When one is trying to understand the complicated dynamics that exist in a violent relationship, they often view “the man” as being the aggressive partner. As a result, there is a general misconception that same-sex female relationships can’t be abusive as there is no “man”.
This makes it more difficult for us to recognise the warning signs, and often the abuse itself when it happens. Throughout this page, you will find all the necessary information you need to help you identify the different signs of abuse, specifically in same-sex female relationships.
What is Domestic Abuse?
Domestic abuse is: “a pattern of abusive behaviour in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.”
ANYBODY can be a victim of domestic abuse regardless of their gender, age or gender expression (e.g. if they present themselves as particularly ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’ or anywhere in between). It is not limited to physical violence only but also involves a range of behaviours which, apart from physical and sexual violence, include the use of coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolating, minimizing, denying and blaming your partner; using children; using social privilege such as race and class; and subjecting your partner to economic abuse. These forms of abuse do not occur in isolation from each other, but rather work together simultaneously.
Why does it happen? Because the goal of an abuser’s behaviour is to exert control over you. They believe that it is their right to rule over every detail and movement of yours. The various forms of abuse and the different behaviours are all used as tactics of control.
Keep in mind that society tends to traditionally – and wrongly – view abuse and aggression as a masculine and male trait. This makes it more difficult for those in abusive relationships, and society as a whole to identify abuse within same-sex female relationships.
Am I in an abusive relationship?
- Feel afraid of your partner, sometimes or often?
- Avoid talking about certain topics because you are afraid of making your partner angry?
- Feel that you can’t do anything right?
- Feel that you don’t meet any standards that your partner has set?
- Believe that you deserve to be hurt, mistreated or abused?
- Think that you’re the one who must be at fault all the time?
- Feel helpless or emotionally numb?
- Cry most days and nights?
Does your partner…
- Humiliate you by calling you names or scream at you?
- Criticise you constantly and make you feel down?
- Treat you so badly that you feel ashamed to talk about it to your family or friends?
- Ignore or belittle you for having opinions or putting down your accomplishments at home, work or in your studies?
- Blame you for making her act abusive towards you? E.g. “You provoked me!”
- Treat you as her property rather than as an individual?
- Act excessively jealous and possessive?
- Control where you go and what you do?
- Tell you to ask for permission before leaving the house or going anywhere?
- Keep you from seeing your friends or family?
- Monitor your Facebook account?
- Monitor your phone and read your messages?
- Limit your access to money, to your phone or a car?
- Demand to know all your passwords for all your email and social media accounts?
- Ask you to close your bank account?
- Force you to leave your job?
- Force you to discontinue your education?
- Curse at you or swear at you?
- Force you to engage in sexual activity rather than asking you if you want to have sex?
- Make frequent, harassing phone calls to you?
- Threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
- Threaten you physically?
- Threaten your friends or family to get you to do what she wants?
- Hurt you or say she will hurt you?
- Slap you? Kick you? Pull your hair? Push you? Hit you?
- Coerce you into sexual acts you don’t want to take part in?
- Force you to do things (sexually or otherwise) which you don’t want to do?
- Have an unpredictable temper that scares you?
The above points outline warning signs of various forms of abuse which, can be broadly split into three types of abuse. It must be remembered that although physical abuse and sexual assault are more strongly associated with heterosexual relationships, they can still happen in same-sex female relationships.
Physical abuse: Intentional use of force to cause pain, discomfort, impairment or injury. This can include hitting, choking, slapping, burning, shoving, restraint, using a weapon to cut, hit or puncture you, as well as intentional interference with basic needs such as withholding food, medicine or sleep.
Sexual abuse: Any sort of non-consensual sexual contact. This can include forcing you into sexual acts, intentionally passing on sexually transmitted diseases, refusing to use a form of contraception, humiliating you during sex and taking advantage of you when you are not able to give consent (for example, if you are asleep or too drunk to give consent).
Emotional abuse: Actions which aim to damage someone’s self-esteem, feelings and independence. This can include, verbal abuse (e.g. shouting, swearing), name calling, manipulation, isolation, threats, gaslighting, financial abuse (e.g. controlling your finances, stealing from you) and intimidation.
What makes same-sex female relationships different?
Domestic abuse in same-sex female relationships, as well as in heterosexual ones, is not necessarily physical, although this is not to say that physical violence between women does not occur. Violence and abuse can also be emotional or psychological. Manipulation is a common tactic among emotionally or psychologically abusive partners, which includes techniques such as lying, hiding information, using emotional blackmail and/or avoiding equal debate. An abusive partner can use these techniques to force you to do certain things, make decisions for you, help paint a distorted reality of your relationship and / or to mystify your relationship and the abuse that happens.
There are abusive expressions and dynamics that are specifically recognisable in same-sex female relationships which you may be able to identify within your own relationship:
- Violence carried out based on gender identity and sexual orientation
An abusive partner might attack or belittle your sexual orientation. For example, they might accuse you of ‘not really being attracted to women’ because you do not act like they expect and / or because you identify as bi/pan-sexual, or not purely as a ‘lesbian’. This may also be given as a reason by your partner (if in a monogamous relationship) as to why you shouldn’t be trusted to be faithful. If you identify as bisexual or another non-monosexual identity, your partner may try to leverage stereotypes of dishonesty and promiscuity to discourage you from reporting their abusive behaviour to the authorities should you attempt to do so.
This type of abuse might also happen when it comes to gender identity. For example, if you don’t express yourself in a traditionally ‘feminine’ way, your partner may tell you that ‘you’re not a real woman’, or vice versa, if you do express yourself in a traditionally ‘feminine’ way, your partner may tell you that ‘you can’t really be queer’.
- The Threat of ‘Outing’
An abusive partner might take advantage of homophobia in society, threatening to ‘out’ your sexual orientation to others. They might force you to tell your family or colleagues that you are not straight. For example, they might say to you, ‘’I’ll come into your office and tell everyone’.
- Hiding the relationship
Unless you have both agreed to keep the relationship private, this could be a sign of abuse. An abusive partner may belittle and hide the relationship. They might act like a stranger to you in public, or refuse to speak about the relationship itself and problems in it, labelling them as unimportant. They might decide by themselves when to act as a couple and when to ignore you. This may be particularly possible if your partner is in denial about their sexuality and does not want to fully accept your relationship for what it is.
Your relationship, being a same-sex one, may not be accepted in your society, and so the act of hiding the relationship may build up in you an increased feeling of shame and insecurity.
- Distorting the acts of abuse
An abusive partner may play on the fact that you are both women, and distort the acts of abuse by using the excuse, ‘this is not abuse, because I am a woman too’; this plays on the misconception that only a man can hold power over a woman.
- Isolation within the LGBTQIA+ community
This could easily happen if you have only recently come out; if you don’t have contact with your old social networks; or if you share friendships with your partner. If you share all your friends with your partner, it becomes easier for your (abusive) partner to dictate your involvement in your social circles and the LGBTQIA+ community at large, to the point at which they could dangerously isolate you from the rest of society. An abusive partner may try to put you on the edge of your social group, making you dependent on her presence in social situations. They might also express annoyance at your presence in front of other people. However carried out, these are all forms of abuse.
If the abusive partner is better known in the LGBTQIA+ community, they may leverage that to try and impact what others think of you. They may also use it to make you feel more inadequate within the LGBTQIA+ community, and tell you that they know best, because they have a more established role in the LGBTQIA+ community, and subsequently make all the decisions for both of you.
Recognising that you are in a abusive relationship is never an easy process. It is important to remember that you are the only person who has the opportunity to recognise it, and the right to decide how to deal with it. It is important to acknowledge that the time it takes to recognise, and potentially leave, an abusive relationship widely differs from relationship to relationship. It is therefore important to remember that others should not – and have no right to – judge you for your journey on identifying and dealing with abuse within your relationship.
In the case of same-sex female relationships, as mentioned above, you may encounter specific obstacles to the process of recognising abuse, that add to the ones, and differ from, abuse in heterosexual relationships. These problems are caused both by stereotypes linked to your being a woman in general, as well as you being a queer woman.
As a first important step, you should be aware of the potential difficulties of recognising abuse, and learn how to deconstruct them. This will hopefully help you recognise whether there is any abusive behaviour within your own relationships. Acknowledging these obstacles will also ensure that external perceptions do not prevent you from leaving the relationship. It is a common misconception that female relationships are by nature, equal and non-violent. However, prevalence of domestic violence in same-sex female relationships must not be underestimated and needs to be duly recognized and addressed.
Myths of abuse in a same-sex female relationship
The myths or false stories that have built up around same-sex female relationships are misleading and can be an obstacle in themselves when identifying abuse. Here are just some of the myths about abuse in same-sex female relationships:
- ‘Females can’t be abusive!’: You may not feel it is possible that your partner is abusing you, just because you both identify as female. You may feel this way because society has traditionally (wrongly) taught people that only men are aggressive and abusive. This extends to more masculine women also being viewed as more capable of violence than ‘feminine’ women. This is untrue; females and ‘feminine’ women are just as capable as males and ‘masculine’ women of committing acts of abuse.Women can be physically and emotionally abusive. The idea that women only ever talk their problems through and are peaceful is a stereotype and undermines women. It also prevents abuse between women from being recognised. This stereotype exists, not because differences in behaviour between men and women are biologically determined, but because society teaches women to place less value on physical strength and to favour non-violent means of coercion.
- ‘Sexual abuse does not exist in same-sex female relationships’
Forced sex can exist in same-sex female relationships and sexual abuse is crucially not only about violent and forced sexual acts. Coercion plays a vital role in sexual abuse, as does the threat of using violence. Degrading attitudes about sex, for example, can thoroughly undermine sexual self-esteem and mean that you consent to sex, or to forms of sexual activity, which are considered painful and humiliating, just to ensure that you are left in peace. No matter what the relationship, your partner is not entitled to you sexually. Any level of coercion can be considered manipulative and abusive. Feeling guilty for not wanting sex or for not carrying out a sexual act is a sign that you are being coerced into it.
- ‘Abuse in same-sex female relationships is mutual’
People think that similarities, in terms of physical strength, mean that people’s behaviour are also the same, and thus ignore other factors that can create differences in power. Saying that inequalities do not exist ignores factors such as racism, internalised homophobia, ableism (discrimination in favour of able-bodied people), social status, economic disparities, age and many other factors that can create a difference in power held by each person in a relationship. Abuse within romantic relationships is aimed at keeping power and control over you. Even if you may use abuse during a fight or an argument, it does not necessarily mean that you have control in the relationship.
- ‘The aggressor is always the “butch” or the masculine woman’
Firstly, there isn’t always a “butch” in same-sex female relationships. Secondly, just because someone appears masculine does not mean they exhibit abusive behaviour. If it did, we would expect every person who were masculine or ‘manly’ to be abusive. This myth can create three types of unreasonable effects within abusive same-sex female relationships: Firstly, it exposes butch women to serious risks when they try to end an abusive relationship, such as not being believed. Secondly, the other woman can use this cliché to threaten her partner. Thirdly, unfair assumptions may be made against a woman who presents herself in a more traditionally masculine way. It is important to remember that any person, regardless of their gender expression, is capable of committing acts of abuse.
Further barriers to identifying abuse
Barriers that hinder the recognition of an abusive relationship are in part consistent with those in heterosexual relationships, but there are also some specific to same-sex female relationships. Here you can find some useful examples of both:
- Internalised homophobia
This is a major barrier to recognising abuse in same-sex female relationships. Namely, if you perceive your own sexuality as wrong, you may believe that same-sex female relationships are inherently bad. This can make it more difficult to identify abuse, because you may pin the behaviour of the abuser and the impact it has, only on the fact that you’re in a same-sex relationship. As a consequence, you may not realise that your partner is being unnecessarily abusive.
- Protective and defensive attitudes
If your partner is abusive, you may also have a protective and defensive attitude towards your relationship, so as not to expose it to criticism or homophobic comments. You may know that your partner’s behaviour is wrong, but may be worried that by sharing your experience you will fuel the negative perception that society has of non-heterosexual relationships. You may also be worried that they might say something along the lines of: ‘Partner abuse? It doesn’t happen to us straight people!’.
- From victim to perpetrator
As queer women, you and your partner may both have been subject to discrimination in society, based on your sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Your partner may use the fact that they have experienced this unfair discrimination to justify their abusive actions. You may also possibly find it particularly difficult to call out the abuse for what it is either because a strong empathy links you to them, especially because you may have both experienced a life of discrimination and abuse from others, or that an abusive partner, who has had a history of discrimination and violence or abuse, can still inspire compassion.
- The abusive partner may self-harm in order to play with your emotions
Threatening to hurt themselves or hurting themselves in front of you is an abusive action which could make you feel guilty, insecure and / or scared. Through the act of self-harm, an abusive partner can make you feel as though you are responsible for their health and that it is therefore somehow in your control whether they self-harm or not. By threatening to hurt herself, she can try to force you to stay close. Acts of self-harm may establish a strong sense of fear in you: you may start to fear your own physical safety because, you may worry that the acts of violence she is inflicting on herself may one day be targeted towards you.
- Self Pity/Painting themselves as the Victim
An abusive partner will often portray themselves as ‘the victim’ and use this self-pity to manipulate your behaviour. She may claim that she is the victim of numerous things, including that as a queer woman, she is not accepted by society. Or she may play on the fact that she may have suffered from abuse on the basis of being a woman or queer. She may leverage these experiences and her self-pity in order to draw attention away from the abuse within the relationship and your needs and instead make you feel like you need to care for her and focus on her discomfort (true or misrepresented). This may lead to you feeling guilty if she expresses that you are not caring for her properly, despite the care giving often being one sided, with her not paying attention to your needs.
Gaslighting is a common phrase used to describe a manipulative behaviour where the abusive partner slowly starts to overwrite their partner’s reality. They may do this, among other methods:
- By accusing the partner of misremembering events
- Withholding factual information
- Replacing factual information with false information
- Claiming that the partner is overreacting
- To twist the partner’s words as if they were supposed to mean something different
If your partner is gaslighting you, these behaviours can slowly erode your ability to trust yourself and make your own judgements. Gaslighting differs from other manipulative methods because it would not only lead to a change in your behaviour, but also jeopardize your own personality. By using manipulative behaviours such as the ones outlined above, the abusive partner ensures that you can no longer be independent and that you start to question your own credibility and doubt yourself.
If you have been gaslighted by your partner you may feel as though you are: ‘hypersensitive’, ‘unreasonable’ and ‘unreliable’.
You may also feel an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point that you don’t feel like you can trust your own judgement or memory anymore. It is important to realise that this is a result of abusive behaviour from your partner, and you are not being unreasonable, nor are you to blame.
The context of gaslighting in a same-sex relationship may differ in some instances from that in a heterosexual relationship, due to societal homophobia, gender norms, femmephobia, and other forms of discrimination which same-sex couples may specifically face. In addition to the manipulative behaves highlighted so far, in same-sex female relationships an abusive partner may also take advantage of you being a queer woman, as a weak point to play with, in order to erode your identity.
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