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Why is it so hard to recognize domestic abuse in same-sex relationships?

Relationship abuse is not restricted to straight couples. The CDC says lesbians and gay men experience rates of domestic violence equal to or higher than those in heterosexual relationships. (iStock)

When GB experienced violence from her first partner as a teenager, she struggled to identify the relationship as abusive. For GB, who spoke on condition that she be identified only by her initials, the abuse began with passive-aggressive behavior and hurtful words. Within months, she says, this behavior escalated into physical and sexual violence. GB describes her former partner holding her down, choking and penetrating her, as well as hitting her into submission, “when I clearly stated that I was not in the mood for sex at the time.”

Though GB knew what rape was, she didn’t realize it could occur between two women. “She told me after raping me how beautiful I was. I believed it couldn’t have been rape. I believed I was confused and selfish.”

What makes violence and abuse between two women so difficult to spot? To start, queer women are seldom represented in the media. When queer women do appear, their relationships are rarely portrayed as being abusive. Additionally, educational and outreach campaigns about domestic violence often focus on a heteronormative narrative, connecting masculinity and violence. Women get stereotyped as too passive and too feminine to be perpetrators of violence, making it harder for people experiencing such abuse from female partners to identify it.

A 60-something woman in Vancouver also struggled to recognize her former partner’s behavior as abusive. She explains that her ex-wife hurt her in subtle ways, such as “wrist-twisting while holding hands and bruising her arms,” as well as emotional abuse, including “screaming, gaslighting and chasing me.”

The abuse lasted more than 20 years, she explains, though she did not fully identify it as unhealthy until the end. Even when she did realize it was abuse, she believed she was the one who provoked it. It was also hard for her to accept that women could be violent with each other.

It might be hard to picture for some, but it’s not uncommon. For example, a 2010 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that rates of “rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner” was 43.8 percent for lesbians and 61.1 percent for bisexual women. In the same study, the CDC determined that lesbians and gay men experience rates of domestic violence and sexual violence equal to or higher than those in heterosexual relationships.

Why is abuse so hard to spot? May Krukiel, director of residential services at Hope’s Door, a domestic violence shelter and resource center in Westchester County, N.Y., explains that while it is easy to list warning signs of domestic abuse, the nuances and subtleties are often difficult to spot until further along in relationships. This pattern is no different in same-sex relationships, Krukiel notes, as abusive behavior is tied to the individual person, not their gender identity or sexual orientation.

“Often the relationship begins beautifully, and the behaviors develop incrementally over time,” Krukiel explains. “Once you are committed to an intense, loving relationship, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the abuse.”

She notes, however, that in same-sex couples, some typical patterns can have more devastating effects: “The abuser is likely to have the same social network as the victim, and the abuser will often work to discredit the victim and alienate her from those social supports.” This can happen in heterosexual couples, too, but for many in same-sex relationships, there may be additional isolation and vulnerability, if, for example, the couple is removed from their families or social circles due to queerphobia.

Beyond individual isolation, the LGBTQ community can often feel cut off from mainstream society, putting solidarity above all else and making it harder to seek help. “When you are a member of a community that is already harshly judged and oppressed, there is a feeling of disloyalty” when speaking about problems, Krukiel says. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer people feel a pressure to have their relationships appear perfect so as to avoid criticism from those outside the community.

Dara Hoffman-Fox, a therapist in Colorado Springs, Colo., recommends that shelters, hotlines and outreach campaigns use inclusive language to ensure that queer individuals feel more comfortable seeking help. Local police departments need to be trained to handle queer domestic violence situations, too, she says, as they are often the “first responders” survivors meet.

In the throes of her abuse, GB says she did not reach out to anyone, even when she knew the relationship was unhealthy. “I thought I could manage it,” she explains. “I imagined that if I could fix what was broken in the two of us, then everything would be worth it in the end.” As a high school student when the abuse occurred, GB had minimal exposure to domestic violence outreach. And in her high school curriculum on abuse, “there was no mention of LGBTQ people,” she says, which made it difficult for her to see herself in the heterosexual examples.

Beyond school, GB explains that she had few connections to the queer community at the time, as there were few people who were out in her area. If she had known one person who was out as being a queer survivor of domestic violence and they could have talked “one queer person to another,” she says, “I may have done just that.”

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