Violence Fact Sheet
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
University of Missouri at St. Louis
What is lesbian partner violence?
Partner violence in lesbian (and gay) relationships recently has been
identified as an important social problem. Partner or domestic violence
among lesbians has been defined as including physical, sexual and
psychological abuse, although researchers have most often studied
How common is lesbian partner violence?
About 17-45% of lesbians report having been the victim of a least one
act of physical violence perpetrated by a lesbian partner (1,5,6,13).
Types of physical abuse named by more than 10% of participants in one
eating or sleeping habits
The research usually has been done with mostly white, middle-class
lesbians who are sufficiently open about their sexual orientation to
have met researchers seeking participants in the lesbian community.
Subsequently, these findings may not apply to women who are less open,
less educated, or of other ethnic backgrounds.
or shoving, driving recklessly to punish, and slapping, kicking,
hitting, or biting (11).
Sexual abuse by a
woman partner has been reported by up to 50% of lesbians (12).
has been reported as occurring at least one time by 24% to 90% of
Why would a lesbian batter another woman?
Lesbians who abuse another women may do so for reasons similar to those
that motivate heterosexual male batterers. Lesbians abuse their partners
to gain and maintain control (9). Lesbian batterers are motivated to
avoid feelings of loss and abandonment. Therefore, many violent
incidents occur during threatened separations. Many lesbian batterers
grew up in violent households and were physically, sexually, or verbally
abused and/or witnessed their mothers being abused by fathers or
How is lesbian partner violence different from heterosexual
There are several similarities between lesbian and heterosexual partner
violence. Violence appears to be about as common among lesbian couples
as among heterosexual couples (1,5). In addition, the cycle of violence
occurs in both types of relationships. However, there also are several
In lesbian relationships, the "butch" (physically stronger, more
masculine or wage-earning) member of the couple may be as likely to be
the victim as the batterer, whereas in heterosexual relationships, the
male partner (usually the stronger, more masculine, and wage-earning
member) is most often the batterer (4). Some lesbians in abusive
relationships report fighting back in their relationship (6,8).
In addition, a unique element for lesbians is the homophobic environment
that surrounds them (4,10,14). This enables the abusive partner to exert
"heterosexist control" over the victim by threatening to "out" the
victim to friends, family, or employer or threatening to make reports to
authorities that would jeopardize child custody, immigration, or legal
status. The homophobic environment also makes it difficult for the
victim to seek help from the police, victim service agencies, and
battered women's shelters.
What legal rights do battered lesbians have?
In some states, police are required to treat cases of lesbian domestic
violence the same way as they do heterosexual domestic violence. Many
states have mandatory arrest laws that require the police to arrest the
batterer in certain situations; this applies to lesbian and heterosexual
batterers alike. Batterers can be prosecuted in a criminal court.
Survivors may be entitled to an order of protection, a court order that
prohibits a batterer from talking to or approaching the victim.
Same-sex couples are always excluded from obtaining a protective order
in seven states (Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, New York, South
Carolina, and Virginia) and often excluded in three states (Florida,
Maryland, and Mississippi). These states either limit protective orders
to opposite-sex couples or usually interpret the law to apply only to
opposite-sex couples (2,9).
How often is lesbian partner violence reported to the police?
There are significant barriers to lesbians seeking help. Lesbian victims
seldom report violent incidents to the police because many fear
prejudicial treatment, and many state domestic violence laws fail to
protect same-sex partners (9). Also, in cases of same-sex violence,
police often assume the abuse is mutual (or believe an abuserís claim
that the abuse is mutual) and are more likely to arrest both members of
the couple (14). Battered womenís agencies also may not be open to
serving lesbians (2,3).
How can you help a lesbian who is the victim of partner violence?
To support a lesbian who is the target of partner violence:
Let her know that
she can call you for help. Help her develop a safety plan concerning
how she will get out if she needs to leave quickly, including having
a bag prepared and easily accessible with essential documents
(including identification, money, and anything else that might be
needed), and arranging a place to stay in an emergency. Give her the
keys to your house. Donít give up and donít criticize her or turn
her away because she doesnít leave right away.
If you are in a city
that has an Anti-Violence Project connected to the National
Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (http://www.avp.org), tell her
about the services of your local AVP (9). Many AVPs provide
counseling, advocacy with the police and criminal justice system and
support groups. Some therapists specialize in lesbian partner abuse,
as well (3).
1. Burke, Leslie K., & Follingstad, Diane R. (1999). Violence in lesbian
and gay relationships: theory, prevalence, and correlational factors.
Clinical Psychology Review, 19 (5), 487-512.
2. Heer, Christine, Grogan, Eileen, Clark, Sandra, & Carson, Lynda M.
(1998). Developing services for lesbians in abusive relationships: A
macro and micro approach. In A. R. Roberts (Ed.), Battered women and
their families: Intervention, strategies, and treatment programs (pp.
365-384). New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.
3. Istar, Arlene. (1996). Couple assessment: Identifying and intervening
in domestic violence in lesbian relationships. Journal of Gay and
Lesbian Social Services, 4 (1), 93-106.
4. Leeder, Elaine. (1994). Treatment of battering in couples:
Heterosexual, lesbian, and gay. In Elaine Leeder, Treating abuse in
families: A feminist and community approach. New York: Springer
5. Lie, Gwat-Yong, & Gentlewarrier, Sabrina. (1991). Intimate violence
in lesbian relationships: Discussion of survey findings and practice
implications. Journal of Social Service Research, 15 (1/2), 41-59.
6. Lie, Gwat-Yong, Schilit, Rebecca, Bush, Judy, Montagne, Marilyn, &
Reyes, Lynn. Lesbians in currently aggressive relationships: How
frequently do they report aggressive past relationships? Violence and
Victims, 6, (2), 121-135.
7. Margolies, Liz, & Leeder, Elaine. (1995). Violence at the door:
Treatment of lesbian batterers. Violence against Women, 1 (2), 139-157.
8. Marrujo, Becky, & Keger, Mary. (1995). Definition of roles in abusive
lesbian relationships. In Claire M. Renzetti & Charles H. Miley (Eds.),
Violence in gay and lesbian domestic partnerships (pp. 23-33). New York:
Harrington Park Press.
9. National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (http://www.avp.org).
(1999). Lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual domestic violence in
1998. New York: NCAVP. (See also 1997 and 1998 reports for information
on state laws concerning same-sex domestic violence.)
10. Ristock, Janice L. (1997). The cultural politics of abuse in lesbian
relationships: Challenges for community action. In N. V. Benodraitis
(Ed.), Subtle sexism: Current practice and prospects for change (pp.
279-296). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
11. Scherzer, Teresa. (1998). Domestic violence in lesbian
relationships: Findings of the lesbian relationships research project.
Journal of Lesbian Studies, 2 (1), 29-47.
12. Waldner-Haugrud, Lisa K., & Vaden Gratch, Linda. (1997). Sexual
coercion in gay/lesbian relationships: Descriptives and gender
differences. Violence and Victims, 12 (1), 87-98.
13. Waldner-Haugrud, Lisa K., Vaden Gratch, Linda, & Magruder, Brian.
(1997). Victimization and perpetration rates of violence in gay and
lesbian relationships: Gender issues explored. Violence and Victims, 12
14. West, Carolyn M. (1998). Leaving a second closet: Outing partner
violence in same-sex couples. In Jana L. Jasinski & Linda M. Williams
(Eds.), Partner violence: A comprehensive review of 20 years of research
(pp. 163-183). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.