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Domestic violence and sexualityWhat’s love got to do with it?$

Catherine Donovan and Marianne Hester

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781447307433

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447307433.001.0001

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What is the problem?

What is the problem?

(p.1) ONE What is the problem?
Domestic violence and sexuality

Catherine Donovan

Marianne Hester

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the theoretical and multi-method approach taken in the book and COHSAR research on which it is based. There is a discussion about the public story of DVA, which presents this as a heterosexual problem of, primarily, physical violence, and its implications for identifying and recognising DVA in same sex relationships both by victim/survivors and practitioners/ professionals. The two main approaches used in this book to understand DVA across sexuality and gender are introduced: the feminist notion of power and control, looked at through the lenses of positionality and intersectionality; and practices of love, that enable power over and control of intimate partners. Representative surveys increasingly involve both heterosexual and same sex identities, but it is not always clear what context, including the relationship, the DVA took place in. The multi-method research reported in this book address these issues and enable comparison across both gender and sexuality.

Keywords:   COHSAR methodology, public story of DVA, domestic violence and abuse, same sex relationships, heterosexual relationships, positionality, intersectionality, practices of love, power and control

This book

In this book we provide the most detailed discussion so far in the UK of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) in same sex relationships, based on a large-scale study involving a national survey, interviews and focus groups. Given the lack of research on DVA in same sex relationships we set out to develop a study which also allowed comparison of the experiences of such behaviour across heterosexual and same sex relationships. As the book is largely about experiences of individuals in same sex relationships, the focus is mainly on those identifying as lesbian and gay men. However, we are also able to move beyond the limitations of looking only at lesbian, gay male or heterosexual experiences of DVA to make comparisons between these groups. Where possible we also refer to experiences of bisexual or transgendered individuals, a small number of whom took part in our research. When we discuss the social networks and/or communities that those living in same sex relationships are connected with or belong to we refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) communities. Finally, we use the term ‘same sex’, while acknowledging that more recently, especially in North America this term has been superseded by the term ‘same gender’. We use ‘same sex’ partly because this is the language we adopted in the research and partly because it is still the term most often used in the UK context.

The book tackles a number of key questions:

  • What is domestic violence and abuse in the context of same sex relationships?

  • Are the domestic violence and abuse experiences of those in same sex relationships similar and/or different to those in heterosexual relationships?

  • What about gender if individuals are the same sex?

  • What has love got to do with it?

As authors we began this project from different research backgrounds. Marianne had already been researching DVA over many years, (p.2) exploring experiences of both adults and children, victimised and perpetrators, in largely heterosexual contexts. By contrast, Catherine had been researching intimacy and family in same sex contexts. It made sense to combine our knowledge and research experience, allowing us to explore in greater depth the issue of DVA in both same sex and heterosexual relationship contexts, and looking at how relationships supposedly built around love can also be very abusive. We were especially interested in the question of ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ because we had found time and again women victimised by male partners attributing their minimising of the violence and abuse or difficulties in leaving the relationship to notions of love – ‘but I love(d) him’ being a frequent refrain, and our work on same sex couple-headed families and relationships appeared to echo something similar.


An extensive literature and research on heterosexual DVA now exists in both the UK and internationally developed from research and practice since the late 1960s. DVA in heterosexual relationships began to be re-identified from that time, with the UK ‘second wave’ women’s movement at the forefront of developing support and services. In contrast, research on DVA by intimate partners in same sex relationships has a much more recent history. During the 1980s and 1990s there was some initial discussion, in the UK and elsewhere, about DVA in lesbian relationships, and to a lesser extent gay male relationships (for example, Lobel, 1986; Kelly, 1991; Hall, 1992; Taylor and Chandler, 1995). The early literature and studies on same sex domestic violence (as it was termed then) was focused mainly on lesbians, partly because lesbians were becoming visible as a domestic violence ‘group’ by beginning to access domestic violence and rape support services ostensibly set up for heterosexual women or seeking help via therapy or lesbian or gay community organisations (Lobel, 1986). As Lockhart, White, Causby and Isaac in the US (1994) explain ‘Until the 1980s, much of what was known about lesbian battering was based upon clinical and/or practice observation and reports from the battered lesbian’ (Lockhart et al, 1994, 469). Studies on DVA in gay male relationships have emerged more recently, building on concerns about and studies on gay men’s health arising from work on HIV/AIDS (for example, Island and Letellier, 1991; Greenwood et al, 2002; Henderson, 2003; Stanley et al, 2006).

During the 1980s there was some discussion in lesbian communities in the US and UK about DVA in lesbian relationships and how such behaviour might be tackled. For instance a conference was held on (p.3) ‘Violence in the Lesbian Community’ in Washington DC in September 1983. At the same time, there were strong tendencies to minimise, hide and deny the existence of such abuse. There were a number of reasons for this. Some feminists were arguing that lesbian relationships are a ‘utopic’ alternative to oppressive heterosexual relationships – that lesbian relationships are believed likely to be egalitarian compared to the inevitability of male/female inequality in heterosexual relationships (see Hester, 1992). Other feminists argued that women are ‘naturally’ less aggressive or violent than men, thus making it difficult to talk about DVA by women against other women (see Ristock, 2002a). Speaking out about experiences of abuse thus forced ‘an uncomfortable recognition in relation to women’s use of violence’ (Radford et al, 1996, 6). Other reasons given for minimising DVA in lesbian relationships have focused on the assumptions that violence and abuse from women is less serious or severe than that from men; while in gay male relationships, because it is two men, who are assumed to be able to be violent, it is assumed that the violence and abuse experienced will be part of a ‘fair fight’ (for example, Tesch et al, 2010).

The political and policy context also played an important part in stopping open discussion of same sex DVA. In the 1980s right wing governments in both the US and UK were instigating a backlash against ‘liberal’ ideas about family and relationships and attempting to re-impose ‘traditional family values’. This included presenting HIV/ AIDS as a ‘gay male’ disease, and the Conservative government in the UK specifically targeting lesbian and gay communities through Section 28 by stopping ‘promotion’ of lesbian and gay relationships as ‘pretend families’ in schools and more generally. Part of the Local Government Act 1988, Section 28 stated that

A local authority shall not (a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intent of promoting homosexuality (b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship by the publication of such material or otherwise.

(1988 Local Government Act, Section 28)

Although the legal implications of the law have been unclear it provided a clearly negative message about lesbian and gay relationships and communities and Section 28 was not repealed in England and Wales until 2003 (2003 Local Government Act) (see Chapter Three for more discussion of this). For these various reasons it is therefore not (p.4) surprising that research into same sex domestic violence and abuse (SSDVA) has lagged behind that on heterosexual DVA.

We are writing this book in a climate of much greater openness and acceptance of LGBTQ communities in the UK. While the Conservative party in government in the 1980s were enacting Section 28, a Conservative prime minister has now, in the 2010s strongly promoted gay marriage. Moreover, it is increasingly recognised in both policy and practice that DVA occurs across all population groups including those involving lesbian, gay male, bisexual or transgendered individuals (Povey et al, 2008; Home Office Affairs Select Committee, 2008). Since 2007, the availability of civil protection in the form of non-molestation and occupation orders have also been extended to same sex couples (2004 Domestic Violence Crimes and Victims Act, Part 1, section 3). Yet the context of heterosexism and homophobia that still prevails in many respects, and with which many individuals defining as LGBTQ have grown up, also have profound impacts on the nature and experiences of DVA in same sex relationships. We explore further these contextual issues and their implications in Chapter Three.

The policy context and definition of DVA

Knowledge and understanding of DVA has been conceptualised and defined in a variety of ways and from different perspectives including the needs of government and/or professional groups in relation to identification and measurement (Hester, 2004). As knowledge about DVA has developed, so has its definition and the terminology used to describe it. ‘Wife battering’ is no longer used, in recognition that cohabiting and/or dating heterosexual women can be subject to DVA. It is now recognised that DVA can be experienced in same sex relationships, by men, both within and beyond the lifetime of a relationship and with the active collusion and violence of extended family members.

Building on previous Labour government initiatives, the UK Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government that came into power in 2010 developed a new Strategy on Violence Against Women and Girls (Home Office, 2010) and for the first time adopted a definition of DVA as gender-based, using the United Nations (UN) Declaration (1993) on the elimination of violence against women to underpin the Strategy:

The declaration enshrines women’s rights to live without the fear of violence and abuse and the United Kingdom’s (p.5) ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) upholds this principle.

(Home Office, 2010, 4)

This is an important step in recognition of the predominance of gender-based violence and gender inequality, which however excludes SSDVA from this particular policy approach, although the related Action Plan does acknowledge that ‘sexual orientation’ also ‘plays a role’ (Home Office, 2011, 6). In addition, DVA as a potential feature in same sex relationships is included in the more focused, and largely gender-neutral, Home Office definition.

Until recently the Home Office used the term ‘domestic violence’, emphasising the criminal justice aspects of such behaviour. However, increasingly, victims/survivors’ support agencies have called for the phenomenon to be called domestic abuse both to de-emphasise physical violence and to include the possibilities of other kinds of violence, such as emotional, financial and sexual. Following public consultation, the Home Office thus adopted the term ‘domestic violence and abuse’ from March 2013 and expanded their previous definition beyond an emphasis on individual incidents, to include the portrayal of DVA as involving a pattern of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour. The definition of domestic violence and abuse now states that it is:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional.


With further qualification as follows:

Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

(p.6) Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.


The definition includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage. The Home Office website points out that this is not a legal definition, in that the behaviours may in themselves not constitute a crime, and also stresses that it ‘is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group’. (www.homeoffice.gov.uk/crime/violence-against-women-girls/domesticviolence/)

While we, in some respects, prefer the term ‘domestic violence’, as it emphasises the impact of the experiences and keeps in mind the extremity of fear and risk with which many victims/survivors live, in this book we adopt the Home Office term ‘domestic violence and abuse’, at times using the abbreviation DVA.1

In the last 17 years the UK government has developed specific strategies for addressing violence against women. Initiated by the New Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, a National Domestic Violence Strategy has promoted a Coordinated Community Response (CCR) (Home Office, 2007) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland based on three principles: prevention and early intervention, protection and perpetrator accountability – primarily through the criminal justice system – and support for survivors and their children. These principles underpinning A Place of Safety (2007), the Government’s consultation paper were adopted from the Scottish Executive’s Domestic Abuse: National Strategy for Scotland, written by the Scottish Partnership on Domestic Violence established in 1998 (Robinson, 2006). In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the 2004 Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act led to a broader awareness that DVA can occur across sexuality, gender and relationship status by making provision to extend non-molestation orders and occupation orders to same sex couples either cohabiting or in civil partnerships; and to victims/ survivors regardless of whether they cohabit with their abusive partner. In Scotland many of the same legal remedies have also been made available. The 2001 Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act attached powers of arrest to common law interdicts granted to protect anybody from abuse from another person. There is no distinction made about what kind of relationship exists. In addition the 2003 Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act granted similar powers of arrest for breaches of nonharassment (p.7) orders as were included in the 2004 Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act in the rest of the UK.

The CCR is crystalised in a triumvirate of interventions provided with ring-fenced government funding: specialist domestic violence courts (SDVC), Multi-agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs), Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs) and, since 2006, (Robinson, 2009), Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs). MARACs and IDVAs taken together as a model of intervention in domestic violence and abuse have been characterised as best practice in homicide prevention (CAADA, 2012a).

The national organisation, Coordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (CAADA) provides protocol and policy templates and accredited training for MARACs and IDVAs across the UK including a risk assessment protocol, the CAADA–DASH (domestic abuse, stalking and honour-based violence) Risk AssessmentTool. The risk assessment undertaken by practitioners from partner agencies of the MARAC is used to calculate the risk perpetrators present to victims/survivors and their children. Those at the highest risk are referred to the MARAC where safety planning and support can be coordinated by IDVAs as well as identifying how the perpetrator can be made accountable. There have been various critiques of this approach (for example, Coy and Kelly, 2011; Walklate and Mythen, 2011) based on concerns about what and how risk is assessed, whether it is assessed correctly and what the implications are for those who are not assessed as being at the highest risk. There is some evidence that, as a result of the UK Coalition Government Spending Review, risk assessments are being used more broadly as a tool to ration services (Walklate and Mythen, 2011) and there are some concerns that this is also occurring within the DVA field (Towers and Walby, 2012). Given the evidence that DVA has high levels of repeat victimisation there is also a strong argument to suggest that responding to a victim/survivor at low and/or medium risk, that is, early intervention, could act as an important preventative tool for victims/survivors. Indeed earlier studies indicated that this is the case (Hanmer et al, 1999; Donovan et al, 2010). Nonetheless there is also some evidence that the CCR has had some success in reducing the risks that heterosexual female victims/survivors and their children face (Howarth et al, 2009; Steel et al, 2011), although Coy and Kelly (2011) argue that this is because of the work of IDVAs rather than the rest of the CCR (see also CAADA, 2012a).

There is also, however, some evidence that the CCR is failing to respond appropriately to the needs of LGBTQ victims/survivors, including those who are at the highest risk. Less than 1 per cent of (p.8) those referred to the MARACs are identified as LGBTQ (Donovan and Rowlands, 2011; CAADA, 2013) which is widely recognised as disproportionately under-representative. Donovan and Rowlands (2011) identified four aspects of the MARAC process whereby LGBTQ victims/survivors might drop out: through an inappropriate use of the CAADA risk assessment checklist with victims/survivors, the criteria used to make referrals to MARACs, the agencies making referrals to the MARAC and the agencies that sit on the MARAC. Their conclusions suggest that the reasons for the disproportionately small numbers of LGBTQ victims/survivors being referred to MARACs are that the MARACs are dominated by police referrals and decisions about referrals are weighted by numbers of previous reports to the police. As our and other’s research shows, victims/ survivors from same sex relationships are very unlikely to report their DVA experiences to the police (Donovan et al, 2006; Tesch et al, 2010; LGBT DAF and Stonewall Housing, 2013) and this necessarily results in few opportunities for them to be referred to the MARACs. Research on police records has also found that few lesbians and gay men report to the police and that they are not recorded as repeat victims. Of the nine cases of same sex DVA (seven involving gay men and two involving lesbians) out of 692 cases tracked over three years (Hester and Westmarland, 2006) all showed up only once. In addition, Donovan and Rowlands (2011) concluded that practitioners utilising the risk assessment checklist do not always consider the particular circumstances of those in same sex relationships that could enable them to risk assess more appropriately; there is a lack of LGBTQ specialist agencies involved with the MARACs; and there is a lack of agencies represented on the MARACs who might be used by LGBTQ victims/survivors. Finally there is also evidence that DVA risk itself is constructed in ways that reflect the heterosexual assumption and prevents the correct identification of DVA and risk levels in those whose DVA experiences do not match the public story about DVA (see later in this chapter) (Robinson and Rowlands, 2009; Donovan, 2013). While legislation pertaining to, and cross-government definitions of, DVA acknowledge that DVA can occur in same sex relationships, practice is still influenced by the public story and/or based on evidence from the experiences of heterosexual women. This can act to prevent a consideration of the particular circumstances of same sex relationships and how DVA might operate within them.

(p.9) Public stories: physical violence and victims

Despite the increasingly wide definition used by government, in the popular imagination domestic violence and abuse often conjures up a particular public story related to the heterosexual experience that also emphasises physical violence. Jamieson (1998, 11) has argued that it is important to understand who the tellers are of public stories and their pervasive nature:

Cumulatively, pervasive stories are inevitably consequential for both private and public life. They become representations that people cannot avoid working with at both a deep and surface level. Pervasive stories are a stock of narratives that anyone can draw on or distance themselves from when telling their own story…Stories also feed into both public and private lives when they coalesce into official views shaping public policies, laws and the distribution of resources.

(Jamieson, 1998, 11)

Typically, argues Jamieson, pervasive public stories originate with people in powerful positions within powerful institutions. In relation to the public story about DVA, however, its origin has not been from within any powerful institutions, but the result of feminist activism and scholarship over several decades and, more recently, the coincidence of this with a generation of feminists and/or sympathisers within government. The outcomes have been both a story of success and a story of exclusion. The public story about DVA locates the phenomenon inside heterosexual relationships within a gendered victim/perpetrator dynamic (the stronger/bigger man controlling the weaker/smaller woman), and forefronts the physical nature of the violence. Ristock (2002a) has argued that such dichotomous understandings of DVA prevent both discussions about those experiences that lie outside the defining binaries and also recognition of and support for those living with those experiences. Certainly, among those in same sex relationships, the pervasive public story has prevented many from recognising their experiences of DVA (for example, Ristock, 2002a; Donovan et al, 2006; Barnes, 2008; Donovan and Hester, 2010). In addition, as we discuss in Chapter Six, the public story also has an impact on how SSDVA is responded to by mainstream and specialist DVA services.

Another aspect of the public story about DVA constructs the victim in particular ways that, we argue, also act to prevent recognition of (p.10) domestic violence and abuse, particularly in same sex relationships. Others have pointed out how problematic the term ‘victim’ is in relation to heterosexual women who have experienced DVA, and the work of Campbell and colleagues (1998), and Campbell and Soeken (1999), and our previous work (Hester, 2012; 2013) have provided accounts of how heterosexual women often act with agency to address, resist, prevent and otherwise cope with the violence of their partners. Baker (2008) argues that the construction of victim as weak and resonant with femininity has an impact on heterosexual women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse to the extent that it influences their sense of self. Certainly, in the current research, respondents have talked of how they ‘hate the word “victim”’ (Donovan and Hester, 2010) and how they felt the term ‘victim’ held negative connotations for them as individuals in same sex relationships.

Kwong-Lai Poon (2011) explains how the literature on gay male DVA, similarly to that on heterosexual DVA, has used an individualising and pathologising model of victims and perpetrators as binary constructs with ‘good’ or ‘pure’ victims and ‘evil’ or ‘pure’ perpetrators, and argues for ‘a language that accounts for the diverse experiences of abuse’ (Kwong-Lai Poon, 2011, 123). We suggest that the term ‘victim’ is held by many – both women and men - to be a label that jars with their self perception. They resist the notion that they have been weak or passive. Elsewhere we have used the term ‘victimised’ to convey the sense that the person experiencing domestic violence and abuse is subject to the power and control of their partner but is able to and does exert agency within the relationship (Hester, 2006). Here we use the term ‘victim/survivor’ to convey a similar notion, while mindful that the term ‘victim’ has tended to be linked to a criminal justice context and discourse.

Understanding domestic violence and abuse

Perspectives explaining domestic violence and abuse have ranged from seeing the phenomenon as an individual or psychological problem linked, for instance, to (over)consumption of alcohol, through it being perceived as a learnt behaviour, to the more holistic feminist understanding of domestic violence and abuse as men’s power over and control of women, and further feminist approaches that de-centre the heterosexual experience, focusing instead on intersectionality.

In this book we will use two main approaches to understanding DVA and their application to heterosexual and same sex DVA. The first draws on the feminist notion of power and control, looked at (p.11) through the lenses of positionality and intersectionality (Hester, 2010). The second draws from the work on intimacy and involves practices of love (Donovan and Hester, 2011), which, we argue, provide important means of actively constructing power over and control of intimate partners.

Power and control, positionality and intersectionality

Feminist scholarship in particular has developed heterosexually oriented ‘gender and power’ analyses of DVA that problematise the social construction of masculinity as embodied in heterosexual men, explaining DVA as the exertion of power and control by men over women in intimate relationships within contexts of gender inequality (Hester, 2004). We would argue that what is the central feature in this model is the exertion of power and control, while the forms this takes are related to and arise out of the context. Although the feminist power and control model has been criticised as inherently heterosexist, this is not necessarily the case. In what follows, we look at some of the debates about understanding DVA, ending up with a closer look at both ‘positionality’ and ‘intersectionality’, which we argue are key to such understanding. We use a model where DVA is about exertion of power and control, and where the forms this takes and the resulting experiences are mediated by intersections of, for instance, gender, sexuality, ‘race’, ethnicity, age and class. We see intersectionality as a structural phenomenon that positions individuals and their experiences in different ways. Bograd outlines this very well. Although talking about the experience of marginalised women in the US, her description also applies more widely to the experiences of LGBTQ communities in our research:

While discussion of intersectionality may seem abstract, it relates to real and life-threatening consequences, as the ramifications of social location reverberate through psyche, family relations, community support, and institutional response.

(Bograd, 2005, 31)

Merrill (1996), in one of the earliest volumes on SSDVA argues that domestic violence and abuse is not about gender but about power and control:

The phenomenon of same sex domestic violence illustrates that routine, intentional intimidation through abusive acts (p.12) and words is not a gender issue, but a power issue. A certain number of people, given the opportunity to get away with abusing their partners, will do so because they hunger for control over some part of their lives. This perceived lack of power allows abusers to escape from responsibility for their actions.

(Merrill, 1996, 3)

Stark (2007), in contrast, argues that coercive control is a specifically heterosexual phenomenon. While DVA is a pattern of behaviours on the part of the perpetrator, the aim of which is to exert power and control over the victim/survivor and thereby to situate the abuser as dominant in the relationship, what is particularly important is the relationship-specific features of coercive control (Stark, 2007). Thus it is not merely the type of violence used but the effect to which it is put that is important, and that this takes place within a gender unequal context. His argument thus reinforces feminist approaches that have identified power and control rather than physical violence as being the defining features of DVA. It also facilitates an understanding of DVA as a cumulative pattern of behaviours by perpetrators and their impacts that may also transcend boundaries drawn by sexuality and gender. However, Stark’s argument that his version of coercive control is intrinsically gendered and therefore specifically about heterosexism/ sexual inequality leads him to expressing concerns that the model cannot be applied to SSDVA. He contends that we do not yet know enough to do that. As we will explore in greater detail in later chapters, our work on same sex domestic violence and abuse suggests that there are indeed features of the model that are applicable more widely even if they have developed from the heterosexual/heterosexist context.

Johnson (2006) identifies four patterns of DVA, related to different contexts. ‘Intimate terrorism’ is the ‘archetypal’ DVA that we may expect to see reported to the police. Such ‘intimate terrorism’ will usually involve one partner exerting power and control, being violent, involve frequent abuse, and is likely to escalate and to result in serious injury. Other patterns identified by Johnson are ‘mutual violent control’, ‘violent resistance’ and ‘situational’ or ‘common couple’ violence. ‘Mutual violent control’, although rare, is akin to ‘intimate terrorism’ as both partners are violent and vying for control. ‘Violent resistance’ is when the victimised partner uses violence in retaliation or self-defence, often resulting in injury. This is sometimes seen where women in fear of severe violence or threat of death from their male partner use a weapon to protect themselves and/or their children (see Hester, 2012). ‘Situational’ or ‘common couple’ violence (p.13) is where both partners may use violence in specific situations, but where this is of relatively low frequency, unconnected to control, and unlikely to escalate or to involve serious injury. Johnson developed his typologies for categorising data on heterosexual DVA. In earlier work he argues that where violence in same sex relationships is concerned, this can be characterised typically by bi-directional ‘common couple’ or ‘situational’ violence, by contrast to heterosexual relationships where uni-directional ‘patriarchal or intimate terrorism’ is more prominent (Johnson, 2006). His rationale was that lesbian or gay violence and abuse does not take on patriarchal family values. Yet, as we will discuss in Chapters Three and Five, the societal context of the heterosexual family, and associated ‘patriarchal’ and heteronormative values, do indeed form a backdrop for, and are also likely to infuse LGBTQ relationships in some way and be evident in SSDVA.

Not surprisingly, there has been an ongoing debate about the applicability of the so-called heterosexual or heterosexist (Hassouneh and Glass, 2008) model of DVA to same sex relationship contexts. In particular, the feminist understanding of domestic violence and abuse as a pattern of coercively controlling behaviours that draws on, constructs and re-constructs gender inequality has been deemed too steeped in heterosexual experiences and constructs. Renzetti (1992), for instance, in research on DVA in lesbian relationships, argues that a gender and power analysis can be applied, but needs to be expanded to take into account the different experiences, meanings and interventions related to DVA that ‘intersectionality’ provides. That is, not just gender, but also the effects of location and discrimination linked to sexuality, ‘race’, and ethnicity. Renzetti’s (1992) study on violence and abuse within lesbian relationships, was one of the first to explore issues regarding gender and power in a same sex context. Despite a lack of pre-existing gendered roles to constrain them, she found that power and power relations were still an extremely significant aspect of the relationships of the lesbians she surveyed in terms of who perpetrated the violence and abuse. Not only did she find a link between power imbalances and propensity to be the abusive partner, but also that the greater the disparity of power, the more severe the physical and psychological abuse (Renzetti, 1992). Moreover, ‘the factor that in this study was most strongly associated with abuse was partners’ relative dependency on one another’ (Renzetti, 1992, 116).

Ristock (2002a) is more critical of the gender and power framework. She argues that in lesbian relationships experiences of domestic violence are heterogeneous and social context is particularly important, with a lack of binary categories such as ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’. (p.14) Using detailed interviews with 102 mostly lesbian women she suggests her work moves beyond surveys that provide limited and often heterosexually-defined factors that appear to correlate with lesbian abuse or provide typologies of abuse. Instead, she was able to consider ‘a range of contextual factors that surround abusive relationships’ (Ristock, 2002a, 57), including contexts of invisibility and of normalisation. She explains that ‘each of these contextual factors may increase the probability of experiencing or committing violence; however, this does not mean that they cause violence or that individual women in such contexts make risky partners’ (Ristock, 2002a, 57). She found the abuse women experienced from female partners was very heterogeneous, involving a variety of emotional, physical and sexual abuses within different contexts, although also loosely fitting around patterns of ‘patriarchal terrorism’ and ‘common couple violence’.

Going even further in their critique of the feminist approach, Island and Letellier (1991), focusing on gay men, argue that a ‘gender and power’ model does not apply at all to SSDVA and instead suggest that gender-neutral and individual, psychological models should be applied. In a similar vein, Stanley et al (2006) argue from their study on gay men that ‘[d]ifficulties in conflict resolution and attachment fears appeared to better explain the occurrence of violence than did the intent to control one’s partner’ (Stanley et al, 2006, 31). Kwong-Lai Poon (2011, 124), from research about gay men, argues in a similar vein that we should ‘move away from the abstract, but fixed notions of victims and perpetrators while allowing us to see multiple and sometimes contradictory aspects of their personality’.

An important question is whether these authors are comparing similar groups of people. For instance, as Ristock asks: ‘is the psychological and social meaning of “violence” in a relationship the same for lesbians and heterosexuals, gay men and lesbians? Are we counting the same things?’ (Ristock, 2002a, 12). In Ristock’s study the interviews and focus groups with 102 lesbian women were sampled conveniently via adverts about lesbian relationship violence. The sample included women ‘who defined as victims, and as perpetrators, and those who felt they fit neither category’ (Ristock, 2002a, 30). In contrast, Stanley et al (2006) included 69 gay and bisexual men, ‘chosen from a randomly selected community sample, who reported at least 1 violent episode in an interview exploring their intimate relationships’ (Stanley et al, 2006, 31). As we discuss further in Chapter Four, there may be considerable differences where individuals self-define as experiencing DVA (as in Ristock’s sample) but also where they report one, or more, ‘violent episodes’ or behaviours that may be construed by researchers as DVA.

(p.15) As we discuss in the following chapters, our research indicates both similarities and differences across experiences of SSDVA in relationships. For instance there were many similarities in the range of abusive behaviours experienced across gender and the impacts of such behaviour, but also important differences that appear to reflect wider processes of gendering and gendered norms (Hester and Donovan, 2009). Moreover there were important features where the form of the DVA was linked specifically to a social and cultural context of inequality for lesbian and gays as gender and sexual minorities (Donovan and Hester, 2008). Consequently, in this book we build an understanding of domestic violence and abuse that draws on the feminist model, using ideas of ‘power over’ and ‘control’, and combined with understandings of social and cultural contexts that can incorporate social positioning and intersectional identities especially as linked to gender and sexuality, but also incorporating dimensions such as age, motherhood, income status and education. We are less able to forefront the importance of ‘race’ and ethnicity in the experiences of SSDVA as a consequence of the particular sample recruited to this research. Nevertheless where appropriate we draw on other research to provide further insights into SSDVA.

Also, we argue that domestic violence and abuse is both ‘discursive’ and experienced materially and bodily (Hester, 1992). Definitions often incorporate behaviours or acts without much consideration of the impact of those behaviours. Yet the impact and effects of domestic violence and abuse are precisely what makes it problematic and abusive, and with material, social, emotional and bodily consequences. Impact is a key feature in the definition and understanding of domestic violence and abuse that we apply in this book, and (as we will outline in greater detail in the next chapter) has also led us to develop a new generation of survey methodology. The impact of domestic violence and abuse may vary between individuals due to their location in particular sets of social relations and different contexts. For instance, the impact of domestic violence and abuse on heterosexual men may be less severe than the impact on heterosexual women (Walby and Allen, 2004), while the experiences of lesbians living in abusive relationships may be more heterogeneous than those of heterosexual women (Ristock, 2002a).

This brings us to ideas about positionality and intersectionality. As Cockburn (2007) explains, we need the concept of ‘positionality’ because this allows us to see and speak of the way individuals and groups are placed in relation to each other in terms of significant dimensions of social difference that include gender and sexuality, (p.16) let alone social class, ‘race’ and so on. ‘Intersectionality’ is related to positionality in that it ‘is a term that highlights the way dimensions of positionality cross-cut each other, so that any individual or collectivity experiences several simultaneously’ (Cockburn, 2007, 6). In this sense we are drawing in particular on Crenshaw’s ideas about ‘structural intersectionality’, (Crenshaw, 1994, 95) which she developed to help analyse and understand the influence of social location and experiences for different women. This is in contrast to the more fluid ‘anti-categorical’ approaches drawing to a greater extent on post-structural concerns (see McCall, 2005), which we do not see as adequately describing or explaining the similarities and differences in our data. Crenshaw developed her ideas about intersectionality in response to problems in addressing violence against black women (’women of color’) in the US, although building on ideas she had heard from Southall Black Sisters in the UK who had for a long time been addressing the specific problems faced by black and South Asian women experiencing partner violence. Crenshaw’s concern was to understand how black women’s experiences were qualitatively different from those of white women due to the former’s experiences of racism as well as sexism. The issue is one of individuals having complex multiple identities, and not merely one of ‘adding’ together a list of oppressions. This complexity influences:

the ways in which the location of women of color at the intersection of race and gender makes our actual experience of domestic violence, rape and remedial reform qualitatively different from that of white women.

(Crenshaw, 1994, 95)

Walby et al (2012) further develop the concept of intersectionality, at the same time critically suggesting that the work of writers such as Crenshaw provides too much focus on victims, and thus obscures perpetration as well as power relations. As Walby and her colleagues explain, ‘[t]he analysis of intersectionality has often focused on the actions of the disadvantaged groups…this obscures the role of the powerful within sets of social relations’ (Walby et al, 2012, 230). At the same time, they are keen to move beyond the current tension in the debates, especially the extent to which the intersecting categories are deemed as fluid or as stable. Arguing against the use of ‘categories’, and arguing in favour of an approach that systematically addresses the ontological depth of inequalities, they suggest that:

(p.17) The way forward is to recognise the historically constructed nature of social inequalities and their sedimentation in social institutions…At any one moment in time, these relations of inequality have some stability as a consequence of their institionalisation, but over a period of time they do change.

(Walby et al, 2012, 231)

Drawing on complexity theory, Walby and colleagues also argue that the intersection of inequalities does not provide ‘mutual constitution’ but ‘mutual shaping’:

‘Mutual shaping’ is a better concept than ‘mutual constitution’ since it enables the retention of naming of each relevant inequality or project while simultaneously recognising that it is affected by engagement with the others. It acknowledges the way that the systems of social relations change each other at the point of intersection, but do not become something totally different.

(Walby et al, 2012, 235)

In the chapters that follow, we draw on such a notion of structural intersectionality, which allows analysis of experiences and perpetration of DVA situated in complex yet definable contexts of inequalities and discrimination.

The concept of intersectionality thus helps us understand:

  • inequality (unequal power relations)

  • the impacts of inequality (differential power and access to resources)

  • the use and impact of DVA in contexts of gender and sexuality

  • access to resources and responses by professionals.

In other words, we see intersectional frameworks as ‘a way of thinking about power, thinking about who is excluded and why, who has access to resources and why’ (Morris and Bunjun, 2007, 2).

Understanding how gender and sexuality, age, class, income and so on intersect with regard to how individuals may use, experience, respond to and/or address and embody violence and abuse enables us to compare similarities and differences across abusive female and male same sex or heterosexual relationships, and to consider possibly different experiences and different needs for these groups of individuals with regard to help-seeking and interventions (Hester, 2010; Bograd, 2005). We need to take into account the unequal positioning of lesbians and gay men within our society, as this has an effect on the forms of (p.18) violence and abuse used within same sex relationships, and also has an impact on the extent to which, and ways in which, lesbians, gay men, bisexual and trans people seek help. At the same time, the processes of gender have an impact on the way violence and abuse ‘work’ in same sex relationships, and on the resulting experiences and outcomes. Age is also important here because DVA prevalence surveys and crime surveys indicate that age intersects with both gender and sexuality such that the use of and impacts of violence and abuse appear to be more intense for younger age groups, especially those aged under 25 (Walby and Allen, 2004; Hester and Donovan, 2009). These are issues we explore further in Chapters Three and Four.

Love and emotion work

A further question that we presented rhetorically at the beginning of this chapter is ‘what has love got to do with it’. We would suggest that relationships that involve DVA, regardless of the gender or sexuality of partners, probably start out consensually and are motivated by love or, including in the case of arranged marriages, positive feelings and hopes for love between partners. We therefore decided to unpack how love is understood and enacted when DVA is present in order to explore this dimension of adult intimacy, and in particular how practices associated with love and emotion work in intimate relationships might provide further insights into the experiences of DVA. Thus, in Chapter Five we investigate how practices of love in adult relationships can constitute forms of controlling behaviours that facilitate the embedding of relationship rules in favour of the abusive partner and position the survivor as responsible for the abusive partner and the relationship.

Love was a focus of this study because, in western societies, a public story about adult intimacy is that it is increasingly founded on love. Love in this context is constructed in such a way as to assume notions of choice and consent as being central to the rationales for entering and remaining in adult relationships. Others have written about the ways in which the rise of industrial capitalism and consumer culture have led to individualisation or ‘liquid love’ (for example, see Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995; Bauman, 2003). In these arguments, the fragmentation of families, and subsequently society, has resulted from the belief that self-fulfilment through the free choice of a love partner is the ultimate aim of human existence. Those who argue that society and family is, as a result of individualisation, less connected, caring and cohesive and more selfish, self-interested, uncaring and greedy see the evidence and consequences in increased crime, youth (p.19) disaffection, anti-social behaviour and neglect of society’s most vulnerable people (who would, they argue, have once been cared for by their families). For some of those who support this view, feminism has been a destructive influence, encouraging women to abandon their obligations to traditional motherhood, family and the civilisation of men through marriage (for example, Dennis and Erdos, 1992; Murray, 1996a, 1996b). Others are more optimistic about the social changes that have occurred in the private sphere. They credit the influence of feminisms and investment in welfare principles, along with the impact of social movements (for example, the trade union and suffrage movements, the disability rights movement and the gay liberation movement), in successfully challenging oppressive social structures, institutions and the authority embedded in them. Consequently, and particularly with the financial and material support of welfare benefits and social housing, spaces have opened up for members of these groups to become financially independent of social institutions and structures and engage in ‘experiments in living’ and loving (Williams, 2004; Weeks et al, 2001; Beck, 1992).

Thus, the argument goes, has love become increasingly important for understanding the organisation of western societies. Yet the common sense presentation of love as a set of feelings over which humans have no control has obscured the ways in which love is shaped through dominant understandings of the heterosexual assumption (Weeks et al, 2001): the law, political ideologies and cultural mores, rules, values and expectations about how gender and sexuality are enacted give the lie to essentialist beliefs about love. Adult relationships based on love can be understood sociologically and their initiation, enactment, regulation and expression are socially constructed (Jackson, 1993; Fraser, 2008; Lloyd and Emery, 2000). Love, however, cannot be understood without exploring its relation to gender and sexuality. Dominant understandings of love in contemporary society construct love as heterosexual and feminised, yet with a trend towards the belief in equality between the sexes (for example, Lloyd and Emery, 2000; Donovan and Hester, 2011; Illouz, 2011). Cancian (1990) argues that the feminisation of love is evidenced in the increasing emphasis placed on sharing feelings, expressions of love and emotionally supportive talk – the ‘disclosing intimacy’ of Jamieson (1998) – which are all associated with femininity. Cancian (1990) also demonstrates how this feminised love has become embedded in traditional gender roles such that women expect to find fulfilment from falling in love and becoming financially and emotionally dependent on a man.

(p.20) Masculinity has become predominantly constructed through characteristics such as being the provider, materially and financially, for the family, contributing practical aspects of care and understanding sex as a measure of intimacy (Duncombe and Marsden 1995; Jamieson 1998). Most of the work done on how households are maintained and emotions experienced in heterosexual relationships and families points to men being able to set the terms in those relationships, hold the household power over key decisions, and organise their leisure time to suit themselves (for example, Vogler and Pahl, 1999). Women on the other hand are brought up to understand and enact a femininity that prioritises feelings, care work and emotion work (Hochschild, 1979) in relation to those around them and to prioritise the needs of others, especially male others, above their own (for example, Duncombe and Marsden, 1993). Aggression and violence are not only seen to be illustrative of masculinity but are seen to be unwomanly. While, for a girl to be perceived as ‘like a boy’, a tomboy, can be a badge of esteem while young, being ‘like a man’ is to be avoided especially when this might call a woman’s sexuality into question.

Disclosing intimacy, care and emotion work have not been given the same value in the construction and expression of masculinity, and have been identified as a key source of conflict and/or dissatisfaction in heterosexual relationships (Duncombe and Marsden, 1995). The result of these inequalities is that many heterosexual women come to realise that their needs are secondary to those of their male partners (Wilcox, 2006). Heterosexual men often perceive their relationship as a base from which to engage with the world, expecting that their partners will look after that base in ways that provide a haven for men to return to for servicing (see also, for example, Morris, 1999; Vogler and Pahl, 1999; Jamieson, 1998; Wilcox, 2006). In return, many men understand their role to be primarily as the provider and, because this often involves being the main earner, being the key decision-maker, especially about finances.

Such analyses about how love is lived in heterosexual relationships are very different from Giddens’ (1992) treatise on the transformation of intimacy. Giddens (1992) argues that the nature of love is changing away from romantic love, as the dominant model of love, to what he calls confluent love. For Giddens, confluent love in the pure relationship is predicated upon sharing emotional needs and desires, the mutual negotiation of the terms of the relationship and contingency: that adults stay together until they no longer feel their needs are being met. He argues that personal fulfilment within adult intimacy has become a central feature and expectation of intimacy. Feminism has empowered (p.21) women to have higher expectations in their intimate lives in favour of an egalitarian negotiation of equals to fulfil both of their needs. Giddens holds up lesbians as the pioneers of the pure relationship: living outside the heterosexual assumption, influenced by feminism to aspire to egalitarianism, negotiation and a mutual meeting of needs has, he argues resulted in lesbians ‘showcasing’ the pure relationship with confluent love.

Jamieson (1998) among others (for example, Wight,1994) critique Giddens, pointing to the lack of empirical evidence for the pure relationship and highlighting the continuing material limits to contingency, negotiation and egalitarianism – not least of which is the presence of children but also, as we have discussed above, includes the inequalities around resources and emotion work that remain in many heterosexual relationships. Jamieson also argues that though ‘disclosing intimacy’ may be aspired to as an ideal more so than in previous eras, it is difficult to conclude that it is the most important aspect of intimacy. She argues that other aspects of relationships such as practical care have been ignored in this emphasis on emotional support and disclosure. Thus those behaviours that might be more associated with men are not included in the debates about how love is practised.

In their work on families of choice, Weeks et al (2001) found evidence of what they called the egalitarian ideal among same sex relationships. This reflexive commitment to finding ways of doing relationships that aspired to egalitarianism was coupled with an understanding from many that living outside heterosexuality provided an opportunity to pursue this ideal in a way that was not as easy to achieve in heterosexual relationships because of gendered expectations about how relationships can be practised. However, not all of the respondents in their study had achieved the ideal and many were aware that power dynamics existed in their relationships. Some also talked about previous relationships that had been abusive but many were aware that power was certainly an issue they had to attend to and compensate for in their negotiations of the egalitarian ideal (Heaphy et al, 1999).

In order to discuss the ways in which love is implicated in experiences of DVA, we use the concept of ‘relationship practices’ (Morgan, 1999) to focus on the many behaviours that constitute an adult intimate relationship and distinguish it from other kinds of relationships such as friendships, parental or acquaintance relationships. They include those behaviours that are required to keep a household or households (depending on whether the adults in the relationship are cohabiting) running, the organisation of finances, the organisation of (p.22) and participation in leisure activities either alone, together and/or with children, parental activities and the organisation of and participation in wider family (of choice) activities alone, together and/or with children. Within these relationship practices we identify a subgroup that we call practices of love. These are the disclosing of intimacy, caring and emotion work and sexual behaviours. We acknowledge that the other relationship practices, including when and how they are enacted, construct a relationship context in which feelings of love and intimacy are also communicated or not, but the communication that results from these practices of love can be crucial to how a relationship characterised by DVA is understood and made sense of. The focus on practices of love provide a bridge from our discussion of positionality and intersectionality to the practices of power and control in action. As we discuss further in Chapter Five, the doing of emotion work situates individuals as victimised and perpetrators through the practice and embodiment of emotional support in the relationship. Practices of love, by creating a seemingly ‘gendered’ context, reflected in heteronormative relationship practices and practices of love, feed into the complex intersectionality and positioning of individuals.

As part of our approach, Lloyd and Emery’s (2000) explanatory frameworks for aggression in heterosexual courtship provide the basis for a broader discussion about how dominant constructions of heterosexuality, masculinity and femininity underpin and map onto ideas about love and romance. In reality of course depictions of gender are less static, fixed and impermeable to change. Many men are able to be caring and empathetic without feeling this to be a slur on their manhood, although this often becomes easier with age. Young men experience enormous pressure to exhibit local norms of masculinity which typically involves shows of physical strength, aggression or toughness, being interested in sport and uninterested in education and those who are unable or unwilling to do so are often victimised and bullied. The research on homophobic bullying suggests that, rather than the motive for bullying being the sexuality of the target, it is their non-conformity to localised gender roles which are taken as a sign of sexuality which may not always be accurate. It is perhaps these patterns of expectations about masculinity in young men that underpins the high levels of DVA for young heterosexual women in their dating relationships (for example, Barter et al, 2009). On the other hand it is increasingly evident that women are able to be aggressive, violent and abusive to strangers and those they know. It is important, however, that in analysing women and girls’ violence account is taken of the (p.23) different motives for and meanings of violence and its impact (Irwin and Chesney-Lind, 2008).

As well as gender norms shaping and influencing the perimeters and substance of what it is to be a girl and a woman, a boy and man, there are also norms about heterosexuality. While heterosexuality can be seen in some ways to map onto norms of gender it is important that we understand sexuality and gender to be separately constituted (for example, see Richardson, 2007). Heterosexuality is not just a sexual identity but a set of expectations about a certain kind of life and a particular kind of intimacy. This is notwithstanding that in the UK and many other western countries, Civil Partnerships or same sex marriage licences are now available and provide a normative framework, based on heterosexual marriage, prioritising the legal and formal structuring of intimacy over biology, social or emotional relationships.

The way in which heterosexuality might be lived therefore involves particular constructions, not only of heterosexual male sexuality and heterosexual female sexuality, but also an explanation about how and why any heterosexual woman and man might come together to form a relationship and/or a family. Thus we are led onto social and cultural constructions of what on the one hand we might call heterosexual courtship – the behaviours that are expected of heterosexual women and men as they begin their trajectory to adult heterosexuality – and on the other what we might call heterosexual love – the feelings that are said to be produced that act as both a glue and as a lubricant between heterosexual men and women in relationships and families. The legal contract of marriage is then expected to create a binding web of legal and financial responsibilities and rights between women and men and adults and their legal and/or biological children. At one and the same time love is presented as the lubricant that facilitates the institution of heterosexuality, and heterosexuality is presented as the road map of and to love. Dominant constructions of love are embedded in relationship practices and provide a set of expectations about how adult intimacy might work. The road map is itself also based on institutionalised hierarchies and inequalities based not only on gender and sexuality but also ‘race’ and ethnicity, social class, faith and disability, the dynamics of which are played out both in individual relationships and in society between different social groups and in the relationship between the state and those living in it. The social context in which and by which love is constructed and lived is itself socially constructed by wider factors such as economics, labour markets and politics.

(p.24) Yet we also know that what we are calling relationship practices and practices of love are also motivated by expectations and assumptions about what a relationship might consist of other than those resulting from the socially prescribed gender roles outlined above. In short, then, love is understood to be a set of expectations about emotions and values that underpin relationship practices and practices of love which are heteronormative, articulated through individuals and their relationships but also reflected in societal and cultural mores, rules and regulations. The heteronormative construction of love does, however, raise questions for those desiring same sex love and relationships. Can they love? Do they love in different ways? As Hart (1986) argues, those who are not heterosexual grow up in the same society as those who are heterosexual. They are schooled in gender, heterosexuality and love as a matter of course because they are assumed to be gendered in ways that reflect their sexed body, and heterosexual. In Chapter Three we discuss the impact of the heterosexual assumption. In its benign form this preferentially promotes heterosexuality. In its more malign form this promotes the view that anything other than heteronormative gender roles and heterosexuality are deviancies that present a threat to ‘normal’, that is, heterosexual relationships, love and family life, and to children and young people. Increasingly, as we explain in Chapter Three, there is acceptance of same sex relationships and families that are headed by lesbians and gay men who parent children. There are, however, consequences for those who are not heterosexual and/or those who do not conform to gender norms of behaviours. On the one hand it would seem that love is a universal human emotion that everybody regardless of gender and sexuality can experience. On the other hand there are debates about whether those in same sex relationships can really ‘do’ love because it is understood as a heterosexual set of behaviours – hence the outcry against same sex marriage. In addition, those in same sex relationships have talked about being able to do relationships differently because of being freed up from heteronormative expectations (see Weeks et al, 2001). Yet we might ask how easy it is to resist dominant heteronormative constructions of what love is and how practices of love might be enacted, especially when there is a universal construction of love being a basic human emotion that everybody can feel. Gender norms might be more visible to resist as inappropriate or to re-define in same sex relationships yet, embedded in the dominant construction of love as they are, it becomes possible to see that anybody, regardless of gender or sexuality could imagine that love involves one partner being in charge and the other being the follower; that one is outward facing (p.25) while the other is inward facing, that one enacts emotion work and takes responsibility for their partner and the relationship while the other becomes the partner who makes most of the key decisions and becomes more powerful in setting the terms of the relationship. How such practices can be acted out in a manner that creates a shift from merely ‘power’ to ‘power over’ is discussed further in Chapter Five.

DVA in same sex relationships: previous research

As indicated above, previous research, policy and practice in the UK concerning domestic and sexual violence have tended to focus on heterosexual women who are victimised by male partners, family members, or other men. This is not surprising, as heterosexual women constitute the largest victim group (Smith et al, 2010). It is increasingly recognised in both policy and practice, however, that domestic and sexual violence and abuse occurs across all population groups. Gay and bisexual men, lesbian or bisexual women and transgendered individuals have also been identified in policy debates and government statistics to experience domestic and sexual violence and abuse (Home Office Affairs Select Committee, 2008; Smith et al, 2010; Roch et al, 2010). In the UK specifically, there is a small, if growing, number of local and national surveys and qualitative studies exploring SSDVA (Henderson, 2003; Stovold et al, 2005; Hunt and Fish, 2008; Hewitt and Macredie, 2012). Studies on DVA in lesbian relationships in the UK have tended to be qualitative, involving small purposive samples. Same sex surveys, aimed mainly at gay men, have generally included very limited questions regarding DVA and have omitted exploration of contextual factors.

One of the earliest studies of SSDVA in the UK using a survey approach was commissioned by Stonewall in 1995. Taking a wide definition of DVA that included both intimate partners and other family members, the study found that ‘38 per cent of LGBT people aged under 18 years experienced homophobic domestic violence and abuse from parents and family members’ (cited in Broken Rainbow, 2002, 18). The Sigma surveys (Henderson, 2003), which included a section on DVA in a gay men’s health survey and questions about (p.26) DVA in a separate questionnaire to lesbian women distributed through Gay Pride events, found that 22 per cent of lesbians and 29 per cent of gay men had experienced physical, mental or sexual abuse or violence from a regular same sex partner at some point. A further survey from Stonewall, on lesbian and bisexual women’s health (Hunt and Fish, 2008) and involving 6,178 respondents, also included questions about DVA. It found that one in four of respondents had experienced DVA at some time, a third of these with male perpetrators, and DVA from female partners was mainly emotional and physical. None of these surveys, however, took into account the impact of the violent and abusive acts on those concerned, making it difficult to understand the meaning of the ‘prevalence’ data.

Researching domestic (or sexual) violence and abuse in same sex relationships presents particular methodological problems with regard to obtaining representative samples. The ‘hidden’ nature of the LGBTQ population means that it is impossible to recruit a random or representative sample involving merely LGBTQ groups, and none of the surveys above are therefore representative. The main prevalence data on domestic violence and abuse in the UK is derived from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW)2 interpersonal violence module (Walby and Allan, 2004; Povey et al, 2008). The CSEW asks respondents to record their sexuality, although as the numbers identifying as gay male or lesbian have been small the data has therefore not tended to be published, and the survey may generally be perceived as a ‘heterosexual’ sample. In 2010, however, data from 500 of the 25,000 CSEW IPV module respondents in each of the years 2007/08 and 2008/09 who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, were amalgamated to produce a larger sample for analysis (Smith et al, 2010). (p.27) Overall, the majority of victims aged 16 to 59 answering the CSEW IPV module (94 per cent) identified themselves as heterosexual/straight, 2 per cent as lesbian/gay and it is noteworthy that 4 per cent said ‘don’t know or do not want to say’. People who identified as lesbian or gay were more likely to have experienced any domestic violence and abuse than those who reported they were heterosexual/straight (13 per cent compared with 5 per cent). Lesbians or bisexual women (12 per cent) and 6 per cent of gay or bisexual men reported experiencing one or more instances of non-physical abuse, threats or force (but not including sexual assault) in the past year. These figures are higher than those reported by heterosexual women (4 per cent) or men (3 per cent) (Smith et al, 2010). The authors of the CSEW report suggest that the higher levels of abuse in the CSEW data ‘may be due, at least in part, to the younger age profile of individuals identifying themselves as in this group’ who are at greater risk of partner abuse (Smith et al, 2010, 62). While nearly two-fifths (37 per cent) of LGB respondents were aged 16–24, this was the case for only about one fifth (21 per cent) of heterosexual respondents. With regard to sexual assault from any perpetrators, the CSEW found that lesbian women again reported the highest prevalence, followed by gay or bisexual men (Smith et al, 2010). The gender of the perpetrators is not made apparent, however, nor is their relationship to those victimised. Thus we cannot tell if the lesbians were abused by female partners or (probably more likely) a former male partner or other male. Who the perpetrator may be is a crucial factor to take into account when determining and comparing ‘prevalence’ across lesbian, gay male and heterosexual groups, and is thus a serious omission in the CSEW data.

Ristock (2011) outlines a similar problem to the CSEW data with the Statistics Canada research on violence and victimisation. Sensational newspaper headlines indicated that in Canada ‘Domestic violence is more widespread among same-sex couples than straights’, with figures indicating that 15 per cent of lesbians and gay men and 28 per cent of bisexuals reported abuse by a partner in the past five years compared to only 7 per cent of heterosexuals. Questions had not been asked, however, about whether the abuse actually occurred in a same sex relationship (Ristock, 2011, 1–2).

The somewhat older representative prevalence data from the US is perhaps more informative. The national US Violence Against Women survey (NVAW) (Tjaden et al, 1999; Tjaden and Thoennes, 2000), included a small sub-sample of individuals identifying as gay or lesbian, and is one of the only representative studies to compare heterosexual and same sex samples. It found that in same sex relationships, male respondents were more likely than women to report violence from intimate partners; and that women in heterosexual relationships were the most likely to report violence (Tjaden et al, 1999). Of women living with a female intimate partner, slightly more than 11 per cent reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by a female cohabitant compared to 30.4 per cent of the women who had married or lived with a man as part of a couple and who reported such violence by a husband or male cohabitant. Approximately 15 per cent of the men who had lived with a man as a couple reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by a male cohabitant, compared with 7.7 per cent of the men who reported such violence by a wife or female cohabitant. Unfortunately, again no measures of impact were explored regarding same sex relationships. The authors suggest that while more research is needed to support or refute whether these findings indicate that there is more DVA in heterosexual contexts, the evidence does indicate that intimate partner violence is generally perpetrated by men, whether against male or female intimate partners. They conclude as a consequence, that ‘strategies for preventing intimate partner violence should focus on risks posed by men’ (Tjaden and Thoennes, 2000: v).

(p.28) The more recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey (NISVS) data from the United States (Walters et al, 2013) echo the NVAW data in showing that most perpetrators of intimate partner and sexual violence are male. In contrast to the NVAW survey, but similarly to the Canadian survey, the NISVS suggests that individuals identifying as lesbian, bisexual and gay male experienced more physical, sexual and emotional abuse from intimate partners than those identifying as heterosexual. The lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner as reported in the NISVS was: for lesbians 43.8 per cent, bisexual women 61.1 per cent, heterosexual women 35.0 per cent, gay men 26.0 per cent, bisexual men 37.3 per cent and heterosexual men 29.0 per cent. However, the NISVS survey also includes data on perpetrators, showing that sexual violence to lesbian, gay male, bisexuals or heterosexual women was experienced mainly from male perpetrators, and that intimate partner violence experienced by bisexual women was also largely from male perpetrators. Thus, the higher levels of intimate partner violence for lesbians and bisexual women were not necessarily within same sex relationships. The NISVS data survey also provides data on the impact of intimate partner violence (non-sexual) and on sexual violence and stalking, indicating the particularly harmful impact of intimate partner violence on women, and on bisexual women in particular.

More than half of bisexual women (57.4 per cent), a third of lesbian women (33.5 per cent), and more than a fourth of heterosexual women (28.2 per cent) who experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime reported at least one negative impact (for example, missed at least one day of school or work, were fearful, were concerned for their safety, experienced at least one post-traumatic stress disorder symptom). (Walters et al, 2013, 2)

(McClennen, 2005) has argued that studies from the US have increasingly indicated that prevalence of DVA may be similar across same sex and heterosexual relationships, but what differs are help-seeking behaviours, but as our discussion above suggests, comparison can be difficult and problematic. This is compounded where studies on SSDVA use a variety of methodologies and samples, and apply varying definitions of violence and abuse. Apart from the CSEW, NVAW and NISVS surveys, samples have often reflected only the experiences of white, middle-class, lesbians and gay men who are between the ages (p.29) of 25 and 35 years and who are ‘out’ enough to engage with venues that carry and support the surveys being done. What are presented as ‘prevalence’ studies may in actual fact be based on limited population samples, from a clinical setting such as the health sector, and are not representative but convenience samples. As a consequence, rates of incidence and prevalence have varied enormously across studies. The study by Greenwood et al (2002) in the US, of ‘battering victimisation’ among men who have sex with men, is one of the only studies that appears to have achieved something approaching a randomised approach, using a probability-based sample of 2881 men. However, it would not currently be possible to construct similar samples in the UK, and the methodology has not been attempted with regard to female–female relationships. The definition of DVA also varies across studies, with some focusing on sexual or physical abuse only, others incorporating psychological abuse, and others exploring ‘acts of aggression’. Across the various studies, some show more violence and abuse in lesbian than in gay male relationships, while others show less. Elliot (1996), for instance, found that studies in the US of abuse in lesbian relationships showed a prevalence of 22–46 per cent physical violence and 73–6 per cent emotional violence, while in a study of gay men 17 per cent had been in a physically violent relationship. The review of American literature by Turell (2000) showed a prevalence of between 8 per cent and 60 per cent with regard to physical violence and 65–90 per cent prevalence of emotional violence in lesbian relationships, while in gay male relationships prevalence rates of physical violence were within a narrower band of 11–47 per cent. A more recent overview of prevalence of intimate partner DVA, primarily looking at men’s experiences, found an even wider range of prevalence rates across studies, attributing such variation to ‘type of IPV included, whether the reference period includes the past 12 months, or lifetime experience, and the method used to assess IPV’ (Nowinski and Bowen, 2012, 36). Waldner-Haugrud et al (1997), in the US, found higher rates of physical violence in lesbian relationships (47.5 per cent) than in gay male relationships (27.9 per cent), and Greenwood et al (2002) found similar levels of male–male physical violence (22 per cent) based on the previous five years. By contrast, in the UK, one of the few existing surveys (Henderson, 2003) reports lower levels of abuse for lesbians than for gay men, with 22 per cent of lesbians and 29 per cent of gay men having experienced physical, mental or sexual abuse or violence from a regular same sex partner at some time. This is quite a different picture to that suggested by the recent survey data from the US referred to earlier (NISVS – Walters et al, 2013).

(p.30) There are also intrinsic problems with the approaches used by many surveys. Much of the research on heterosexual DVA and the surveys on same sex DVA have emphasised prevalence without context or impact being considered, and have in the main been based on the Conflict Tactics Scale. In an attempt to provide replicable data on the incidence and prevalence of interpersonal violence, Straus et al (1980) developed the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS) as a measure to quantify the amount and type of violence used in interpersonal relationships to resolve conflict. In its original format the CTS monitored how many times a man or woman had been violent towards their partner in the previous 12 months and how often the partner had been violent towards them in the same time period. Only one half of the couple were asked to fill in the scale and the total sample was split equally between female and male. The measurements on the scale ranged from ‘verbal reasoning’ to ‘verbal aggression’ and ‘physical aggression’. The outcome of using this methodology led the researchers to conclude that heterosexual women and men were equally violent and that this type of interpersonal violence could be conceptualised as ‘mutual combat’ (Straus, 1999).

There have been many criticisms of the CTS approach. Initially it addressed only physical violence without including emotional abuse (Dobash and Dobash, 1992). There was no consideration of the impact of the violence on the victim/survivor, for instance no differentiation between a push and severe physical violence leading to hospitalisation. In response to this, Straus and colleagues developed the CTS2, in which they added questions relating to sexual violence and created differential ‘levels’ of violence, particularly in relation to any injuries sustained (Straus, 1999). The questions on impact are still limited, however, and thus differential experiences of victimisation by men and women in relation to physical acts, let alone in relation to a wider range of potentially abusive behaviours cannot be established. Archer (2002), based on a meta-analysis of 58 studies using the CTS, agrees that the CTS approach has limitations and creates difficulties in determining the actual impact of an act of physical aggression, specifically ‘the extent to which they represent innocuous actions akin to symbolic violence, or whether they are likely to cause injuries’ (Archer, 2000, 338). He suggests as a consequence that ‘severity of impact ratings’ should be incorporated in future CTS based studies.

The SIGMA and Stonewall research in the UK (Henderson, 2003; Hunt and Fish, 2008), mentioned above, used a CTS type approach, and without questions on impact or intentions related to the abuse. As a result it is not possible to differentiate between hitting someone as part (p.31) of wider controlling behaviours, that is, as a part of ongoing domestic violence and abuse, or hitting as a means to prevent being assaulted, that is, as an act of self-defence. In the UK the CTS approach has also been used in the CSEW module to assess frequency of domestic violence and abuse, although with increasing recognition that ‘the CTS concentrates on the perpetrator’s actions to the exclusion of the impact and consequences’ and ‘tends to generate a spurious gender symmetry that vanishes if and when the impact of the act is brought into focus’ (Walby and Allen, 2004, 37). By taking such contextual factors into consideration, the CSEW concludes that prevalence data provides a very partial picture of experience of domestic violence and abuse. (Heterosexual) men and women actually experience very different levels of severity and of impact of domestic violence and abuse, with women experiencing the greater severity and impact (Walby and Allen, 2004).

Evidence from qualitative research with women and men in heterosexual relationships indicates that answers to questions about abuse are gendered, with women tending to overstate their violence against their partners and men tending to underestimate (Hearn, 1996b). Qualitative evidence from heterosexual relationships also suggests that women are rarely the initiators of violence and are more likely to be acting in self-defence (Dobash and Dobash, 2000; Hester, 2009). These critiques also raise questions about whether individuals in same sex relationships may answer questions in different ways, or whether self-defence is a gender or sexuality-related issue. These significant questions have not previously been explored with survey samples and this was something we felt was important to achieve (see Hester and Donovan, 2009).

Our research

We wanted to move beyond the shortcomings of the previous work, and to compare more directly lesbian, gay male and heterosexual reports of domestically violent and abusive behaviours. In order to do so, our research used a combination of a national survey of same sex relationships, focus groups with lesbian, gay male and heterosexual women and men and interviews with LGBTQ and heterosexual women and men. We used an approach that was rooted in understandings of experience of DVA, including experiences and intersections related to gender and sexuality. This ‘feminist epistemological approach’ informed all our work. It allowed us to develop a detailed survey approach that took into account a range of abusive behaviours as well as impact, (p.32) context and abuse of partners in intimate relationships. It led us to take a detailed look in interviews at how individuals perceived their best and worst relationship experiences. Drawing on our previous research findings regarding DVA and love, and on the literature about intimacy, we also explored how constructions of love featured in relationship descriptions involving worst and abusive experiences.

The discussion in this book indicates the importance of such an approach and how it contributes further to our analysis of how and to what extent such behaviours are experienced similarly or differently by individuals depending on sexuality, gender or age. The approach takes us a step further in analysis of domestic violence and abuse by moving beyond the generally heteronormative approaches of most surveys while also taking into account lesbian, gay male and heterosexual experiences and positionality.


  • The discussion of domestic violence and abuse in same sex relationships has been relatively recent compared to that of DVA in heterosexual relationships, largely due to a context of homophobia.

  • The research on which this book is based was conducted, and the book itself has been written, against a background of increasing openness about same sex relationships, also reflected in policy and legislation on DVA.

  • Despite the increasingly wide definition of DVA used by government, in the popular imagination domestic violence and abuse often conjures up a particular public story focused on the heterosexual experience and emphasising physical violence, with implications for identifying and recognising DVA in same sex relationships both by victims/survivors and practitioners/professionals.

  • We explore two main approaches to understanding DVA and their application to heterosexual and same sex DVA:

    • The first draws on the feminist notion of power and control, looked at through the lenses of positionality and intersectionality particularly focusing on gender, sexuality and age.

    • The second draws from the work on intimacy and involves practices of love, which provide means of actively constructing power over and control of intimate partners.

  • (p.33) Previous research on DVA focused mainly on heterosexual relationships. The more limited research on same sex DVA has often focused on one group (either lesbians or gay males) and with either survey or interview approaches. There are an increasing number of representative surveys involving both heterosexual and same sex identities, but they do not always make clear whether the DVA took place in heterosexual or in same sex relationships.

  • Our research set out to enable comparison across both gender and sexuality (comparing experiences of men and women in same sex relationships, and between same sex and heterosexual relationships), using both survey and in-depth interviews.

  • Previous survey research on DVA has been limited by lack of attention to the context of the abuse. Our research developed a sophisticated measure of impact to overcome this problem.



(1) DVA is, however, a bit of a mouthful and therefore the title of this book refers to Domestic Violence.

(2) The Crime Survey England and Wales was formerly the British Crime Survey. The change in name is to reflect more accurately its geographical remit and to acknowledge that there is a Scottish Crime Survey. Although this change came about during the writing of this book we use the Crime Survey England and Wales (CSEW) throughout as this is more accurate and to reflect the change made.