Domestic Violence & Incest Resource Centre Newsletter Autumn 2003
Violence in Lesbian Relationships
about Domestic Violence
Janet Ristock, the Canadian author of a new book on violence in lesbian relationships, recently
visited Australia to speak about her research findings. In this article, Mandy discusses some of
the challenges Ristock’s work poses to accepted ideas about domestic violence. It adds
another layer to our understanding of this form of violence, which is increasingly being viewed
as a complex phenomenon.
Promoting a gender-based analysis of dom-abuse as it would ‘out’ them as being in a estic violence has been a major focus for lesbian relationship. feminist services and the women’s movement since the 1970s. This analysis sees domestic Twenty of the 102 women spoke about violence as something that only (or mainly) experiences of rape or sexual assault. They men do to women and it has become what expressed a great deal of shame about having Chris Atmore calls ‘the default position’ on been abused in this way by another woman. domestic violence (Atmore 2001). Canadian researcher Janice Ristock challenges this Amongst those interviewed, there was no ideology as contributing to a utopian view of common reaction to the abuse. While many lesbian relationships as being violence-free. were traumatised and fearful of their part-
ners, others in the sample were not. Many (39) Research Findings fought back physically – sometimes in self-
Janice Ristock interviewed 102 lesbians who defence, but sometimes to retaliate and hurt had experienced domestic violence and 80 their partner. service providers in Canada (Ristock 2002). Her research highlights the importance of Challenging the Power and Control Model social context in creating the conditions for Ristock’s study of lesbians who have exper-
intimate violence. For lesbians, relevant ienced domestic violence challenges feminist contexts include social isolation, invisibility orthodoxies about this matter, including the and homophobia, all of which contribute to ‘Duluth’ power and control model which has increased vulnerability to violence. become the dominant theoretical model in the
field of domestic violence. This model explains
Almost half of the women in Ristock’s sample heterosexual domestic violence as a manifes-had been victimised in their first lesbian tation of unequal power: in a patriarchal relationship, often by partners who were social context, men can choose to use their already ‘out’ or part of the lesbian commun-greater resources and privilege to control and ity. Being a ‘new’ lesbian in a heterosexist victimise women. society appears to have increased these women’s vulnerability. Many were young and Clearly, lesbian domestic violence cannot be isolated. Many feared telling anyone about the explained by a gender-based power imbal-
ance. Domestic violence organisations in woman who was subjected to these rages said North America have, therefore, expanded the she did not feel afraid or controlled. She power and control model to ‘add on’ other, described the behaviour as abusive, but did including lesbian, relationships. However the not see her partner as an ‘abuser’. She did model’s fundamental assumptions remain the not like the behaviour (which, she believed, same, i.e. violence in relationships is groun-occurred when her partner was hurt and felt ded in power and control. Thus, in a lesbian like ‘lashing out’), but in general she felt she relationship, it is assumed that there will be a had a great deal of power in the relationship. clear victim and a perpetrator, that the per-This ‘victim’ did not feel traumatised or afraid, petrator will use their greater power and and this ‘abuser’ did not appear to be exercis-
social privilege to control the victim, and that ing power and control. How does this fit with the presence of fear can be used to determine our ideas of ‘domestic violence’? Are our who is the victim in the relationship. services equipped to respond to this relation-
ship on its own terms?
This model fitted the experiences of some of the women Ristock interviewed, but not Implications for Practice others. For example, her interviewees could As Ristock points out, our established cons-often not be placed into a single category, as tructions of domestic violence have a cost for ‘victim’ or as ‘perpetrator’. Some admitted to some victims: women who perpetrate abuse using emotional abuse while their partner against their partners but who are also used physical abuse. Some were the victims victimised; those who do not experience fear in one lesbian relationship, but became following abuse; and those who are victimised perpetrators of abuse in their next relation-despite having greater social privilege. Ristock ship. Power did not always reside in one argues that services responses can end up individual but shifted, depending upon reinforcing constructions of ‘true victims’ as context. good, innocent and passive. This can exclude
the experiences of women who are abused but In addition, the women who perpetrated who don’t fit this script of victimhood.
violence were not always those who had the greater social privilege (e.g. though education, For service providers, a significant implication work, class, culture or ability). In fact, the of this research, according to Ristock, is the victim was sometimes the partner with more need to review our mandate to address only status and resources than the perpetrator. In victims of violence. To fit clients into this several cases, women who were physically mandate, service providers are forced to bigger or stronger, or who identified as ‘butch’ determine which partner is the victim and
which is the ‘primary aggressor’. However, were victimised. This echos Renzetti’s earlier
finding (Renzetti and Miley 1996). It does not individuals may be both or neither. We need sit well with our traditional understandings of to be able to respond to the range of contexts perpetrators as those who use their greater of relationship violence, and to be able to power to their advantage. assist a woman to take responsibility if she
has perpetrated acts of violence. This could Consider the following example from Ristock’s include providing couple counselling, prog-research. In a lesbian relationship between rams for victims, and for women who fit into two young, middle-class women, one would, both or neither categories of victim or on occasions, ‘go into yelling rages’, throwing perpetrator.
things and punching the other. However, the
References We also need to be careful about how we Atmore, Chris (2001), Men as Victims of Domestic define ‘abuse’, particularly in its emotional Violence: Some Issues to Consider, DVIRC Discussion forms. As service providers, we are often in Paper No. 2, DVIRC, Melbourne the position of being the first to name a relationship as abusive. However our assum-Johnson, Michael (1995), ‘Patriarchal Terrorism and ptions may be based on the experiences of Common Couple Violence: Two Forms of Violence white middle-class women. Some women have against Women’, Journal of Marriage and Family,
pointed out that in some cultures, raised No. 57, pp.283-294 voices or shouting is not necessarily a sign of
Renzetti, Claire M. and Miley, Charles Harvey (1996, ‘abuse’.
eds) Violence in Gay and Lesbian Domestic
Partnerships, Harrington Park Press, New York Some of the relationship dynamics described
in Ristock’s study have also been noted by Ristock, Janice (2002), No More Secrets: Violence in researchers investigating domestic violence in Lesbian Relationships, Routledge, New York. heterosexual relationships. In some of these
relationships, power does not simply and
permanently reside in one partner (the male).
It shifts in the relationship. Nor is violence
always motivated by the desire to control
another. While many violent heterosexual OPEN DAYS AT DVIRC
relationships fit our image of ‘patriarchal 1 terrorism’, not all of them do.One day each month,
DVIRC welcomes visitors to the Centre. Ristock’s research reveals that we need to re-If you would like to learn more about evaluate our ‘default position’ on domestic where DVIRC is positioned amongst violence. As she argues, while the concepts of organisations working in the area of family gender and patriarchy are useful to account violence, for the huge incidence of violence against or about what we offer in terms of training, women, feminist theories should not become publications, library and public advocacy, a ‘regime of truth’ that is applied to all phone to book into one of these sessions.
individual cases of violence. We need a more
complex approach – one that sees power as a First Wednesday each Month relational dynamic and recognises sexuality, 9.30am till 11.00am culture, class, race, age and ability as well as gender. The motivations for, and conseq-Phone (03) 9486-9866 uences of violence can differ depending upon
the particular interpersonal and social
contexts in which it is enacted.
1 Michael Johnson's research on heterosexual couples has also identified a pattern of ‘common couple violence’ which includes mutual ‘lashing out’ in the context of an argument. This, he suggests, is the kind of violence that is often counted in large population surveys that purport to show women are as violent as men in relationships (Johnson 1995).