This paper is an attempt to examine domestic violence in lesbian relationships, and the modern response to it, in a social and historical context. I chose to examine domestic violence within lesbian relationships in an attempt to look at violence in relationships outside the context of male and female. I did this because the popular beliefs that men are abusers and women are abused made it difficult to discuss or consider what was actually occurring in these troubled relationships, and what each partner contributed to the dynamic.
Now, in 1997, those attitudes and beliefs have become imbedded into law and practice, particularly since the O. J. Simpson trial, and it is even more difficult to attempt a discussion on these issues. In an increasing number of occasions, the laws passed to control domestic violence have become a form of violence in themselves. However, the idea that at least occasionally these laws, and their enforcement, may be a source of social problems, rather than the solution, is ignored or shouted down.
I can only hope that in the next few years, as more and more middle- class families experience what happens when, in their opinion, an ordinary intense disagreement between two people in a relationship turns into an emotional and financial disaster because of intervention by the legal system, these laws will be amended to reflect real social needs. )
In 1985 one fifth of the worlds population was living under military controlled governments (Harper’s Index Book), and it may around half now since China so brutally squashed its citizens’ move toward democracy (Harper’s Index Book). The reunification of Germany and the changes taking place in the Soviet Union have happened too recently to predict whether the forces that move nations toward democracy will prevail. One third of the world’s nations practiced torture between 1980 and 1986.
It is estimated that world military expenditures in 1986 were $850 billion (Harper’s Index Book). The top three countries in the world in per capita percentage of their population in prison in 1985, and in order, are the Soviet Union, South Africa and the U. S. In 1985, sixty-nine percent of the $2. 1 billion federal antidrug budget went to law enforcement compared to 1% to drug education to reduce use (Harper’s Index Book). The number of people in prison in the United States has more than doubled in the last 12 years.
Do you feel safer on the street? Violence, and the portrayal of violence, is one of our chief forms of entertainment in the U. S. Sports, (where people suffer many injuries), violent television and the physical punishment of children are widely accepted and supported. The average American child has seen 16,000 murders portrayed on television by age 16. Eighty-three percent of American parents reported that they spank their children in 1985, though only forty percent said they consider spanking effective.
There is a great deal of controversy regarding how much physical punishment school, juvenile detention, prison, etc. , personnel should be allowed to administer. Physical punishment for law or rule breakers has strong support. The U. S. is one of the few industrialized countries in the world that has no universal health insurance, no state supported childcare for every child who needs it, and that allows the death penalty. A FEW OF THE FORCES AND BELIEFS THAT SHAPE US AS A NATION AND AS INDIVIDUALS, PARTICULARLY REGARDING INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS
In 1985, fifty-seven percent of American women believed in love at first sight, and sixty-six percent of men did. Thirty-nine percent of American fifth-graders reported that they were in love. Only seven percent of teenagers reported that their favorite songs were about sex, violence, satanism or drugs, while twenty-six percent liked love songs the best. Local and national Miss America contests were #1 among all sources of college scholarship money for American women. Approximately forty percent of the total fiction book market in the U.
S. is romance novels and about twenty-five percent of American women over age 18 read them compulsively at a rate of 8-12 per month. The themes of “the more powerful, and somewhat abusive, slightly older male first resisting and then falling in love with and being transformed by the “love” of the pure, and rather innocent, woman” are pervasive. Attempts at communication between these two alien species in the book, the male species and the female species, is presented as being confused and close to impossible.
The scenario of the woman being abused, battered and even raped many times in the book by the hero and/or other males before the “love conquers all differences and they get happily married ever after” ending is also pervasive. “Pretty Woman”, one of the largest grossing movies of the year, is a perfect example of the standard “romance” genre and the American ideal of love and relationships. In the book, “Swept Away, Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality”, Carol Cassell states, “We are constantly bombarded with the message that romance is the ultimate goal for a woman and the only acceptable rational for her desire.
As soon as a woman feels a physical tug for a man, she transforms it into a romantic drama — wondrously, joyously she begins to drift into love because she is aroused. Transported and transformed, she becomes Swept Away. But when a relationship begins because of a fantasy, and not because of a clear-eyed assessment of who the woman is, who the man is, and what they each want and expect, illusions are bound to crumble. We exchange the brief moments of euphoria we get when we “fall in love” for long hours of depression, anger, and hostility when an encounter doesn’t follow the fictitious course we have plotted.
In 1982, Harlequin Enterprises, Inc. alone sold 109 million romance novels, mainly to women. Romance novels are womens’ pornography. They portray the perfect romantic fantasy American women have been socialized to believe is possible, desirable, and the yardstick by which they and their intimate relationships should be measured. There are many other publishers of this type of novel, plus the vast majority of products sold in the U. S. use sex and/or romance as the hook to increase sales.
Our consumer driven society requires a huge market for clothes, make- up, cars, bigger homes, and men and women seduced by the idea that only when they acquire these ideal goods will they acquire the ideal relationship that will meet all their needs, make up for every disappointment and make their life complete. There is a lot of money to be made in selling the American dream, and there is a lot of money to be made in convincing women that they should not really strive for equality in all areas, to become full adult partners in relationships, instead have some “true love”.
Arnold Lazarus, author of “Marital Myths” lists “Husbands and Wives Should Be Best Friends” as myth #1, and “Romantic Love Makes A Good Marriage” as myth #2. After pointing out that marriage licenses are issued by the state with no need to prove competency to acquire one, he suggests that “If people wrote out job descriptions, fully listing exactly what they wished to give and get from marriage, and if each potential partner studied the other’s lists before getting engaged, much grief and many dashed hopes could be averted.
To do this we would have to examine love and romance, masculine and feminine, and many more of our cherished hopes and dreams. While Americans believe in romance, they also are becoming more and more frightened of each other, without much basis in fact. In 1985 fifty-three percent of Americans believed that crime was increasing in the area in which they live, while the actual crime rate had gone down sixteen percent. Forty-five percent of Americans never read books, thirty-nine percent never go to the movies. But the television is on seven hours per day in the average American home (Harper’s Index Book).
All over the world the pace of change is increasing and societies feel as if they are spinning out of control, as every 8 years the total amount of information stored in the libraries and computers of the world doubles (Harper’s Index Book). These are just few of the forces behind the increased pressure on relationships in the U. S. In the industrialized world, the United States has twice the unmarried teenage birthrate as the next two highest contenders, Great Britain and Canada, and seven times the rate of the lowest, The Netherlands. The U.
S. also has a huge social movement to prevent teens, (and adults) both male and female, from acquiring accurate and realistic information about sexuality, workable contraception or access to medically supervised abortion. The increase in population worldwide is highest in the countries with the least healthcare, education and living conditions for both women and men. Many of those same countries also have the fewest rights for women, and the most brutal conditions for all their citizens, with women and children often suffering the most.
In the opinion of many people, this increasing world population may lead to the collapse of world environment. The modern response to domestic violence came out of the Women’s Liberation Movement which began in the 1960’s. As the women who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam war movement began to apply the same class analysis to their own status in society, all hell broke loose.
At first the men in those movements totally rejected any suggestion that they were oppressing the women working by their sides and the suggestion that they, in fact, were the recipients of the same sorts of privileges and rewards from their oppression of women that Caucasians got from the oppression of Afro- Americans and that Americans got from the oppression of Third World peoples. There were some truly monumental confrontations.
Over time, and out of a willingness on the part of some of the women and fewer of the men in these movements, the idea of making the personal political and the political personal arose and “consciousness raising” was born. The effort to understand how the traditions of society shape the expectations and behaviors of the people in that society has led to immense social change. Of course the changing requirements of society, and technological advancements also assisted in the success of this movement.
As individuals began doing serious analysis of society, the gap between beliefs commonly accepted and what the realities really were, astounded most of those doing the research, and the people who were working for social justice. When Walker and other women and men began doing research in the mid 70’s to determine how much violence was occurring between spouses, the first thing they all discovered was that there had been no previous research in this area.
For example, John O’Brien, who wrote “Violence in Divorce-Prone Families” (1974) stated: “In the index for all editions of “The Journal of Marriage and the Family”, from its inception in 1939 through 1969, not a single article can be found which contains the word “violence” in the title…. Apparently violence…. was either assumed to be too touchy an issue for research or else thought to be unimportant as a feature in normal” families. ”
As the Women’s Movement gained strength and credibility, more and more attention has been directed to discovering and reporting what life is really like for families in the United States, in contrast to the cultural myths that we wish were true. From its beginnings in the mid- 60’s, the Women’s movement is forcing society to examine itself and changes are coming very quickly. By January 1978, when the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights held a national hearing on women abuse in Washington, D. C. , hundreds of advocates for battered women from all over the U. S. attended.
The organization of what would become the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) began there. Forty lesbians among those advocates met separately to discuss battering in the Lesbian community and homophobia in the DV movement. The issue was so volatile that it was dropped and not discussed again, even among the attending lesbians, until two years later at the first NCADV conference.
This first step of recognizing the reality of battering in lesbian relationships threatened the dream of a lesbian Utopia, i. a society with none of the social problems caused by the patriarchy. It took a few years after the heterosexual DV movement got going for it to begin to be discussed, even though large numbers of the original workers in the DV organizations were lesbians. Many lesbians wanted to believe that only bar-Dykes and butches or practitioners of S&M were batterers, or that battering within the lesbian community occurred seldom and was not “real” battering, and that in any case, it could be quickly resolved. This reluctance to address lesbian battering is ongoing.
However, in all parts of the lesbian community, including among Leather Dykes and S&M lifestylists it is beginning to be acknowledged and a response is building. Denial and disbelief regarding the existence of and severity of domestic violence are present in both the heterosexual community and the lesbian community. People in both tend to first ask the person being battered what they are doing to bring on the abuse, rather than what can be done to stop it.
The heterosexual community is ahead in bringing the actuality of battering to light, but in both communities activists are still fighting an uphill battle to be heard and to be adequately funded. In both communities victims of battering have a great deal of difficulty in identifying the reality of their situations, and in resolving them, whether by getting out or stopping the abuse while staying. There is a tremendous amount of shame involved in admitting that battering is taking place. Treatment for batterers is in its infancy.
There is confusion about how to identify and remedy what is the responsibility of the batterer and what is the responsibility of the victim. In both communities the tendency to place the total responsibility on either the victim or the batterer is very common. The desire to see things in a simplistic way, choosing up sides and demanding that everyone agree to the politically correct point of view of the moment, will undoubtedly use up a lot of energy and drive many people away from attempting political action.
It does appear that our society is desperately looking for “those whose fault it is” so they can be punished and then everything will be all right. I do hope that everyone keeps in mind how easy it seems to be for human beings to justify oppressing or killing each other in large numbers, often over political or religious points of view. Nazi Germany, the Great Cultural Revolution of China, the killing of most educated people in Cambodia (anyone who wore glasses was identified as someone who could probably read and therefore worthy of execution), the Stalinist purges, the internment of the Japanese during WWII in the U. S. , and after that, the AntiCommunist McCarthy Witchhunts of the 50’s, the on-going violence in Northern Ireland, and the problems in the Middle East, come to mind as recent examples of the urge to blame and punish.
While the Japanese internment and the McCarthy loyalty purges didn’t result in many deaths, we should not get too smug. Thousands of people were driven out of their jobs and lost their homes and much else. Most of our present social reform movements, including the modern DV movement, came directly out of the organizations that developed in response to those injustices and the killings by the Nazis.
Domestic violence in lesbian and hetero relationships both can be examined using the abuse/battering spectrum — incorporating emotional/psychological, sexual, social/environmental and physical abuse. The cycle of tension building, outburst and repentance/honeymoon is the same. The batterers batter for the same reason, i. e. to get their partner to behave in a desired way. The victims stay for the same reasons, i. e. being in a relationship is very important, they love their partner and hope they will change, they fear life on their own, they believe it when their partner promises it will not happen again, and so on.
Often both batterers and victims where raised in families where violence occurred, or where very dysfunctional power dynamics were the norm. Both commonly believe the same myths about how relationships should be.
There are no significant differences between abuse/battering in a heterosexual or in a lesbian relationship. However, as a very small and socially repressed community, lesbians face pressures and problems that are not of concern in hetero relationships.
In hetero relationships usually both sets of parents know that the relationship exists and acknowledge it as a valid relationship, even if they do not approve of the choice of partner. The same can be said for work and other social associations. This may not be true in a lesbian relationship, and in fact it is unlikely to be true. Being a lesbian is not widely accepted in society, and being in a lesbian relationship even less so. We have a somewhat distorted view here in Seattle, where the gay/lesbian vote can change the outcome of elections if these voters are not treated with respect.
This is seldom true in the rest of the U. S. and even here lesbian relationships are not widely given the societal status routinely experienced by a hetero couple. Since they cannot become legally married, issues of property rights, parental rights, and others are very clouded. Both individuals can use the threat of exposure to control the other, or if one lesbian is “out” and the other not, this can easily be used as a weapon of control. Besides the external homophobia in society, which few heterosexuals have any real understanding of, there is the issue of internalized homophobia.
After all, lesbians grew up in this society which does not take women seriously, and particularly women who step outside the accepted roles of good little wife and mother. So internalized homophobia, being ashamed of one’s sexuality and identity, wondering if some of the scorn and discrimination might be deserved, and general low self esteem is quite common among both gays and lesbians. And example of internalized homophobia occurred this year when I invited a gay friend to come march in the Gay/Lesbian Pride Parade in June. In response to my invitation he replied, “Gay Pride, what a joke, it should be called Gay Shame.
Don’t invite me to participate in that farce! ” That was a particularly clear example. Lesbian couples are forced even more strongly that hetero couples to depend on each other and on their relationship for creating a safe and satisfying life. Since hetero couples are finding this increasingly difficult to do in the face of the breakdown of our society, it is not surprising that lesbian couples find this an additional source of pressure on the relationship. Society expects women to be nicer, more caring and less sexual than men, so lesbians carry those stereotypes as to how they should be.
If anything, lesbians may be more caught up in the romantic myths than heteros. When the couple has difficulties being nice, caring and sexually compatible, it threatens their internal beliefs about how women are, and makes it more difficult to try to examine what is wrong in the relationship. Lesbians, being women, commonly have more financial stress in their relationships as good paying jobs, and jobs with health insurance, are much less available to them. Since they cannot legally marry, even if one partner has health insurance through their job, it cannot be extended to their partner as a job benefit.
If they decide to have and raise a child together, society does not recognize that the partner who did not give birth has any claim at all on the child, even if she has participated 100% from before the moment of its conception in the child’s life, financially and in every other way. The law does not allow another person of the same sex to jointly adopt a child, although this is currently being challenged. While many shelters admit battered lesbians, the woman may not be comfortable in identifying herself as a lesbian within the shelter.
She may not be “out” at all, and yet when discussing the battering, may have difficulty in always implying that her partner is male. It may be easier for a woman to learn the location of battered womens’ shelters. A percentage of the women working in the shelters are lesbians, and they may not treat battering within lesbian relationships as seriously as that in heterosexual relationships. So hiding out in a shelter may be out of the question for a battered lesbian if her partner is determined to find her and confront her.
If the lesbian is an S&M lifestylist, many shelters might not admit her, believing that there is no difference between battering and SM and that any woman involved in such a relationship is getting what she asked for. Many therapists share this view to the point of being unwilling to even ask any questions, so counseling may be unavailable. The shelter itself may be hesitant to allow lesbians to be there or work there for fear that if the shelter becomes known as a place that allows lesbians, they may lose their funding from the community.
While the womens’ movement in general has stopped rejecting lesbians, the larger society has not, and the shelters exist within that context. Particularly in communities with less gay/lesbian activism, a battered lesbian or lesbian couple who need help may be hesitant to go into any sort of counseling for fear the counselor will just try to treat them for “lesbianism”.
The prospects for the future for both hetero and gay/lesbian domestic violence reduction is very good. The growth of this movement has been absolutely phenomenal! While it may seem much too slow to those in the trenches, if looked at historically, it is building at an astounding rate. It takes about 50 years for a political change to come to full fruition. Since the domestic violence movement is about 15 years old, I hope in moments of discouragement that all those involved can take heart from the huge change in public education and sentiment that has taken place in such a short time.
I also sincerely hope that many of the people now becoming involved in stopping DV don’t become so angry and impatient that they drop out of social activism completely. Social change takes a long time and there is no other way to do it. If these were simple problems, we would have solved them by now. Many sincere, well-intentioned people work on social issues from many different points of view. People who do not agree to the one perfect solution do not have to be seen as enemies.
Being a social activist means dealing continually with difficult and upsetting problems, having to learn to work with people who have very different points of view about the nature of the problem and the best solution, continually educating yourself and being willing to be educated by others (including some you don’t like), seldom if ever being thanked or understood by the society you are trying to help, and learning to take care of yourself and keep your sense of humor while it feels as if you were attempting to dip out the ocean with a teacup.