Lawmakers Need to Bring Female-on-Female Domestic Violence Out of the Closet

Edward E. Bartlett | March 11, 2022 | 5:02pm EST
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Pictured are cells inside a prison. (Photo credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)
Pictured are cells inside a prison. (Photo credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Yvonne Wu, 31, of New York City became caught in a love triangle in fall 2021. A member of the NY Police Department, Wu discovered her ex-girlfriend Jenny Li cavorting with her new love interest. Wu allegedly opened fire, shooting Li in the chest and mortally wounding the new girlfriend. Wu was arrested and charged with murder in Brooklyn Criminal Court. She now awaits trial. 

In December, Marketa Sipp of Decatur, Ala. reportedly stabbed her girlfriend. Sipp was booked into the Morgan County Correctional Facility and charged with second-degree domestic violence.

And the Omaha World-Herald recently reported on Brittney Taylor, 33, who stands accused of wounding her girlfriend. Called to their home on Jan. 30, police officers reported the victim had suffered multiple injuries to the face and head.

With the federal Violence Against Women Act currently being considered in Congress, one would expect that all forms of domestic violence, including female-on-female abuse, would be the focus of vigorous debate. But it’s not. For example, during the recent Oct. 5 Senate hearing on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, not a peep was said about abuse in same-sex relationships.

So what’s going on?

The Centers for Disease Control suggests that among all partners, female-initiated physical (not sexual) violence is more widespread than the male-perpetrated variety. Each year in relationships, 4.2 million men suffer from physical violence, compared to 3.5 million women.

When you zero in on abuse rates in same-sex lesbian couples, the numbers fly off the charts. According to CDC’s “Overview of 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation,” 44% of lesbian women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. By way of comparison, 35% of heterosexual women and only 26% of gay men have experienced such forms of abuse.

Domestic violence is typically portrayed in media reports as a man exercising an insatiable need for patriarchal privilege over his hapless female partner. But the CDC numbers shatter this stereotype. After all, how many lesbians possess anything that remotely resembles “patriarchal privilege”?

And why are abuse rates among lesbians nearly double the rate in gay couples? Largely because women are more likely to engage in psychological abuse such as nagging. The CDC reveals that overall, there are 17.3 million male victims of coercive control per year, compared to only 12.7 million female victims of this severe form of psychological abuse. 

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence notes that because the domestic violence movement has focused on heterosexual relationships, lesbians have been left out of the conversation. The group notes how lesbian abusers may try to play on their victim’s fear of isolation, convincing their target that she won’t be supported if she seeks help.

Suzana Rose of the University of Missouri at St. Louis has compiled a Lesbian Partner Violence Fact Sheet that sheds light on the causes of the problem. The causes include seeking to avoid feelings of abandonment and loss, re-enacting abusive patterns learned in childhood, and seeking to control the other party. Rose also reveals, “In lesbian relationships, the ‘butch’ (physically stronger, more masculine, or wage-earning) member of the couple may be as likely to be the victim as the batterer.”

Keeping lesbian domestic violence “in the closet” is a barrier to our nation’s quest to help all victims of domestic violence. In many states, a woman in a lesbian relationship cannot obtain a restraining order. Abuse shelters often discriminate against such women, as well.

And sweeping the problem under the rug hinders abusers from getting help before the abuse spirals out of control. In the Yvonne Wu case, she had reportedly engaged in stalking of her ex-girlfriend two weeks prior to the tragic shooting -- but no one thought to report it.

The typical framing of partner abuse as men abusing women does an enormous disservice to persons in abusive lesbian relationships. Each year, half a billion dollars of taxpayer money goes to the Violence Against Women Act. Republican and Democratic lawmakers should join together to assure this milestone law is rooted in science and fact, not gender ideology.

Edward E. Bartlett is the president of the Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

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