Battering, incest and other household refuse
[Originally appeared in Opzij, a feminist monthly, in October 1990.]
VOLUMES OF RESEARCH and study notwithstanding, no final explanation of the origins of (sexual) violence against women has yet been put forward. Nowadays most people – and not only feminists – accept that these forms of violence have a structural cause, and that the differences in power between men and women are of overriding importance. But what is the value of these theories when it is women themselves who commit such violence?
The final blow for the lesbian utopia
IT IS GRADUALLY becoming clear that there is a form of sexual violence, and of battering, that is completely at odds with feminist theories on the subject: sexual violence within lesbian and gay relationships. On the basis of the sparse information now available, it appears that among women especially battering is so frequent that it is no longer possible to look upon it as an exception. Sexual violence committed by lesbian women – for instance, rape or sexual harrassment – is much less reported; either it really is less frequent, or perhaps it is as of yet even less debatable than battering.
Among homosexual men such a-typical violence has been reported too. In its annual review of 1984, the Dutch organization Op Je Flikker Gehad?! (Been Bashed?!), an emergency centre which registers violence against gay men, reported two cases of men who had been battered by their partner, and an unspecified number of rapes committed by homosexuals. The organization refers to this phenomenon as ‘internal violence’. An American survey from 1983 among people who dealt professionally with homosexuals (social workers, lawyers, barkeepers, political activists etcetera) gave a much higher number for the incidence of battering: 86 percent of the interviewees had met homosexuals who had at least once experienced violence in their relationship. 1
In the Netherlands, violence among lesbians was first reported, as far as I have been able to trace, in 1984. In that year, a local women’s magazine published in Nijmegen, Vrouwentongen, ran two anonymous interviews with women who had been sexually assaulted and battered by a female friend or acquaintance. Since then, more stories have started to circulate about lesbians committing (sexual) violence. In 1987, SEK, the magazine of the Dutch organization for homosexual men and women (COC), published a number of short interviews with both victims and perpetrators of battering; their experiences ranged from a single fight to an attempted strangulation. Spare Rib printed a letter to the editors in which a woman told how she was sexually assaulted by another woman who had offered her a ride home from the pub. And any woman who has a ready ear or who does some straightforward inquiring about violence between women, will learn more than she’ll probably want to.
The amount of ‘internal violence’ is as of yet merely a matter for speculation, but there are some indications of its dimensions. In a preliminary study on conflict management by lesbians, 7 out of 23 respondents answered that they had at some time used physical violence in their relationship. 2 At the moment, a survey is being conducted which tries to establish more systematically what amount of violence is going on between lesbians. The Dutch government has commissioned a study into the scope of violence against lesbian and bisexual women and girls by third parties. 3 Diana van Oort, who is carrying out this study, has inserted a separate paragraph in her questionaire in which she asks about experiences with violence among lesbians. She is not yet able to give numbers – the final results will not be available until next year – but according to Van Oort the number of interviewees who have had experiences with violence within lesbian relations, is ‘surprisingly high’.
The Schorerstichting, a centre for assistance and relation therapy for lesbians and homosexuals, has had several clients over the past few years for whom violence in their relation was either the direct or indirect reason to apply for help. Two years ago the Schorerstichting tried to organize a therapygroup on the subject, but their efforts failed: not enough people registered. But apparently, the tide is turning. When the Dutch COC devoted a public debate to the subject, over sixty women attended the evening.
In some other countries, battering in lesbian relationships is by now a matter of discussion, although still to a very small extent. Several years ago, a workshop was organized in Berlin which was attended by both inflictors and victims of lesbian battering. In the USA, a group of lesbians who have been battered by their female lovers has been trying to start a more serious discussion since the beginning of the eighties. Their collective efforts led to the publication of the first book about battering within lesbian relationships: Naming the Violence.
A list of the kinds of violence these perpetrators subject their lovers to can be gathered from the afore mentioned sources. It is not a pretty one: confinement, strangulation, weekly battering, threats with a gun, smashing the partner’s furniture to smithereens, killing her cat or other pets, force her to prostitute herself, attempts at killing her, beating her with high heels or broken bottles, poisoning her, breaking her fingers… the works.
The taboo and the blind spot
WITHOUT A DOUBT, the lesbian community harbours a taboo when it comes to battering. Some may be scared that the outside world will use stories about lesbian battering as a proof to refute homosexuality and lesbianism. “I can’t even begin to think about the possibility of my family seeing this. All the years I’ve spent trying to convince them of the validity and positiveness of my lifestyle… Well, that’s really the crux of it for the whole lesbian community, isn’t it? Who wants to admit that anything can be wrong with lesbian relationships?” (Naming the Violence, page 123).
But inside the lesbian community there is hardly any room for discussion. The utopian idea that lesbian relationships are by definition less invested with power games and are more equal than heterosexual relationships may have lost ground by now, but it still has a strong hold. Those who further the breaking down of that ideal had better not expect the same solacing shoulder or practical help a heterosexual battered women is sure to be offered by the feminist movement. Lesbian skeletons obviously must remain in their closets, and the cohesion of the group must be protected at all costs. As one of the American pioneers put it: “By probing into this subject, we risked the possibility that the issue of lesbian abuse might split our community; we risked the same dynamic that heterosexual have been up against: expose the abuse and be criticized for ‘breaking up the family’.” (Naming the Violence, page 91). Others fear that a public discussion about violence committed by lesbians might boomerang into the debate on (sexual) violence committed by men. “For a very long time I have believed that violence among women should remain a secret, because men might use this knowledge against us. But since I keep hearing new stories about violence among women, I decided to tell about my experience.” (Vrouwentongen 1984/4).
The notions about violence which are generally upheld by both feminists and lesbians, are yet another obstacle. Most women think of sexual violence and battering within relationships as occurences which are confined to heterosexuality; when a similar phenomenon crops up within their own circles, there is no fitting frame of reference. Not even when it happens to themselves. Or, as one women tersely phrased it: “I did not fit my image of a battered women.” The usual depiction of battering as affecting heterosexual women and caused by men bars all understanding and creates a blind spot. “We were so clear about violence as a mechanism for control and domination of heterosexual women. We did not make the connection necessary to recognize the violence in lesbian relationships.” (Naming the Violence, page 10).
But worse is that many lesbians knowingly refuse to see what is going on in their immediate surroundings, even when they suspect or realize what is happening. There are countless women who have trivialized this kind of violence, who have refused help, who have excused the offender and blamed the victim. They insist that a friend’s black eye was caused ‘by falling down the stairs’, or smooth things over by assuming that ‘she must really have provoked her’. Exactly the same old excuses that used to be offered when a man had beaten up his wife or partner; they sanction the perpetrator.
The victims: “I have very often wanted to confront her in order to tell her what I think of what she’s done. But I was always stopped by women who would say: you’ve got more sense than that, you shouldn’t take her too seriously, and besides, she’s going through a really bad period. (..) I hated the way people would cover up for her or even defend her, just because she’s a women. Whereas I was a mess for a long time.” (Vrouwentongen 1984/4). “The response of the local lesbian community to the arrest of my former lover was demoralizing. Lesbians were upset – even angry – that I had called the police. ‘I can see turning in a batterer and calling the cops,’ said one women, ‘but a lover? What does that say about your ability to be intimate with anyone?’ Several women put a lot of pressure on me to drop the charges. They said things like: ‘Oh, come on. Haven’t you ever hit a lover? It wasn’t all that bad.” (Naming the Violence, page 159). “As I was standing by a window in my home, an axe smashed through the window, landing before me. I called some of my/her friends, to tell them what she just did. They said they could not help. They would not confront or stop her. One implied I had asked for it.” (Naming the Violence, page 127).
It is alarming that even a simple warning about someone with a bad record is apparently asking too much. Many offenders have a history of violence, but usually nobody thinks it worthwhile to inform the lover-to-be thereof. “Actually, after we separated, some of the women said they could have told me I was in for some rough times with her, but they had chosen ‘not to get involved’.” (Naming the Violence, page 149). No lesbian or feminist would accept such tolerance when a men was concerned. Now, who was it that mentioned double standards?
Differences with heterosexual women
THE STORIES THAT these battered lesbians tell are very similar to those told by heterosexual women who have been battered by their husband or boyfriend. In almost all cases, the first show of violence is proceeded by periods in which the future offender curtails her lover’s freedom, has fits of rage or jealousy, and adopts a disparaging attitude towards her. Floods of severe scolding appear to be ominous. Usually the future victim tries to adapt to these new demands, and makes an effort to understand what is going on; usually she excuses her partner’s behaviour by blaming it on stress, a dismal past, uncertainty or fear. Usually she pushes her limits and tries to staunch the emotional pain her partner is apparently suffering under – but most often, to no avail. Hope, reconciliation and tenderness alternate with fear and tension.
For lesbians, as opposed to most heterosexual women, economic dependency is hardly ever a reason against leaving. But then, many lesbian women are actuated to stay for a reason just as important to them: they can not afford this relationship to end. Sometimes because they want to prove, literally at all costs, that lesbian relationships are no one-night-stand or a nine days’ wonder, at other times because their life is isolated from other lesbians; leaving their partner would mean that they would lose all options to live as a lesbian.
The motives for violence would appear to be similar as well. Jealousy and insecurity are frequently mentioned, just as alcohol abuse and differences in social status (money, class, ethnicity). But the theme that crops up in every story is the pursuit of dominance.
A significant difference is that those victims whose stories have been documented, fight back more often than heterosexual women. In some cases, this reaction causes the violence to escalate, but it frequently makes the perpetrator come to her senses, albeit often temporarily. The drawback is that fighting back occasions spells of vexing soul-searching on the part of the victim, and provides easy excuses for the outside world: wasn’t it after all a case of mutual battering’, shouldn’t both partners share the blame equally?
The main difference between heterosexual and lesbian victims of battering is that the latter can’t rely on being offered help, neither practical nor emotional. Many lesbian victims refrain from seeking help from official sources, fearing that their homosexuality will be pointed out as being the ‘real’ problem. Although those women who have called in the police or other authorities usually received assistance without problems and without poor jokes, this strategy is not always feasible. Women who have out of necessity been secretive about their sexual preferences, are often scared of the obligatory coming out such a step entails; they might fear to lose their job as a result of asking for help.
And it is not at all clear where to turn to. The women’s shelters are often no option: many of them will not stretch their care to encompass lesbians. Besides, the women’s shelters are less safe for lesbians. Their adresses are often no secret among women, and thus not among female batterers. And whereas a man is by definition barred entrance from a women’s shelter, other women are not. There have been several cases in which a lesbian batterer posed as a victim at a women’s shelter, in order to get the opportunity to seek out her former lover there. 4
It is thus no surprise that lesbian victims of battering set such great store by getting support from the lesbian community. They want others to confront or decry her former lover. “After the attack, I needed other lesbians to recognize how terrorized I was and how unsafe I felt. I needed other lesbians to realize that I was a victim of a kind of violence particularly hard to deal with. I needed the community to acknowledge that my former lover broke the law. The attack was a criminal act. I wanted other lesbians to recognize that my basic rights to privacy and safety in my own home were violated.” (Naming the Violence, page 160). Yet this a most painful issue. In many cases, both victim and perpetrator move in the same circles and they often share friends and acquaintances. Sides have to be taken. But, being an outsider, whose side will you be on? Who is to be believed? And how must one behave towards the offender: ostracize her, or make an effort to understand why she did it? Very often those who take side with the perpetrator, twist things round and launch a counter-attack on the victim. Especially when she has turned to the ‘outside world’ in order to get help; in some circles asking heterosexuals to help solve problems between lesbians amounts to nothing less than high treason.
Becoming wise after the event
MOST TEXTS THAT have been published on the subject merely try to draw attention to the problem. Only Naming the Violence tries to offer some theories about lesbian violence, but sadly enough it is precisely this part of the book which falls short of expectations. Thus, after having given a lengthy explanation of how violence is used by men as a mechanism for control and dominance over women, many contributors will simply state that violence within lesbian relationships is caused by ‘the violence of society’. That seems like an easy way out, for these men as well. Other contributors blame ‘internalized homophobia’, which strikes me as being a very psychological approach.
Another hot potato has simply been avoided: sadomasochism. From the introduction to the book we learn that a serious argument has broken lose between the Lesbian Task Force on the one hand, and the SM movement on the other: but no explanations as to the whys and wherefores are offered. From some of the articles I gathered that several groups who are concerned about lesbian battering have taken a public stance against lesbian sadomasochism; again, without any further explanations. A single paragraph in the book elaborates on the matter: “Questions that arose that were left unanswered included: Have we developed a concept of healthy sexual relationships and does it include s/m? What does consent mean and what are the limits of consent in this culture? Can s/m be a healthy / therapeutic form of dealing with power or is s/m sanctioned battering? Are s/m couples at high risk for battering?” (Naming the Violence, page 93). No wonder that relations with the SM movement have flagged, considering the paternalizing phrasing.
It is quite obvious that SM may serve as a cover, for instance when dominance is established under the guise of a game, or when a perpetrator insists that the abuse was part of the game and the violence merely ‘symbolic’; but then, the same goes for alcohol and drugs. So why single out SM?
Nevertheless, there is still something to be learned from Naming the Violence. I was impressed with the efforts of the victims to put their own behaviour in the right perspective. They relentlessly explore how their own attitude kept both the relationship and the violence going. One of the remarkable insights most of them gained, is that they were suffering from a what I would call a positive bias towards their former lover. On the virtue of her being a women they accepted more and shifted their limits, whereas they would have been more cautious towards a man.
Social workers and therapists encountered the same prejudice: “While I did not consciously think about these things, I acted as if violence in lesbian couples was somehow different than violence in heterosexual couples, as if lesbian batterers were less manipulative and more likely than men to choose to control their violence, as if a lesbian batterer had a legitimate ‘demand’ when insisting on seeing a lesbian advocate (men often make many ‘must have’ demands because of their ‘unique’ and ‘special’ circumstances), and as if my seeing both people individually and in couples work was not a way of the batterer keeping tabs on their partner. I also acted as if somehow lesbian couples would immediately benefit from couples work, although I knew that this was never the case with men and women.” (Naming the Violence, page 74-75).
Another lesson Naming the Violence teaches us is the need to reconsider the concept of the women’s shelters. If the American experiences with assistance given by the lesbian and feminist movement to lesbian victims of battering hold good for Europe as well, it is necessary that feminist institutions are opened up for lesbians as well, and offer them real safety. Moreover, it is crucial that feminists and lesbians become more sensitive towards battering, realize that there are criminal lovers among lesbians too, and allow themselves to consider whether a friend’s black eye or broken arm was really caused by tripping off the stairs.
A final, yet delicate remark. From many contributions it becomes clear that the lesbian movement tends to sympathize more with the offender than with the victim of lesbian battering. In all probability, this is due to a healthy dislike of the victim role. But when an affinity with power turns into a dislike of victims or even into blaming them for having become one, we find ourselves on a dangerous course. If it is true that the lesbian and feminist movement identify with the power displayed by the perpetrators and hold their victims in contempt – they must have been weak to start with, or why else could they have allowed themselves to let this happen to them anyway? – their identification is really with offenders and violence. This identification raises many questions. For instance, why do lesbians and feminists, a group thoroughly aware of the ins and outs of violence and victimization, still insist upon blaming the victims? And if even women, with all their knowledge about and understanding of violence, look down upon victims of battering, how would men – who are definitely more often perpetrators of battering than women – regard these victims?
More dirty dishes
ALTHOUGH LESBIANS AS as perpetrators of (sexual) violence are totally at odds with all feminist theories on the subject, they are not the only ones. In the case of heterosexual women as well the actual practice is much more complicated than theory would have it. Take a look at child abuse, for instance. From the data collected in the first annual report of the Dutch Landelijk Buro Vertrouwensarts inzake Kindermishandeling, the LBVK (a national organization where confidential reports of suspected cases of child abuse can be filed by teachers, neighbours, GP’s etc.) which was recently published, we learn that 9400 reported cases of child abuse were undisputably proven. In 48 percent of these cases – that is, in almost half of them – the offenders were women. 5 Women commit incest as well: the stories of women who have been the victim of parental incest show that at least some of the mothers deserve at least some of the blame, to put things mildly. The data published by the LVBK are more than just a corroboration of these stories. The same annual report proves that a surprisingly high percentage of sexual abuse of children was committed by women: 12 percent of the reported and proven 1900 cases. This amounts to 228 cases in which women are the perpetrators of incest. 6
Other sources, however, show a much lower number of female offenders. Tegen Haar Wil Amsterdam (Against Her Will, a local centre which women can phone to talk about their experiences with sexual violence) had 69 calls in 1988 reporting sexual violence perpetrated by mothers, aunts or sisters; this amounts to only 2,9 percent of the total number of reports. The annual report of the related organization Werkgroep tegen seksuele kindermishandeling binnen het gezin (Working group against sexual child abuse within the family) mentions 9 mothers as perpetrators, which is 4,8 percent of the total number of reported cases.
Criminal ladies appear elsewhere on stage, too. Handen Thuis (Hands Off), a centre where complaints about sexual harrassment are registered, has had three reports in the past few years of women harrassing men or women. (The harrassed people were either peers or lower in rank.) Three is not a shockingly high number, but it proves that harrassing women do exist. Straightforwardly questioning men on the subject yields a much higher number: a survey on sexual harrassment encountered by students showed that a fourth of the male students had experienced it, to various degrees. In one out of four cases, the person harrassing these male students was a woman. 7
And finally, there is queer-bashing: it is common knowledge that when it is a streetgang or a group of youngsters that attack gays or lesbians, girls are often partaking.
The futility of indispensable ingredients
HOW CAN WE reconcile all (more or less) feminist theories about battering and sexual violence that have been proposed in the past years, in which women only hold the stage as victims, with the appearance of these female perpetrators? If we acknowledge that these kinds of violence are not only committed by men, then what remains of all these theories in which the power relations between the sexes are depicted as the perennial cause of sexual violence and battering?
I would like to quote from a government note that was hotly debated and – at least by Dutch feminists – warmly applauded because it stated in feminist terms the context in which sexual violence should be regarded: “Because of the similarities between the various expressions of sexual violence against women and girls, as well as their relation with the social position of women, this general objective (i.e. contribute to the banishment of sexual violence, which in this note includes battering – KS) can only be arrived at by simultaneously pursuing a policy which aims at diminishing the existing unequal power balance between men and women. The implementation of the right of women to paid work and an independent income is – combined with the realization of an independent position in relationships, in behaviour and in sexual relations and reproduction – one of the conditions for a society in which sexual violence against women and girls will be non-existent.” (page 13) Are sexual violence and battering by definition caused by the differences in power between men and women? Is gender really the all-embracing and ubiquitous explanation for sexual violence and battering?
What Op je flikker gehad!? refers to as ‘internal violence’ among men might still be explained with a plea on ‘the social structures’ – perhaps by pointing out the reputed tendency of men to bend their partners to their will, literally if needs be, or their supposed familiarity with violence as a means of securing and safe-guarding their position, or even the agressive disposition with which their upbringing encumbered them. But then, that is hardly convincing, is it? Especially not when one considers the fact that this accursed economic dependency, which has always been regarded as an indispensable ingredient in both the cause and the continuation of sexual violence 8, is usually absent in gay relationships. When trying to comprehend violence between lesbians, references to social factors are no help at all. There is no inherent, socially supported inequality in such a relationship, nor of character formation towards agressive dominance. As for being not to blame, which is invariably a woman’s lot according to these ‘structural’ theories: at least one of the two women it takes to make a lesbian couple can’t be exonerated. However, this it-is-social-structures-that-are-to-blame argument loses its final shred of validity when (heterosexual) women are sexually besieging men.
Obviously, other factors must be at work with these criminal ladies. Perhaps they encounter conflicts which have hardly any or no connection at all with the personal side of social power relations, and which are so vehement that the use of violence seems to be the only solution left. Perhaps there are people who rely on the use of violence to impose their will upon others, and ought we to accept this fact without immediately unleashing one social explanation after another.
Perhaps we ought to realize that searching at once for the social origins of (sexual) violence clouds our view rather that clarifies it. Or perhaps a completely different kind of power relations could be at stake: those between generations – where incest committed by women is concerned – , between classes or between ethnic backgrounds. But according to the stories collected in Naming the Violence, criminal ladies are just as often less strong than their victims, or poorer, or black, or non-drinkers. One of the authors makes quite an effort to bring this fact home: she sketches a profile of batterers and immediately sets out to destroy it. “There is no profile of a lesbian batterer – no personal attributes or circumstances which permit reliable prediction or identification of the lesbian who will batter her partner.” (Naming the Violence, page 182).
Perhaps the familiar power relations and the factors described as causes in feminist theories about sexual violence, are futile and of no overriding importance after all: it might simply and crudely just be the blunt pursuit of dominance within a relationship which is at stake. Little by little, I have lost my believe in our litany of possible and probable social causes. When all is said and done, these power relations seem to be the pretext rather than the origin of sexual violence; and pretexts are always abundant when one is looking for one, as all battered women have experienced. There is only one thing left of which I am sure: the forms of violence and battering mentioned in this article are in no way rooted in the power relations between the sexes, although the resemblances with ‘classical’ forms of sexual violence are bloody striking.
What does such a statement mean when considering (sexual) violence against women perpetrated by men? Pondering that question level-headedly I can’t help myself from drawing the rather disconcerting conclusion that within heterosexual relationships there must be cases of such violence which are completely personal, or to put it differently: that at least part of the sexual violence which women encounter, a phenomenon which we insisted had a political origin, is nevertheless due to a conflict that has no connections whatsoever with social relations. A fierce collision between individuals and their respective interests, but not a social struggle. A case of people abusing and maltreating another person, child or adult, because of their own personal problems or their lousy character. And perhaps some kind of social difference exert their influence to a certain degree; but power relations between the sexes are obviously not by definition and not exclusively the cause of sexual violence and battering. This forces us to acknowledge that we can no longer consider the existence of sexual violence and battering to be the ultimate proof of the wickedness of men, nor as an ideological legitimization of feminism.
This does not invalidate any protest against – what shall I call it: classical sexual violence? – on the contrary. It is never justified, under no circumstances, to harrass, rape or batter another person; neither because of the power relations between the sexes, nor because of a mere dislike. But it is also unjustifiable to put all the violence that is going on in relationships (whether heterosexual or homosexual) down to social origins as a matter of course, and to believe that the discussion is thereby closed. Such a line of argument may charm us by its simplicity and is most certainly luring because of the clear and straightforward solution it implies (“if we could just arrange society in a different way…”), but it only serves to create illusions.
There is more in life than just power relations and social structures – especially where relationships are concerned. Even when relationships are based on equality and society is arranged as we would have it, violence can’t be ruled out; but in that case, and in that case only, women finally stand a good chance to wrest themselves from their traditional role as victims. A touchstone to assess the state of affairs between men and women is not the disappearance of rape and battering, but that women will act as perpetrators as often as men, and men will stage as victims as often as women; and that violence in relationships is as frequent in homosexual relationships as in heterosexual ones. Perhaps we should even hope that the worn-out objection that men occasionaly get beaten up by their wives as well will be proved to be right in the fullest sense. In this light, the opening of the first Men’s Shelter could be regarded as a sign of the impending victory.
- The Advocate, March 4, 1986.
- Annual Report 1988, Stichting Tegen Haar Wil Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1989.
- Naming the Violence. Speaking out about Lesbian Battering, edited by Kerry Lobel for the Lesbian Task Force of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), The Seal Press, Seattle 1986. The book contains a collection of stories by women who have experienced violence in their relationship, and a theoretical part.
- SEK 2, 1987; 7, 1989.
- Report concerning the policy to counteract sexual violence against women and girls, Rijswijk 1983.
- Vrouwentongen 4 and 5, 1984.