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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!

I am committed to raising awareness of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships. I want all gay women to be aware that this happens in our community and not to judge survivors. I want more (ie any) specialist services for lesbian survivors. I want hospitals, the police, refuges, rape crisis centres and anyone who works with survivors to be aware of and know how to support lesbian domestic violence survivors.

But I also feel a real sense of solidarity with ALL survivors: gay or straight, female or male, black or white, disabled or able-bodied. I also feel solidarity with survivors of all kinds of abuse: domestic violence, sexual violence, prostitution, and female genital mutilation. We share so many of the same experiences – shame, guilt, self-blame, silencing. I have learnt so much and been supported so much by reading about survivors of all these types or abuse, from all these different backgrounds.

When we reach out for help and find out how little there is for us, it’s really tempting to get angry with other survivors for getting more support/attention/money than us. To feel that it’s unfair that straight women get more support than gay women, or that domestic violence services seem to be bigger and better funded than sexual violence services. It’s essential that we focus on the bigger picture and remember who our real enemies are:

1) Abusers

2)  Society, for condoning their behaviour and failing to support to survivors.

Straight women survivors and those who support them are not our enemies, they are our sisters. We are ALL important. We ALL deserve support. There needs to be far more support for ALL survivors. Abuse needs to be recognised for the epidemic that it is and as a society we should be taking responsibility and ensuring that no expense is spared in supporting some of the most vulnerable women, men and children in our society. Services should not have to compete against each other for funding, all should be funded.

We must never let politicians, the media or anyone else divide survivors and encourage us to argue among ourselves. This helps no-one except abusers. I believe very strongly in the importance of specialist services who can serve a specific group and the specific issues that group faces: women-only services, men-only services, lesbian-only services, black women-only services… but all these groups need to work together. Our voices will be so much louder if we come together and demand adequate support for us all, rather than trying to shout each other down. Our voices will be so much louder if we say “there is no either/or – the government and society needs to recognise all forms of abuse against all categories of people and we will accept nothing less.”

There are so many threats to support services for survivors at the moment – we need more, bigger, specialist services and instead the government has the audacity to threaten us with cuts. They want to divide and rule – and that means we need to unite and resist.

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