyse violence in partnerships in general.

- The definition of violence also has to be extended– which definitely will make the analysis more difficult.

- New parameters have to include the possibility of female perpetrators and male victims.

- Service has to be provided which includes the aspect of violence in same-sex partnerships and its consequences.

- Police and state attorneys have to be trained.

- Legal system has to provide service for homosexuals.


Constance Ohms
PhD Candidate at the University of Oldenburg, Germany. Since 1999 project manager of an Daphne initiative fighting violence against lesbians. Homepage of the project :


[1] Barbara Hart (1986), Naming the violence – Speaking out about lesbian battering. Claire Renzetti (1992) : Violent Betrayal – Partner abuse in lesbian relationship. Claire Renzetti/Charles Harvey Miley (1999) : Violence in gay and lesbian domestic partnership. NCAVP (2000) : Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Domestic Violence Annual Report.

[2] Constance Ohms, Karin Müller : In good hands ? Download at :

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