One of the many reasons why it took me so long to realise that my relationship was abusive was that I had just never heard of the idea that women could be perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse. The idea of an abusive woman is one that makes a lot of us feel uncomfortable as it completely goes against our society’s portrayal of women as caring, motherly, docile and passive.

This means that when there are high-profile cases of women perpetrating or facilitating violence or abuse, the media rushes to portray them as utter monsters, extreme aberrations who have violated the rules of femininity in the most horrifying way possible. They are vilified to a far greater extent than the men who perpetrated the violence – Maxine Carr, Myra Hindley and Vanessa George attracted far more vitriol than Ian Huntley, Ian Brady and Colin Blanchard. This is not helpful for survivors as it portrays female abusers as rare, grotesque extremes when the reality is that as with male abusers, they are not easy to spot – they aren’t obviously different from other people on a day-to-day level and often lead conventional lives with partners and children. Abusers are not ‘other’, they are ‘our’ partners, parents or friends.

Because of the way female abusers are demonised in the media while male domestic and sexual violence is minimised, excused or most often not reported on at all, sometimes feminists will react against this by saying that female abusers are ‘often controlled by a man’, ‘usually have been abused themselves’ or are ‘different’ to male abusers. Again this is not helpful for survivors. We need to place full responsibility for abuse with abusers. Every individual abuser, male or female, makes a choice to do what they do, to cross a line morally. It is also important not to perpetuate the myth that abusers have often been abused themselves – survivors have enough to deal with without being told that we’re likely to go on to become abusers, and this simply isn’t true – if it was, there would be far more female perpetrators than male as more women and girls experience sexual and domestic abuse. ‘I only do it because I was abused as a child’ is just another excuse from perpetrators which we must not buy into – the vast majority of survivors do not choose to later become perpetrators.

Most domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women, because we live in a society where being male continues to be associated with being powerful and in control, where our view of sexuality is not yet woman-centred, where science tells us that men are ‘naturally’ violent, where women are encouraged to put the needs of others before their own while men are not, where men in straight relationship are likely to earn more and so are more able to perpetrate financial abuse….. and so on…. However, when speaking or writing about domestic abuse, we do need to acknowledge that it takes place in same-sex relationships and that women can be perpetrators. This fact needs to be more commonly known if we are to raise awareness and prevent abuse in lesbian relationships. 

The fact that some abusers are women does not contradict the concept of services for survivors being women-only. I would like to see a refuge specifically for women who have experienced same-sex domestic abuse. I didn’t turn to my local refuge for help because I was afraid of being the only lesbian, that I would experience homophobia from the other women there or from staff, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and that as a woman my partner would find it easier to track me down, make phone calls pretending to be me, gain entry to the refuge etc.  A specialist refuge could deal with a lot of these problems. Similarly, a men-only refuge could help gay and bi men who have experienced domestic abuse. But these fantasy (for now) LGBT refuges compliment and build on the incredible work done by the women’s refuge movement in the last 40 years, and women-only refuges provide amazing support to thousands of women and children escaping male violence every year.

Nor does the existence of female abusers contradict the idea that we can use feminism and the concept of gender inequality to understand domestic abuse. Abusers in same-sex relationships appropriate concepts of gender and power to perpetrate their abuse. For example, my partner used the idea that sex is about power, and requires a dominant/active and submissive/passive role, to justify raping me. She appropriated male power to perpetrate abuse. When we have created a society which does not condone abuse, control and violence, which does not celebrate power, which does not minimise and excuse abuse, which does not associate sex with domination and eroticise power dynamics… when we have created this feminist society, there will be no more abusers, male or female. There will be no more domestic or sexual abuse. This will not happen without feminism, and it will not happen until we as feminists develop our understanding of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships and incorporate it into what we already know about gender and violence.

1.1.12 – Edit: I just came across a really good blog post from 2008 addressing women who are abusive/violent. I am so pleased to see another blogger writing about the need for us to not make excuses for abusers because they happen to be women or waste any understanding or empathy on abusers which should be going to survivors!

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