“4 Myths About Intimate Partner Violence in Lesbian Relationships” (plus my thoughts)

Was forwarded an article a few months back and took issue with it at the time. It’s titled “4 Myths About Intimate Partner Violence in Lesbian Relationships” by Robin J. Landwehr (posted November 15, 2014) in Everyday Feminism Magazine. Checked out more of that magazine’s site and can’t say I’m a fan of hardly any of the writing I perused on there. But this article in particular keeps returning to my thoughts.

Starting off, what I found most interesting about this article is how the author makes a case about how so many contributing factors can enter into the power imbalances and abusive relations between lesbians, nearly all of which can also factor into hetero relationships, yet she seems blind to that reality. Rather, the author frames this as specific in regards to lesbians and offers up quite different claims when analyzing hetero ordeals and power struggles. I found this noteworthy, as one hetero female out in the bunch but also as one with a history of exposure to lesbians and their relational dynamics, not to mention enough hetero relational experiences to fill a book, both my own and those observed in others. As is likely very common for a lot of us these days.

She stated in the article:

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(Why, oh why, can’t I ever get the cursor out of the shot when I use screen capture? damn)

Anyway, it should seem obvious to anybody that race relations, unequal wealth, age, “ableism,” and internalized problems with one’s own sexuality and identity can factor into hetero relations as well. Lesbians hold no monopoly there.

Robin goes on to link to an outside source to bolster her claim that “17-45% of lesbians have reported being a victim of at least one act of physical violence at the hands of a lesbian partner,” so I then click on that link and am taken to the “Lesbian Partner Violence Fact Sheet” by Suzana Rose, Ph.D., in which that author states the following:

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And this is where “intimate partner violence” research winds up breaking down for me. Notice that examples include disrupting our partner’s eating or sleeping habits (???). Well, if that’s the case we’re all in a bunch of trouble. Got news for folks: that’s not uncommon and personally I refuse to see that as abusive unless it’s occurring relentlessly and is taken to great extremes. Like severe and ongoing sleep deprivation from someone intending to inflict psychological harm on you. If not otherwise specified in regards to extreme behavior, this could include damn-near everything, from garden-variety selfishness that results in your partner waiting late to serve dinner to agitating a light sleeper unintentionally, to a couple’s quarrel that wakes one up in the night with more questions to ask, to arguing enough one weekend that one or both of you lose your appetite — all of which is pretty darn common among everybody, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

As for the next bullet point, slapping, shoving, pushing, biting, reckless driving, kicking…let me stop here to state that not all of those are created equal, plus there are different degrees each can take. Have I ever driven recklessly while pissed off at a partner? Yes. Have I ever slapped a partner? Yes. Have I ever shoved a partner? Yes. Haven’t kicked or bitten a partner though. Have thrown a picture frame at a partner once long ago. Even hit one partner with a belt during a particularly long fight years ago. Is that all worthy of being labeled “abusive”? Perhaps, to some degree. Have partners ever shoved me? Yes. Has a partner ever kicked me? Once, yes. Has a partner ever driven recklessly without concern for scaring the crap out of me? Yes. Has a man I was intimately involved with ever slapped me? Yes (was the hardest slap I’ve ever been dealt to this day). Don’t recall ever being bitten, at least not by someone with malicious intentions. This sort of shit, so far as I can tell, occurs within intimate relationships sometimes. Perhaps due to immaturity ultimately. But it can and does tend to run both ways. Yet when Robin looks at hetero dynamics, she seems to miss the point that women can initiate these acts of “violence” as well. Doesn’t require dating women for one to feel froggy and to try pushing the envelope during a dispute.

And I don’t consider most of my relationships all that aggressive or particularly violent compared to many out there. Guess it depends what all is being compared. Just power differentials in action, testing boundaries and exerting control when anger and frustration mounts. Females are prone to do this just as much as males are, if not possibly a bit more so within our intimate partnerships since we tend to operate under the assumption that our male lovers won’t come completely unhinged on us due to respecting their own physical strength and the problems that may come with unleashing that, especially on someone they love. But that can set up an unfair dynamic in a hurry if we females aren’t cognizant of this fact and don’t acknowledge the inequality so often sown into the mix there. To push on someone who feels like his hands are tied can lead to a whole lot of resentment and a feeling of being disrespected. Respect appearing to be the key feature deserving to be kept in mind in any relational dynamics.

(Take note of that last paragraph though in the excerpt above. These findings pertain to “mostly white, middle-class lesbians,” and there is not mention of the size of the data pool being investigated for these purposes. But at least it did include a disclaimer of sorts.)

What qualifies nowadays as sexual and psychological abuse often varies widely. I’d need a detailed breakdown of what’s counted within these categories to say much more there. But I do find it interesting that the statistics used claim “24% to 90%” seeing as how that’s a hell of a wide margin right there. That’s the difference between 2-3 and 9 in 10, so this tells me the assessment is quite subjective and can’t help but differ depending on how each action in question is categorized by each researcher involved. And such is the tangled web that is the social science sphere — much as I can appreciate the field’s insights, it’s not conducting science in the strictest sense of the word and never will be able to since it relies on highly subjective data and a heck of a lot of self-reports. So speculation can’t help but factor in there on a various levels, making these sorts of topics very sticky and easily colored by one’s own perceptions and assumptions (impacted also by prior teachings), ranging from the one claiming to have been victimized on up to the researchers and then journalists who publicize these matters. Then we who read them.

Just sayin’ is all. Nothing in human life or interactions tends to be clear-cut and definitive.

Returning to the original article, I don’t doubt sexual abuse can occur in lesbian relationships. Have heard of the role coercion can play and also experienced it firsthand myself as a youth living with an older lesbian relative. Why people assume that women are incapable of doing sexual harm to others remains a mystery to me. All humans possess the potential to sexually harm others, and these acts may be perpetrated against other females, males, and children. Sadism isn’t the domain of males alone.

Robin goes on to say:

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Pardon me for seeming calloused here, but times have significantly changed throughout this country. Unless you reside in a rural town out in the Styx or in the Deep South, there are thriving homosexual communities in nearly every metropolitan area in the U.S. Now, I can understand how it may be hard to come out to one’s family and face that judgement, but I don’t know how we get around that. Doesn’t necessarily take a bad relationship to wind up outing a person either. The beauty of the times we live in currently is that there are tons of resources available online and people can now digitally access help from others who are sympathetic to their plight. We’d have to be focusing only on the extreme end of the abusive relationship spectrum if we took it for granted that the abused partner could have no time to herself, no internet access that wasn’t surveilled, no opportunity to leave the house and retreat to elsewhere (like to a library which does provide internet access), etc. This assumes the average lesbian who finds herself in this predicament not only lacks the support of family members but also is isolated from all friends. What does one think the likelihood is of this being the norm other than perhaps in the most egregious cases?

She may lack money, but from what I know of lesbians, in the majority of cases both do work for pay. Are we to assume the perpetrator in a great many of these abusive dynamics also maintains control over her partner’s finances? So much so that she can’t even afford a greyhound ticket out of the area so as to seek resources to help herself? For about $100 a person can purchase a greyhound bus ticket and head to anywhere in this country. Yes, when we abandon bad relationships (whether familial or intimate) sometimes we wind up leaving a bunch of our material acquisitions behind, sometimes even our pets. That can be the cost of freedom in some cases. I don’t know what to tell people when it comes down to that extreme of a situation, other than go ahead and run. If the controlling behavior and abuse is at such a fever-pitch that you cannot imagine surviving it much longer, then take off by any means necessary. Go out grocery shopping and never come back. You’d likely be better off trying your luck in dealing with perfect strangers than staying with someone who menaces and controls you to such a severe extent. And that goes for anybody facing such major challenges. Sometimes we have to leave the old life behind and simply remove ourselves from the vicinity, and a bus ticket is a fairly cheap and easy way to do so. There are women’s shelters available elsewhere, far away, that can help women in such dire situations, that’s assuming local police intervention had already proven unhelpful.

Life’s not fair. It’s just life. Nobody ever promised us a rose garden, harsh as that may sound. We have to recognize how we wind up in the relationship dynamics that we do, how that involved our consent, at least initially, and that a severe abuser oftentimes doesn’t start off that way so there is a window of opportunity to recognize how we might’ve taken notice and shifted gears, getting ourselves out of the troubling situation before it went off the rails. And sometimes people are young, naive, and have to learn things the hard way the first time (or so) around. I can sympathize with that. But the choice still remains ours ultimately. This is a big country with a lot of room for one to run, lots of places to hide out for a spell, and typically even the most disgruntled lover will eventually leave you be, given enough space and time.

This fear of going to the police or going public in our times of need is something we’re going to have to reckon with. Because if we don’t figure out a way to be our own advocates, and if we aren’t willing to take an assertive stand when needed, people are prone to ignore us. And by “us” I’m referring here to anybody who is meek, quiet, unwilling to seek out aid, unwilling to put up a fight so as to escape what’s become a dangerous situation (which excludes me, by and large, since I’m prone to fight back — so maybe “we” in the sense of having ever faced a really shitty relationship and/or situation where we just needed bail…screw it, be done with it, once and for all, even if that means heading to a friend’s place to stay a few weeks or buying a bus ticket and heading elsewhere).

My former mother-in-law was pretty meek and mild and had remained involved in a 26-year-long marriage to a man who came to beat their 5 kids and then turned on her by the end too. She was a homemaker since meeting him at age 16 and had no work experience and no access to money. And yet she got away, without the need to retreat to a woman’s shelter. Despite living in a small town down South and being married to a preacher with a lot of crazy relatives around, and despite her husband harassing the hell out of her throughout the divorce process (which took ~2 years). That’s anecdotal, sure, and doesn’t pertain to lesbians, but I put that out there because it does demonstrate how someone even as subservient and controlled (financially, psychologically, socially, physically, etc.) as that woman found a way out, amid lots of harassment and being denounced by her faith and members of her community, and has since moved on to a better life where she found work, then returned to school to study nursing, and has since remarried to a decent man. Her ex-husband was a true tyrant and it looked like he’d never give up, but he finally did. And they both remain living in the same small community even (crazily enough). She had one minor kid (my ex-husband) still living at home throughout that whole ordeal. The police were notified, yet threatening letters kept coming. I’ve read some of them — her ex-husband was really trying to break her down psychologically. So I look at a case like that, one which I was first exposed to age 17 shortly after the dust had began settling on the matter, and see a sign of opportunity for a person willing to escape a dangerous and controlling dynamic. No women’s shelters in the area, family living a ways off, but still — you make up your mind and throw down the gauntlet and that can be it, finito. Unless your partner is willing to murder you, what power can they still truly wield over you at that point? Get people to turn against you? That happens sometimes, hard as it can be to take. Again, even if the cops are prejudiced in your present jurisdiction, very little can stop a person from retreating elsewhere, like to a larger city where more resources will very likely be accessible.

But I already know most folks will come up with more excuses. Will tell me it’s somehow different in their particular cases. Each case is unique, sure, but that still doesn’t render an individual powerless. The reality, unfortunately, is that it appears some folks stay in bad relationships because they, for whatever reason(s), relish victim status. Horrible as that is to acknowledge, haven’t we all seen evidence of that in some of the old couples we’ve grown up around? Playing “good guy” off that one’s “bad guy.” Far as I can tell, this isn’t sex-specific behavior either, though the most dependent partner (whether that be financially and/or emotionally/psychologically) isn’t necessarily the one deemed by society to be the one assumed to face the greatest societal oppression. Lesbian dynamics add another layer, or rather, perhaps they help strip it away so as to demonstrate how masculinity isn’t a ruling factor automatically.

What I find interesting in these cases is how the most aggressive party often enough is actually the most dependent psychologically on the other overall. His or her identity is somehow tied up with them in a major way, hence the controlling behavior intended to keep their partner. Not that that justifies extreme violence or mistreatment, just noting how tangled of a web these dynamics prove to be.

Returning to the article again….I don’t grasp the notion of “homophobia.” That’s not an accurate term to clarify what’s actually occurring in most cases. It’s not typically a fear of homosexuality so much as distaste for something far outside of one’s norm. And this notion of “internalized homophobia” further perplexes me. I can understand how a person may fear others’ reactions to their sexual identity, and I can understand how one’s been told all their life that their own way of being is abominable. I get how that can lead to some self-loathing, questioning why we are as we are, reckoning with the religious doctrines we grew up on that are used as the basis to discriminate against us, etc. But many of us face that regardless of whether we’re homosexuals or condemned for other aspects of our sexuality or for losing our religions over time or for rejecting long-standing portions of the status quo, etc. If we really stop and think about it, any of us could form any number of complexes over the ways in which we clash with convention, and plenty of us do. Perhaps this is where the importance of self-esteem, or self-love, or at least self-acceptance on some planes, must enter into the equation, sappy and watered down as those concepts have become under the new-age self-help movement’s influence. To at least come to terms with the fact that we each offer up our own unique perspectives, our own vantage points, in this life and that they possess some measure of value regardless of what some others might think — this sounds like where we need to be heading toward, coming to recognize our own inherent value and expanding it, building upon it, developing our own potential. People may try to take that away from us, even those closest to us sometimes due to their own fears and problems, but ultimately this quest is our own, individually. For a woman to love a woman, or a man to love a man, or a man to love a woman, or a woman to love a man, I think what matters most here is that there be love. So our next concern winds up being with what love is and how it manifests, as well as coming to grips with it not being the fantasy we’re commonly peddled but rather is deeper, richer, and more complicated than that.

Life involves struggling, and this is why I’m quick to caution folks on labeling everything under the sun “abuse.” Makes it to where serious instances of abuse cannot be differentiated from lesser forms of mistreatment or unkindness. Not all are created equal, nor should they be lumped into the same category together automatically. Does us all more harm than good in the long run when we do that, this I’ve come to believe. Because humans are an aggressive species, we are prone to be controlling (whether passively or actively), and we do make mistakes that call on us to do soul-searching and to make amends where possible. No one alive is a saint through-and-through, and I’d argue very few are truly demonic and incapable of becoming better than they are today. BUT, we’re not all compatible with one another and can at times bring out the worst in each other. We can love somebody for the rest of our life and yet still not be the one best suited to them in a romantic relationship. Such is life. The more we resist this truth, the more likely we will engage in battles over power with one another, and that can lead to things being taken too far. If we don’t want this to occur, we have to become more real with ourselves and our loved ones. I see no other way around that. Most aren’t out here seeking to punish others for the simple pleasure of doing so, particularly not when they believe themselves to love the other, so why does this pain so often crop up anyway? That’s the question, and it cuts down deep into our very beings, our drives and perceived needs, our sense of feeling broken by our pasts, our confusion over how to best navigate with others, our fears of abandonment, etc. Is this not the human condition, and are we all not subject to its lunacy?

When I take this sort of perspective, it makes it more difficult in most cases to view one partner simply as the victim and the other, by contrast, as the perpetrator. Exceptions certainly do occur, but I believe here we’re trying to focus on the broad spectrum. Can’t always control what another person may try to do or protect ourselves from their craziness, but do we not have a great deal of control over ourselves, at least in terms of what we decide we will or won’t put up with? And over how we communicate that to others, particularly through the example we set? Seems the general notion of “victim vs. perpetrator” is one that focuses largely outside of the personal dynamic and concerns itself primarily with onlookers and their perspectives, their claims to what is wrong or right or acceptable, their social pressures. When really the choices lie with ourselves and those we choose to let close to us. Is it really the business of society to police our intimate arrangements, considering we are grown adults with voices and options of our own? It would seem wise to focus more attention on determining our own fates than worrying over the claims of others who aren’t privy to the direct details of our personal lives. Because as we have it now, more and more people are being targeted by law enforcement and whatever else due to the problems they may be facing behind closed doors, even if help wasn’t requested by either party. That’s an unnerving trend. Wouldn’t it be so much better if we worked our best to police our own matters? Check ourselves and figure out more effective means of communication and seek out compatible partners whom we can be reasonable and upfront with? Instead of relying on the power of the State to determine the outcomes for us once our romances have gone awry?

There’s a much larger stream of topics here, but I’ve written enough for one afternoon.

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