Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /afs/ir.stanford.edu/group/womenscourage/cgi-bin/blogs/wpmu-settings.php on line 45
why do women beat each other? » Self-Perception and Health

why do women beat each other?

February 12th, 2009 by nmh Leave a reply »

The discussion about intimate partner and domestic violence this week really inspired me to go and find this paper written about gay and lesbian relationship intimate partner violence.  It discusses the prevalence as well as theories behind it.

What’s interesting is that it suggests that what most people think is that heterosexual couples would have the most intimate partner violence, followed by gay males, followed by lesbians.  This is because of the idea and argument that men in general are naturally more aggressive.  Granted, there are all sorts of weird cultural issues that men experience.  But, I object to this common idea (as do the authors) on a couple of grounds:

1.) It’s an essentialist argument.

2.) Every human has a certain amount of aggression – and in my opinion, any amount of misplaced aggression can be abuse.  It doesn’t have to be a physical assault by the burliest man.  There isn’t a level of pain or injury or emotional manipulation at which it’s considered abuse.  Any amount is inappropriate.  This is a misconception I think that most people have and it facilitates people making excuses for abusive behavior that isn’t extremely injurious.

They propose a number of theories that feminists, psychologists, etc have for explaining abusive behavior.  Is it a learned behavior a la Bandura?  Is it due to power imbalances?

I don’t like the idea of learned behavior because it gets into weird territory and it doesn’t explain a lot of incidents.  The feminist argument about power imbalance can falsely implicate the “top” or “butch” if applied too liberally – true, they may have a masculine gender, but this gender identity does not correspond with male privilege (for lesbians) or increased respect in other areas in life significantly more than the partner (for both lesbians and gay men).

The theory that I remember learning in FemStudies 101 was that violence and abuse is the result of insecurity partnered with challenges to one’s perceived place in a social hierarchy.  So, in straight terms, if you are an insecure or threatened guy, and your boss (a higher ranked person) yells at you at work, you will go beat up on someone below you (such as a female partner) in the social hierarchy to make you feel better.  This makes you feel better, because it reaffirms that you are still better than others.  If someone perceived to be below you threatens your place in the hegemony/social hierarchy, this can cause some severe backlash.  So if you feel extremely insecure about your sexuality or sexual prowess or identity and a effeminate man ridicules you publically, you might violently lash out to prove to everyone else that you are not this inferior.

Applied to queer folk, if you experience social stress or attacks and you don’t have internal strength or appropriate external support, you may turn this internal crisis outward in a violent way.  If some teenagers follow you home after work and call you a faggot, and you can’t call family to feel better because they already have disowned you, who are you going to turn to?  You could act overly dependent and needy on your partner to feel better if you are coming from a sad or threatened/scared place due to this incident.  Or if it riled you up, you could lash out violently, perhaps to your partner.

If you feel like you are losing control of your only support system (due to this completely alienating society that is cold toward queerness completely), you could try to use your power to “put them in their place” – through emotional manipulation, physical threats, nonconsensual sexual domination.

I don’t think the straight world realizes how threatening they are toward queer people.  I mean, truly.  Even if you are “supportive” or “queer friendly” or “have gay friends”, you are not trusted in general.  You have to go out of your way to prove us that you are really safe to talk to.  Are you just supportive when you need help with makeup?  Or are you willing to be there when our families kick us out, or we get assaulted late at night and are bloody, or when we just need to talk about our intimate lives to try to figure out what’s going on.  Straight folk, you have often claimed to be queer friendly, then abandoned us when we needed you, or outed us to your friends because you find it great that you have a gay friend and want to brag, etc.

My hypothesis: once society  provides space for queer people to work our emotional baggage out (and when it stops adding more emotional scars to our lives – and when we no longer have to live in fear constantly), the rates of domestic partner abuse in the queer community will reduce significantly.  The root causes for the remaining abuse will more often be due to power imbalances than internal identity neuroses.



  1. sunree says:

    wow, that was incredibly powerful and, well, awakening. as a heterosexual female who genuinely believes in equal freedoms regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, etc., i found these comments striking in a necessary way. you’re asking me to look at my own beliefs, behaviors, assumptions, double-standards, etc., especially those that i’m not typically aware of. this requires a massive, life-long process of self-reflection and evaluation, one that i will happily and willingly pursue, though with points of confusion and difficulty, i’m sure. this same kick into gear needs to happen on so many levels, though, before we see a genuine cultural shift in our society. get this message out there and challenge people to check and double check and be thoughtful in their beliefs and actions. i’m willing to bet that the most robust change in our culture will come from awakening those whose mindsets are currently apathetic or unclear about these issues. thanks for your post and for pushing me, and all of us, to be more aware of ourselves and of our impact on others.

  2. bria says:

    This is a moving article, echoing what sunree said. The un-stigmatized acceptance of LGBT peoples and their lifestyles is, unfortunately, nowhere near accomplished, even in liberal communities such as Stanford that purport such acceptance. Coming from the South (as I’ve mentioned before), there was nowhere near the level of openness that we’ve achieved in the West relating to LGBT issues; other societies and cultures, I’m sure, are no better.

    During section, we discussed the possibility that the abusers in lesbian relationships may be emulating male/female gender roles to some extent. I’d be interested to know if you feel as if there is any validity to that argument.