While the majority of research into domestic violence in intimate relationships looks at the experience of abuse perpetrated by men. Lynne Cahill’s study explores domestic violence and abuse within same-sex female relationships. Read on to learn about her research findings.


Domestic Abuse in Same-sex Female Relationships

Lynne Cahill

CW: contains descriptions of physical, psychological and sexual abuse

My invitation from the LGBT Helpline to contribute to this blog has come about due to the nature of research I am conducting at Trinity College, Dublin. My study explores the experience of female same sex domestic violence and abuse (DVA)

Over a period of eight months, I conducted interviews with women from different parts of Ireland including those from rural, urban and city geographical backgrounds. The age profile of the women ranged from early thirties to late sixties, some had dependent children. The duration of relationships ranged from six months to twenty-six years. Half of the women I interviewed spoke about having experienced more than one abusive relationship with a female partner.

Despite my best recruitment efforts, young women proved more difficult to interview. Some initially agreed to engage with the research but when it came to meeting up, the pain was too great and they were unable to proceed. Having completed the interview stage of the research, I can fully understand why the decision was taken not to participate. In total, ten women engaged with the study and to each one of you, I am sincerely grateful for your contribution.

My objective with this blog is to draw attention to insights gathered so far by way of the study. Apart from the obvious reasons of wanting to generate awareness and understanding of this phenomenon, I sincerely hope that in reading what follows, women who are currently in an abusive relationship with a woman or have been so in the past may not feel as isolated in their experience of domestic violence and abuse.

Consequently, the blog will proceed as follows, first, I will outline the forms of abusive behaviours women experienced from their female partners. Second, I will focus on their help-seeking behaviours in response to the abuse.

Forms of Abusive Behaviour

The findings from the research demonstrate the diverse forms of abuse that were present in the participant’s relationships, including emotional, identity, psychological, economic, physical and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse was the dominant abuse type experienced by the majority and this was typically a precursor to experiences of physical violence. Although in some cases, the abuse began with a physical assault. Constant name calling, being put down in front of friends, undermining physical appearance, value as a partner and capabilities as a mother exemplify the nature of the emotionally abusive tactics employed by female abusers.

Identity abuse occurred in relationships where contested identities existed between the couple. This form of abuse occurred when the abusive partner identified as butch and understood the relationship as having a butch/femme dynamic.  However, the participant did not see herself as a femme and further, did not identify with any label/ category to describe her sexuality/ identity. In such cases, women were forced to wear feminine attire and were not allowed to dress in clothes of their own choosing.

Psychological abuse consisted of the deliberate disruption of eating and sleeping patterns. Being kept awake at night to loud music, not being allowed to go to bed or sleep and being forced to eat unhealthy foods best describe women’s experience of this type of abuse. Economic abuse was evident in the women’s accounts; participants came away from abusive relationships with substantial debts due to loans taken on behalf of their abusive partners. Loans that were never repaid. They had their money stolen and their credit cards used without permission. A number of women lost their homes and are still entangled in legal processes to try extricate themselves from previous lives with an abusive partner.

Regarding physical abuse, participants were punched and kicked, held against their will, hit with objects, thrown down stairs and across rooms and beaten in a public space without anyone intervening to help them. Also evident were forms of physical abuse that have been categorised as severe, bones broken, stabbed, choked, and strangled until losing consciousness. Women attended their GP and A&E departments with the injuries they sustained. All the while remaining silent on the identity of their abuser and in some cases accompanied to the hospital by their abusive partner. Nurses in A&E departments did their best to try to pry the information from those who came into their contact with badly bruised bodies. However, responses such as “Tell us his name, we can help you” proved to be an additional obstacle the women could not overcome.

“Who is going to believe a woman would rape another woman? I mean how do you explain that?”

The last form of abuse I want to highlight is sexual abuse in female relationships. An area I feel we are still at the very early stages of acknowledging, identifying and naming in Irish practice and policy domains. Participant’s found it extremely difficult to explain and describe this form of abuse. They struggled with the lack of language to explain their experience as the quote above highlights. However, they did name and recognise this type of abuse as rape. They reported being repeatedly raped by their female partners, being hurt during sex, having their requests to stop ignored and being touched causing distress. Another dynamic of the sexual abuse involved abusive partners re-enacting a participant’s previous childhood sexual abuse experience, both verbally and physically. This form of sexual abuse was for participants the ultimate act of betrayal. There were also forms of sexual abuse which could be described as more emotional than physical, this involved being critical of a woman’s body, of her sexuality, rejecting and humiliating her immediately after intimacy and ultimately making her feel sexually inadequate.

Help-Seeking Behaviours

The second objective of this blog concerns participants help seeking behaviours. Primarily, women sought help from friends and family in response to the abuse.  In terms of formal supports, they opted for counselling and therapy type services. Comparable to the heterosexual female experience of seeking support, participants selected this support option because they understood the DVA experience as something that was their fault, that in some way or another, they were responsible for the abusive partners behaviour. Unfortunately, this was a common theme across interviews. It is important to note, there were participants who never sought support from anybody. One woman I spoke with had never told a soul about her experience until the day we met for interview.

Like the heterosexual female experience of DVA, those interviewed had difficulty recognising their relationships as abusive. The reasons for non-recognition of abuse include the absence of physical violence in the relationship and attempts to avoid shame and stigma surrounding DVA. Other areas contributing to non-recognition were that women felt isolated in their experience of abuse from a female partner. Participants spoke at length about not knowing/ not being aware of another female having a similar experience to them, and by not being able to relate/ connect their experience this increased their sense of isolation. Additional factors that hindered recognition were the lack of visibility of same sex DVA in the media and in service provision. Domestic violence service providers advertising campaigns were interpreted as heterosexual, as “straight” and this interpretation influenced women’s understanding of what constitutes DVA. Participants also highlighted the dominance of the heterosexual experience of DVA in general and how this influenced their understanding of the abuse.

To conclude, I would like to say to women reading this who are currently or have been in an abusive relationship with a female partner – there is help available. Women’s Aid work with any woman who contacts them. Through their helpline, 1800 341900, they can advise on a range of nationwide services available to support you. They also provide support for women for whom English may not be their first language. If this type of support option is not appealing to you, maybe talk to a trusted family member or a friend.

Tell them your story, tell them what happened to you because what’s happened is not your fault, it wasn’t your behaviour.

Lynne Cahill is currently a PhD student with the School of Social Work & Social Policy, Trinity College, Dublin. Her research explores the experience of female same sex domestic violence and abuse. If you have any further inquiries about the study, please contact [email protected]