If you are in immediate danger, please dial 911.
How Do I know if My Relationship Might Be Abusive?
The following questions will not absolutely determine whether or not your relationship is abusive, but if you answer in the affirmative to one or more of them, you should at least consider the possibility of abuse:
When you’re with your partner, do you feel as though:
- You have to watch what you say or do?
- Sometimes you're just not safe?
- Things are either really great, or there's a lot of trouble-but it's never just OK?
Has your partner ever:
- Told you who you could see or where you could go?
- Said how you could spend your money?
- Gotten in the way of your medical care?
Has he or she ever:
- Threatened you physically?
- Pushed you or hit you or held you down?
- Threatened to tell anyone that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?
- Forced you to have sex in unwanted ways or against your will?
- Refused to have safer sex?
- Not respected your “safe words” or violated the boundaries of a “scene”?
If you think you are being abused please refer to the list of NCAVP member agencies to find help.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence (also called intimate partner violence/abuse) is defined as a pattern of behaviors utilized by one partner (the abuser or batterer) to exert and maintain control over another person (the survivor or victim) where there exists an intimate, loving and dependent relationship.
Most of the activity in recent years that has brought attention to domestic violence and the responses to it has been designed to assist women in heterosexual relationships. It is not unusual to encounter definitions of domestic violence that characterize it more or less exclusively as a heterosexual women's problem. Certainly, women in heterosexual relationships account for a very large proportion of the individuals victimized by domestic violence in the world today, for reasons that clearly stem from the longstanding subjugation of women in male dominated societies.
Still, the patterns of abusive behavior observed in many types of relationships, including those in which partners share the same gender, very often exhibit the same dynamics as those present in abusive intimate heterosexual relationships. We now recognize that in addition to the sexist controls created and perpetuated in the larger patriarchal culture, there is a multitude of ways our society (and the LGBT community) bestows entitlements and control to some people based on various aspects of identity (race, gender expression, ability, immigration status, age, class, etc.) and that this manner of privilege is often used as a means to oppress and maintain control within an abusive relationship.
For more detail on the various ways multiple oppression issues feed domestic violence see the power and control wheel for LGBT domestic violence developed by the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project click here. [719 KB]
In a situation of intimate partner violence, there is abuse of the survivor by the batterer through the use of coercive and abusive behaviors that result in the batterer's having all - or virtually - all of the control over the resources and decision-making for both parties and for the relationship. It is defined by the lack of ability of the survivor to make independent decisions or exercise agency without harmful consequences from the batterer. This is often marked by the survivor's having feelings of fear and dread much of the time in relation to the anticipated reactions and actions of the batterer. The survivor becomes increasingly isolated and dependent; their world becomes increasingly smaller and more restricted.
Types of abusive relationships can vary depending upon the actions utilized by the abuser (tools of abuse) to limit and control the survivor.
Tools that are used by the batterer to gain and maintain control are often highly individualized to the situation, relationship and people involved. However, there are several common ways in which perpetrators of domestic violence abuse and control their victims. Many of these tools are similar to domestic violence among heterosexuals. These behaviors can include combinations of one or more of the following:
Verbal abuse including name calling
- Isolation, including limiting or prohibiting survivor's contact with family or friends
- Stealing, limiting access to or destroying survivor's property
- Withholding or otherwise controlling or restricting access to finances
- Depriving survivor of shelter, food, clothing, sleep, medication or other life sustaining mechanisms
- Limiting or prohibiting survivor from obtaining or keeping employment, housing or any other station, benefit or service (including creating circumstances which lead to loss of such things)
- Harming, attempting or threatening to harm, victim physically (including slapping, hitting, punching, biting, pushing, restraint, striking with or throwing an object, stabbing, choking, cutting, drowning, burning, shooting, etc.)
- Harming, attempting or threatening to harm, victim's family, friends, children and/or pets
- Sexual assault or rape (including forced sex work, violating "safe words" or the boundaries of an S/M scene)
- Using intentional exposure to sexually-transmitted and other diseases (includes both forced exposure of victim as well as abuser exposing self to STDs victim has, despite victim's attempts to practice "safer sex," in attempts to obligate victim to stay in the relationship)
- Threats or attempts of suicide or harm to self if victim tries to end a relationship or does not comply with an abuser's demands
- Use of facets of abuser or survivor's identity including race, gender, class, sexual orientation, national origin, physical ability, religion, level of education, occupation, or legal immigration status, etc., to demean, insult, endanger, isolate, or otherwise oppress.
- Threatening to engage in any of the above behaviors, including threats to do these things to a victim's family, friends, children and/or pets
- Intimidating a victim in any other way
The Prevalence of LGBT Domestic Violence
It’s important to note that Domestic Violence occurs in every part of our community, to LGBT people of every race, ethnicity, class, age, ability or disability, education level, and religion.
While LGBT domestic violence is becoming the focus of increasing research attention, it has thus far not been examined with anything near the thoroughness afforded to heterosexual domestic violence, and attempts thus far have been further limited by lack of resources and unfettered access to LGBT communities and victims. As a result, estimates of the prevalence of LGBT domestic violence remain highly speculative and there is a complete lack of scientific research on domestic violence among transgender and intersex individuals.
One might criticize the sample sizes and methodologies of some of the studies that have been done, but the remarkable uniformity of their findings strongly suggests that domestic violence is experienced by a large percentage of LGBT individuals at some point in their lives. Consequently, most LGBT domestic violence researchers and service practitioners start from the point of view that domestic violence in LGBT relationships is just as widespread as domestic violence in relationships between heterosexual couples. Rather extensive studies of the latter suggest a prevalence ranging from 20%-35%, depending on the definition of domestic violence used (see note 1).
The most recent significant study, released in 2002, indicated that gay and bisexual men experience abuse in intimate partner relationships at a rate of 2 in 5, one comparable to that of DV experienced by heterosexual women (see notes 1&2). Island and Letellier describe it as "the third most severe health problem facing gay men today," behind HIV/AIDS and substance abuse (see note 3). Among lesbians, a 1985 study by Gwat-Yong Lie and Sabrina Gentlewarrier reported that slightly more than half of 1,109 respondents had been abused by a woman partner in their lifetime (see note 4). Several smaller studies seem to support this finding. Coleman's 1990 study of 90 lesbians, for example, reported that 46.6% had experienced repeated acts of violence, and Ristock's 1994 survey of 113 lesbians reported that 41% been abused in at least one relationship with another woman (see note 5).
Studies of other populations in the LGBT community have documented even higher rates of abuse over respondents' lifetimes. The Portland, OR based Survivor Project's 1998 Gender, Violence, and Resource Access Survey of transgender and intersex (see note 6) individuals found that 50% of respondents had been raped or assaulted by a romantic partner, though only 62% of these individuals (31% of the total) identified themselves as survivors of domestic violence when asked (see note 7).
Barriers in Addressing LGBT Domestic Violence
Despite the prevalence of this issue, social service, criminal justice and medical personnel remain largely deficient in their ability to serve LGBT people who are the victims of domestic violence. Most mainstream agencies do not have any training or particular programs to provide for the unique needs of LGBT survivors of domestic violence. In fact there is tremendous denial in the mainstream domestic violence response community and the LGBT community of the existence of domestic violence in lives of LGBT women. When LGBT survivors do reach out, their needs are often dismissed and disregarded or met with homophobic responses about LGBT people and relationships.
These specific barriers facing LGBT survivors of domestic violence, coupled with the obstacles facing all women seeking refuge from abuse, means that most LGBT survivors of domestic violence continue to exist in isolation, suffering long-term psychological, emotional and physical harm. Even in the best cases, providers frequently lack the skills necessary to respond appropriately to same-sex violence. Well-meaning and otherwise knowledgeable providers often fail to identify domestic violence in same-sex relationships and consequently do not respond appropriately.
Additionally, a domestic violence advocates may not be aware of the differences in legal protections and access available to LGBT people and therefore may refer them or manage their cases inappropriately. For instance many of the laws and policies set up in states to address heterosexual domestic violence do not apply to same-sex couples.
For a state by state analysis of the availability of Orders of Protection availability to same-sex domestic violence victims, please click here. [98 KB]
For more detailed information on domestic violence in the lives of LGBT people and recent trends seen at NCAVP member agencies refer to NCAVP’s annual reports on this topic click here .
Special Issues in LGBT Domestic Violence
While many aspects of LGBT domestic violence are similar to those experienced by heterosexual victims, it is not in all ways identical. Perpetrators often attempt highly specific forms of abuse based on identity and community dynamics, including:
- "Outing" or threatening to out a partner's sexual orientation or gender identity to family, employer, police, religious institution, community, in child custody disputes, or in other situations where this may pose a threat.
- Reinforcing fears that no one will help the victim because s/he is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or that for this reason, the partner "deserves" the abuse
- Alternatively, justifying abuse with the notion that a partner is not "really" lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (i.e. the victim may once have had, or may still have relationships, or express a gender identity, inconsistent with the abuser's definitions of these terms). This can be used both as a tool in verbal and emotional abuse as well as to further the isolation of a victim from community.
- Telling the survivor that abusive behavior is a normal part of LGBT relationships, or that it cannot be domestic violence because it is occurring between LGBT individuals.
- Monopolizing support resources through an abuser's manipulation of friends and family supports and generating sympathy and trust in order to cut off these resources to the survivor. This is a particular issue to LGBT people and others living in small insular communities, where there are few community specific resources, neighborhoods or social outlets.
- Portraying the violence as mutual and even consensual, especially if the partner attempts to defend against it, or as an expression of masculinity or some other "desirable" trait.
- Depicting the abuse as part of sado-masochistic (S/M) activity. Domestic violence can exist in S/M relationships but it is not implicit, nor unique to this type of relationship. Domestic Violence is not S/M, nor should any non-consensual violent or abusive acts that take place outside of a pre-arranged scene or in violation of pre determined safe words or boundaries be considered part of, or justified as, a normal S/M relationship.
HIV/ AIDS and Domestic Violence
The presence of HIV/AIDS tends to lead to other fairly specific dynamics. For example, the presence of HIV or AIDS can act as a potent emotional stressor that precipitates some incidents of abuse. While the presence of HIV/AIDS in an abusive relationship adds many unique dynamics, there are some issues that those in this situation may have in common with others surviving domestic violence coupled with another chronic or life threatening illness. In addition, the outcomes of domestic violence can become more serious when they directly or indirectly affect the health of an HIV-positive person (or in some examples the health of someone dealing with another life threatening illness) as in some of the examples below:
- The abuser may threaten to tell others that the partner has HIV/AIDS. This is, in some ways, not dissimilar from “outing” of sexual orientation or gender identity, as discussed earlier. However because of additional social stigma attached to HIV regarding drug use and sexuality, as well as the continued bias that people with HIV/AIDS face, this can pose an additional threat even to people who may already be “out” about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
- An HIV-positive abuser may suggest that s/he will sicken or die if the partner ends the relationship (or alternatively, that the abused partner’s health will fail). The threat may have the ring of truth, if the HIV-positive partner is dependent on the other for housing, nutrition, health care or other forms of support. The additional power that accompanies this threat is that the survivor may fear dying alone and/or their partner, who despite abuse the victim usually loves, dying alone. The victim may also fear that family, friends and community who do not understand or are not aware of the abuse may fault and turn against the victim for leaving someone who may be sick or perceived as vulnerable.
- An abuser may interfere with the survivor’s health care by withholding, throwing away or hiding medications, canceling medical appointments, or preventing the HIV-positive partner from receiving needed medical care.
- An HIV-positive abuser may even do the same things to him/herself, in an attempt to blackmail the survivor.
- An abuser may take advantage of an HIV-positive partner’s poor health by using it as a rationale to limit contact with other individuals, assume sole power over economic affairs, and foster a partner’s utter dependency.
- The threat of physical violence can become more potent to victims living with illness, who may be too weak to defend themselves or may fear the HIV-related complications (easy bruising, infections, slow or difficult healing) that can result from being subjected to physical harm. Additionally the emotional stress associated with surviving an abusive relationship can adversely affect a person’s already debilitated immune system, potentially resulting in exacerbated symptoms, and further compromising the health of someone with HIV/AIDS, or another life threatening illness.
- An abuser with HIV/AIDS may infect or threaten to infect a partner, or may use claims that the victim is responsible for the abuser’s sero-conversion and use this as a reason why the victim cannot leave.
1. Lundy, S. 'Abuse That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Assisting Victims of Lesbian and Gay Domestic Violence in Massachusetts', (Winter 1993) 28 New England Law Review 273. 2. Greenwood, Gregory L, PhD, MPH (et. al.), "Battering Victimization Among a Probability-Based Sample of Men Who Have Sex With Men," American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 92 , No. 12 , December 2002. 3. Island, D. & P Letellier. Men Who Beat the Men Who Love Them: Battered Gay Men and Domestic Violence, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1991, 27. 4. Gwat-Yong Lie and S. Gentlewarrier. 'Intimate Violence in Lesbian Relationships: Discussion of Survey Findings and Practice Implications', (1991) 15 Journal of Social Service Research 46, The Haworth Press. 5. Ristock, J. 'And Justice for All?...The Social Context of Legal Responses to Abuse in Lesbian Relationships', (1994) 7 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 420. 6. Intersex people are those who "naturally (that is, without any medical intervention) develop primary or secondary sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into society's definitions of male or female." The Survivor Project, Guide to Intersex and Trans Terminologies, www.survivorproject.org/basic.html. 7. Courvant, Diana and Loree Cook-Daniels, 'Trans and Intersex Survivors of Domestic Violence: Defining Terms, Barriers, & Responsibilities', www.survivorproject.org/defbarresp.html.