The Research

Women in same-sex relationships

The focus of the discourses on domestic and family violence tends to remain largely gendered and as a problem facing primarily heterosexual women in heteronormative relationships with heterosexual men. The consequence of this is that other groups experiencing intimate partner violence remain largely invisible. One of those groups is women who experience violence at the hands of their intimate same-sex partner. The message that is sent to these women, both the victims and the perpetrators, from such widespread exclusion on the issue is that their experiences are invalid and that Australia is unconcerned with them.

In Australia, people who identify diverse sexual orientation, sex or gender identity may account for up to 11 per cent of the Australian population (LGBTI Ageing and aged care strategy 2012) and the reported number of same-sex couples more than tripled between 1996 and 2011 (ABS, 2013). However, with the focus remaining on the heteronormative gendered definitions of intimate partner violence, the result is less adequate support services, less availability of support services, and practitioners and systemic responses that are ill equipped to recognise or respond to domestic violence within same sex relationships.

A note on language

The term “domestic violence” does not adequately consider violence that occurs in same-sex relationships. Therefore, the term “domestic violence” is most often replaced by the term “intimate partner violence”.

The term ‘LGBTIQ’ is often used to describe people inclusive of a range of sexualities and genders. The aim is to use inclusive and respectful language, and while it is acknowledged that it is impossible to label or fit people into neat boxes, the term LGBTIQ was used in this engagement to allow discussions outside of the often heterosexual and heteronormative conversation that happens in society.

Throughout the community engagement period it was evident that the use of the appropriate terminology for each group or individual played a significant role in the level of their engagement. People understood that generic terms are often used because they are easily recognised by service providers, government departments and individual practitioners. However, the use of inappropriate or inapplicable labels and pronouns quickly excludes individuals.  It is essential that appropriate language is used in relation to non-heteronormative groups and individuals to facilitate inclusion. A glossary of relevant terms is included here.

Status of Intimate partner violence and women in same sex relationships

In Australia, intimate partner violence (verbal, mental, physical and sexual abuse) in LGBTIQ communities is widely accepted to occur in rates comparable to men’s violence against women in wider society. Experts tend to agree that intimate partner violence occurs in 20-35% of the LGBTIQ population (Vickers 1996), however more recent studies suggest that this may be much higher, with the report Calling it What it Is finding that 54.7% of all LGBTIQ participants reported being in one or more emotionally abusive relationships, and 34.8% reported being physically or sexually abused by a previous partner (University of New South Wales 2014). For women in same sex relationships, the issue is under-researched and because statistics generally rely on self-reporting, it is thought that even higher levels of violence and abuse may be occurring than documented. The importance of this issue is beginning to be recognised and investigated, however research that continues to explore, reinforce and draw attention to the health of LGBTIQ relationships is of significant importance to increasing the well-being of both LGBTIQ and wider communities.

The legislation in NSWVictoriaQueenslandWestern Australiathe ACTthe NT and South Australia defines domestic violence as occurring between intimate partners, relatives, family members, carers and children and in most cases an intimate relationship can exist between two people who don’t live together (i.e. people in a dating relationship). In speaking to community members about violence in same-sex relationships, the focus has been on intimate partner violence.

“I didn’t recognize it as abuse and saw myself as a strong person”. Quote from participant in same sex relationship.

Participants

Women who participated in this work contributed to a community conversation and / or undertook a survey. All women who participated identified as lesbian, with three participants also identifying with the terms gay, queer and brotherboy.  The women who undertook the survey and who identified themselves as lesbian were predominantly between the ages of 25 and 44 years old (Graph 3) with the majority based in Brisbane (Graph 4). Of the lesbian women completing the online survey, 18 per cent identified themselves as being Aboriginal, Torres Strait and / or South Sea Islander. Of the lesbian women who completed the online survey, 68 per cent indicated having been victims of intimate partner violence from a current or previous partner. Of those who had indicated being victims of intimate partner violence 80 per cent said they were living with that partner in either a long-term relationship or were married or in a civil partnership (Graph 5).

Graph 3 Women in same sex relationships; age group
Graph 4 Women in same sex relationships; location
Graph 5 Women in same-sex relationships; relationship type

Feedback from community engagement about barriers

Understanding intimate partner violence

A common theme for participants was a lack of clarity of what constituted intimate partner violence. Just as for other groups, participants in this cohort had difficulty recognising when abuse had occurred.

Intimate partner violence can include the same behaviours as is identified in heterosexual domestic and family violence, however it also includes behaviours that are specific to LGBQTI people, such as:

  • Using someone’s intersex status, sexuality, gender, gender expression, transgender or HIV status against them.
  • Threatening to ‘out’ someone to their family, friends, community or workplace. Outing can include someone’s gender, sexuality, intersex status or HIV status
  • Controlling someone’s medications, access to gender transition related healthcare, or pressuring them to conform to sex or gender “norms”.

For many of the participants, lack of these clear definitions acted as barriers to them seeking help.

Graph 6 Women in same sex relationships; types of intimate partner violence reported

Graph 6 indicates the types of intimate partner violence reported by survey participants. While controlling behaviour and verbal attacks were by far the most common forms of violence experienced, it should also be noted that 67 per cent of lesbian women indicated physical assault and 60 per cent of lesbian women reported being sexually assaulted by a current or previous partner.

For many lesbian women, seeking help for physical and or sexual assault by a partner can be further complicated by the commonly held opinion that women can’t rape or sexually assault another woman, and that sexual assault is perceived as a straight issue perpetrated by men against women. Since this scenario is rarely portrayed in the media or in educational material, women often find it challenging to identify their experience and many people have a difficult time believing that a woman can or would do this to another woman.

Fishbowl effect

Several participants spoke of a major barrier to seeking support being the ‘fishbowl effect’. Living within a smaller community when the woman feels like everyone knows everyone else. The consequences of coming forward with allegations of intimate partner violence are fraught for any domestic and family violence survivor. For lesbian women, who already typically live, date, and make friends within a smaller network of other queer-identified women, the risks can be even more complex. Friend groups can become divided and the survivor may fear losing her only support network. This can be especially challenging for survivors who live in areas where the community is small, such as Brisbane, Sunshine or Gold Coast and many other regional areas of Queensland. Furthermore, in regional areas this may be compounded in areas where the woman feel there is a more hostile climate towards LGBQTI people.

Lack of service options

“Services are limited anyway” stated one participant when discussing barriers to seeking support. Like many others, this woman indicated that services were not only already stretched, they were also poorly equipped to meet the complex needs of women in LGBQTI relationships. When it comes to accessing services, participants indicated barriers such as:

  • Confidentiality, particularly within small network of LGBQTI communities
  • Being afraid of what would happen to them
  • Services not having the specialist knowledge of the needs of women in same -sex relationships
  • Concern that services would consider that women in same sex relationships cannot abuse each other
  • Not having adequate evidence to satisfy service providers A lack of appropriate language to discuss intimate partner violence in LGBTIQ communities and relationships
  • A lack of services that address specific needs as supports for female perpetrators
  • A fear of a lack of understanding, minimisation and/or discrimination from police and service providers
  • Fear around differing legal rights over children and assets
  • Lack of credibility or validity of relationships in the context of a community that does not recognise same sex marriage.
  • Fear that services and staff may be homophobic, refuse to serve them, or serve them in a condescending or judging way, making the focus of the visit their sexuality rather than their issues as a result of being abused

For lesbian women trying to escape a relationship in which they are the victim of intimate partner violence, the process of calling the police, formally pressing charges, or seeking emergency shelter presents unique challenges. Domestic and family violence shelters typically focus on providing services to heterosexual females and their children. In most communities in Queensland, a heterosexual woman would have little concern about a male partner being to enter the facility, however a woman in a same-sex relationship may have valid concerns about the perpetrator being able to access the shelter.

I didn’t think it was abusive until years later. I had no conception of what a ‘healthy’ relationship looked like, and I’d bought into a notion that a girl can’t abuse another girl”. Quote from woman in same sex relationship.

Political and personal responsibility

One issue highlighted several times was the issue of people in the LGBQTI community being particularly aware of maintaining a positive image of their relationships. With the public and media scrutiny over the issue of same sex marriages and with the political debate on the need for a national plebiscite, many participants felt a responsibility to not ‘tarnish’ the public view of same sex relationships. While there was strong acknowledgement of the need to talk about the issue, this was constrained by experiences of homophobia, discrimination and a need to publicly defend the validity of same sex relationships. Several participants felt that openly discussing intimate partner violence could damage the campaign for legal recognition and reinforce homophobic views.

Isolation

A significant portion of LGBQTI people feel the need to hide their sexuality or gender identity when accessing services (34 per cent), at social and community events (42 per cent) and at work (39 per cent) (Leonard et all, 2012).  While hiding one’s sexuality increases invisibility such actions are aimed at fitting in and staying safe in a largely homophobic cultural environment, unfortunately this can lead to women becoming isolated within their relationship. This is further compounded for women who have had negative experiences of coming out. These women may have significantly diminished support networks potentially increasing the pressure to maintain the status quo.

This isolation may place additional stress on the relationship by depriving the woman of external validation and support for her relationship and / or sexuality. Furthermore, not being out, or hiding one’s sexual preferences within some social groups reduces the visibility of a woman’s same-sex relationship and exposure to role models. This can create a sense that she lacks other options, making her more likely to tolerate abuse from her partner. Women who hide their sexuality feel hesitant to seek help for problems associated with domestic violence.

“One of my friends was in a relationship with her partner, and experienced extremely physically and sexually violent abuse from her girlfriend at the time. The girlfriend had also used manipulation and controlling behaviour to isolate her from family and us, her friends. Finally, she had to go to the police over it, but she was unable to attend any other services. She got counselling, however the traumatic relationship was almost wholly dealt with alone, and she received insufficient support and help from the police, who didn’t know how to deal with lesbian couples’ violence”. Quote from woman in same sex relationship.

Feedback from community engagement about how we could respond better

Women who participated in this community engagement identified several ways to better reach and respond to this group.

  • Primarily participants spoke of the need for education and inclusive images. Awareness-raising of DV & schools work must include LGBQTI people and relationships. The media needs better examples of ‘healthy’ LGBQTI relationships. Any media campaigns, whether at school, university or work, should include LGBQTI examples. Service providers should include LGBQTI examples, references, and training on how to support LGBQTI people.
  • Better use of targeted media campaigns and media outlets. Predominantly, women who participated in this engagement did not know where to go for assistance or support. Several participants raised an obvious gap in inclusive advertising and suggested better use of social media to access this group. Using social media to inform people about same-sex intimate partner violence and the use of appropriate images and language would raise awareness and provide much needed information.
  • Clear identification of LGBQTI friendly providers. Participants spoke of not being clear about whether a service was available to them or whether practitioners were LGBQTI friendly. Participants spoke of the comfort of accessing services which openly display the LGBQTI flag and some suggested this would be an indicator that their unique needs would be taken seriously.
  • Language can be a powerful place to start ensuring services and education is LGBQTI inclusive. Omitting the standard “he” as perpetrator and “she” for victim in laws, educational materials, and even just general discussion encourages awareness and inclusion. Intimate partner violence does not happen in a solely heterosexual context and the way we discuss it should reflect that.
  • Trained service providers. Almost all participants raised the issue of mandatory training for service providers. There is limited training available that is specifically focused on the needs for LGBQTI people experiencing intimate partner violence, however MATE delivered through Griffith is an available provider. MATE is a leadership focused primary prevention program that aims to make the complicated and diverse issues of LGBTIQ intimate partner and sexual violence accessible to the general population. Details of MATE are available here.
  • Perpetrator programs aimed at women, yet working inclusively within communities. In order to overcome the fishbowl effect and consequences of working within smaller communities and actively identifying perpetrators and victims, it is suggested that violence prevention programs work with entire communities. For instance, similar to above, instead of identifying women as ‘perpetrators’ or ‘victims’, programs like MATE work with entire communities and groups empowering all participants as ‘leaders’ able to confront, interrupt and change the culture around violence in LGBTIQ communities.