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I haven’t posted on here for a long while, and I feel like it’s time to formally stop blogging. I still get a few hits each week and I’m going to leave this blog up so that if the occasional survivor comes across it she will still be able to take a look, particularly at the resources for survivors. If this blog has ever even helped one person in a very small way then it will be worth the effort. I’m in a place now where being a survivor no longer feels like the centre of my life and of my identity, and I don’t want to revisit those feelings and experiences, at least not for now.

Take care sisters and good luck,

Violet

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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!

Sex is another one of those words that no-one ever bothers to stop and define because we’re all supposed to know what it means. This is really bad news for women because it means when we’re being told all the damn time that sex is great/fun/healthy/something we should be having at least 3 times a week each one of us has a completely different definition in our heads of what sex actually is, based on personal experiences, what we’ve been told, what we’ve read or seen in films. It’s also really really bad news for women in abusive relationships because our abusers get to define ‘sex’ for us. If this is you, ignore whatever crap your abuser has told you about what sex is and read this instead:

1) Sex is fun and pleasurable for BOTH women. If you don’t enjoy something, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. You do not have to learn to like it. A respectful partner will not expect you to do anything you don’t want to. Different women enjoy different things and nothing is compulsory.

2) Sex is not the same thing as intercourse. Intercourse means a penis penetrating a vagina. Often when people use the word ‘sex’ this is what they are referring to, but actually intercourse is just one of many types of sex. Your partner may use the idea that penetration is the only ‘real’ type of sex to try to manipulate you into penetrative sex that you don’t want. Sex is actually far more varied than this and you can have an exciting sex life that doesn’t involve any penetration at all, and many lesbian couples do.

3) To give an idea of some of the different ways of having sex that are common in lesbian relationships, JoAnn Loulan surveyed 1566 lesbians in the US and Canada between 1985-87. The study may be 25 years old, but women’s bodies haven’t changed in that time so the practices probably haven’t a great deal either. She found:

80% penetrate the vagina with fingers

67% have oral sex (stimulating the clitoris with the tongue)

11% penetrate the anus with fingers

10% penetrate the vagina with a dildo

5% practice bondage

 Compare what your partner has told you is ‘normal’ with the percentages here. So if for example your partner says that vaginal penetration with fingers is normal and everyone does it, actually 1 in 5 lesbians don’t do this at all. Of the other 4 in 5, some will do it every week, some once every few years. In some couples one partner may enjoy being penetrated while the other doesn’t and that’s OK too.

This survey is also quite limited in that’s it’s still thinking inside the penetration=sex box. Touching each other’s clitorises (clitorii?) or rubbing yourself against your girlfriend is not just foreplay or a run up to proper penetrative sex. It IS sex. It gives us orgasms, it feels good and it is an end in itself. The idea that clitoral stimulation is foreplay/childish/a precursor to the main event is a myth which belittles women’s sexuality and bodies.

4) Sex is not about power. If one partner penetrates the other this isn’t about one partner conquering/dominating/asserting ownership or  control over the other but an act of trust, equality and giving and sharing pleasure. There is no need for a dominant/active and a submissive/passive role. Many couples choose not to have these roles at all. Others will adopt and act out these roles occasionally, often alternating between these two roles in different situations. There is also absolutely no need for sexual behaviour to translate into other areas of the relationship, ie because one partner has a certain role in bed this doesn’t mean she therefore gets to be more in control/dominant in terms of making decisions, controlling finances etc.

5) And finally, on the subject of ‘normal’… why does this even matter? Sex is not about what everyone else is doing, it’s about what YOU BOTH want to do. Heterosexuality is normal (ie common), but that doesn’t mean we all have to do it. If we didn’t live in a culture which holds penetration up as the only real way to have sex, maybe the way we all have sex would be completely different. Or not. Clearly the only way to find out is to have a worldwide lesbian revolution – who’s with me?

When there are soap storylines about rape, or newspaper articles about rape stats going up or down, or protest marches demanding women’s right to walk alone at night/wear what we want without getting raped, there’s often an assumption that we all know what that word means. That we don’t need to describe or analyse or explain what we’re talking about – there’s a neat little four letter word to do it for us.

I’m saying ‘we’, but really I mean ‘I’. I thought I knew what rape was. I thought I was enlightened – I didn’t buy into any Daily Mail crap, I knew that most rapists were husbands or friends rather than strangers lurking in bushes, I knew it was about abuse of power and not some uncontrolled outburst of lust.

But still, I didn’t identify the painful, humiliating things that were happening in my bedroom as rape, and not just because it was a woman doing it – I think if my partner had been a man it would have been the same. I just didn’t connect with the way rape was talked about in daily life, in the media, or on ‘awareness raising’ posters with pictures of shouty men and slogans like “You don’t have to stand for this!” So here is my experience of what rape means in the context of an abusive relationship, how it starts and how it feels…

1) It doesn’t usually involve physical violence. I never experienced being physically forced or held down and was never left with any cuts or bruises.

2) It gets defined as ‘sex’ by the abusive partner. My partner was able to define for me what was ‘normal’ in a relationship, what sexual practices were ‘normal’ for lesbians, and claim that everyone else she’d ever had sex with had loved it and she couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. She would rape me, call it sex and then get angry with me for not being interested in sex. I therefore felt guilty for not being interested in sex and felt that it was my problem/fault.

3) The abuser will start grooming their prey from day one, making her feel that she is responsible for the wellbeing of her abuser and needs to care for/appease her, isolating her from friends, the gay scene, or any possible other sources of information or conversations about sex.

4) It feels humiliating, shameful, dirty and/or physically painful but the abused woman is manipulated into believing that these feelings are her problem, something to feel ashamed or inadequate about. She therefore doesn’t see her experiences as abusive as she feels that she is responsible for them, not the abuser who is making her feel this way.

5) The abuser co-opts other sources of information into propping up the distorted worldview she is creating. It’s not exactly hard to find porn or erotica that suggests that sex is violent and painful and that women are submissive and enjoy this. It’s not hard to find books, TV programmes, magazines, newspapers, music videos and films that suggest that women secretly just want to be dominated by someone more powerful, or that most women ‘like it rough’, or that sex is something worth putting up with in order to sustain a relationship. The feelings I listed above – humiliation, shame, feeling dirty, pain – are all clearly not good ways to feel when you read about them here on a blog about domestic violence, but we constantly see these feelings being eroticised and are told that they are ‘sexy’.

I wish so much that I had heard alternative messages while I was being abused. I wish there was dialogue among women about what ‘rape’ really means and what ‘sex’ really means. I wish rape and domestic violence were not stigmatised and that I could say what I’ve said here to every single woman I meet. I want to write a rousing final paragraph with a call to action but really, I don’t know how to change society. I just know that it’s time for women to start talking about rape and it’s time for those women who HAVE been talking about it for years to start being heard.

Dear Dr Evans,

A few years ago, I was in a relationship with a rapist. Unfortunately, I didn’t even realise she was a rapist. I had to be instantly available to be penetrated and to service her whenever and however she wanted. She referred to this as ‘sex’. I had never come across any information that contradicted this. All the films, magazines, songs and porn I had grown up with had taught me that sex was something men did to women. That women loved the fact that they were available to be fucked at any time and that their pleasure came from knowing that they were pleasing their man. My partner was not a man, but I understood that she was the dominant and I the submissive partner in our relationship. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t enjoy being a hole to be penetrated on demand, when I had been brought up to know that as a woman this was what I loved most. I felt guilty; I was not pleasing her, I was not enjoying this thing called ‘sex’ that everyone else seemed to love.

After years of shame and humiliation, I built up the courage the come to you about my dirty secret, my failure. You were the first person I had spoken to. I told you that my partner couldn’t penetrate me, that she was unhappy, that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. You couldn’t examine me because I reacted with so much pain to being touched anywhere near my genitals.

You asked if I had been sexually abused as a child; I said no. You said that penetration isn’t the only way to have sex and asked if my partner and I did other things sexually; I said yes, because she used to rape me orally as well. Then, you told me to go to Waterstones and look for a book on lesbian sex, and prescribed me vaginal numbing cream.

How dare you. How dare you reinforce to me that I did indeed have a duty to allow my partner to penetrate me whether or not I was aroused, whether or not I wanted it. How dare you reinforce to me that it was all my fault, my problem. How dare you ignore me when my body, conditioned by years of abuse, couldn’t bear to be touched and tried to tell you what I couldn’t.

Just so you know, the cream worked really well. It was a lot less effort for her to rape me after that, she was very appreciative. I was shamed into silence and it was years before I spoke to anyone about it again.

I’m not angry with you. I think you’re a good person and you wanted to help me, but I do think you need to know that domestic and sexual abuse can happen in gay relationships too. You really missed an opportunity with me – you could have been the first person to talk to me properly about sex and relationships. Maybe next time a woman in my situation comes into your surgery in my situation, you will treat them differently. I really hope so. Please do not ever prescribe vaginal numbing cream to an abused woman ever again.

 

With best wishes,

 

Violet

When I first came out of my abusive relationship I was full of self-blame, taking all the responsibility on myself and giving none to my abuser. If what had been happening was sexual abuse, how come I didn’t say no? Did that mean I wanted it? Was there something about me that needed to be dominated and kept under control?

The way we understand ‘saying no’ just doesn’t work with sexual violence. When someone has more power than you, either physically or through emotional or financial manipulation, looking her in the eye and saying “No” is a complete waste of time. She will ignore it, or respect it at the time and then be angry with you the next day for being ‘frigid’, or demand that you have sex with her a few days later in a way that’s even more painful and humiliating in order to teach you that you shouldn’t have said ‘no’ in the first place.

Looking back, I can see that actually I said ‘no’ to her all the time. She just chose to ignore or dismiss all the different ways I told her that I was not enjoying what she was doing to me. Here’s just a few of the things I did and said that mean no:

  • Washing straight after sex means no
  • Avoiding sex means no
  • Moving her hand away when she tries to grope me means no
  • looking unhappy during sex means no
  • never initiating sex means no
  • “I’m tired” means no
  • “I’m busy” means no
  • “Hurry up and get in over with” means no
  • avoiding eye contact all the way through means no

We can be a lot less forgiving of ourselves than we are of our abuser. If my girlfriend leapt off the bed without making eye contact and went off to the bathroom to wash the minute we’d finished having sex, I would be really worried. I’d want to talk to her, to know if I’d done something wrong. My abuser just ranted at me: “I don’t like it when you go and wash your hands, it’s as if you don’t enjoy it. You do enjoy it, DON’T YOU?”

We have to stop blaming ourselves and buying into their excuses and hold them to the same basic moral standards we hold ourselves to. If you place your hand on your girlfriend’s arse and she gently moves it away, would you (a) get the message (b) keep molesting her until she gives in while ranting endlessly about what a frigid selfish bitch she is? If you answered (a), Congratulations! You are not a rapist. We would never dream of doing option (b) to our partner, so she had no right whatsoever to do it to us.

When we are in relationships with so little control, so little self-esteem, so little independence, still we find tiny little ways to resist. Always somewhere some little part of us kept saying no, kept resisting, even when it could only do that in the tiniest most secret ways. Whatever abuse we’ve been through, there is something strong inside all of us that our abuser could never destroy, and that is what gives us hope and makes us survivors.

It took me a long time to realise that I was in an abusive relationship.

I thought I knew what domestic abuse was – a 6-foot thug beating his poor defenceless wife every night while the children cowered in the corner. I felt a lot of sympathy for the women involved but didn’t think their experiences had anything to do with me or my life.

I didn’t know that domestic abuse could be sexual, emotional or financial as well as physical.

I didn’t know that it could happen in lesbian relationships.

I didn’t know it was happening to me.

It was the first relationship I’d been in with another woman. Abusers will often (but not always) target women who’ve never had a serious relationship before, or who have only ever been in straight relationships. It means that she can take advantage of our lack of experience and knowledge about what being in a lesbian relationship is like. She can present her behaviour as normal and acceptable – “this is what gay relationships are like”, “all lesbians have sex this way”, “all the women I’ve been with have loved doing this, I don’t know what’s wrong with you”… and of course “we don’t need to spend any time with other gay people now that we’ve got each other”, “the scene is really predatory, you wouldn’t like it” to make sure we stay away from other same-sex couples who might give us any information that contradicts what she’s telling us.

So the first lesson I was taught was “everything that happens in this relationship and everything about this relationship is normal. If there’s anything you don’t like or that makes you uncomfortable, that means you have a problem.”

From there, over time she made me feel that everything that happened in the relationship was my responsibility, and anything that went wrong was my fault. It worked just great for her – verbal abuse? Angry rage? My fault for provoking her. Making me have sex when I didn’t want to? My fault for not caring enough about her sexual needs. It got to the point where she actually blamed me for the weather – when it rained on our seaside holiday that was somehow my fault! – and I believed her.

There were so many other steps I had to go through before I could name my relationship as abusive. Realising that I wasn’t to blame for everything that went wrong, when the woman I loved most was telling me that I was. Realising that if something made me feel hurt, then I needed to listen to those feelings, not ignore them or view them as weak, when the woman I loved most was telling me that my feelings were unimportant. Realising that my partner chose to yell at me, chose to insult me and swear at me, chose to sexually assault me, when the woman I loved most was telling me that she had no choice and that I provoked her anger and her sexual violence.

I couldn’t begin to seek support until I realised that I was experiencing domestic abuse. But before I could realise that I was experiencing domestic abuse, I needed support. The more we talk about domestic abuse, the more we get it onto blogs and on facebook and in magazines and on TV and in books and in conversations and in posters in cafes and on buses… the more we talk about it, the more women will get the chance to have that revelation.

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