3 min

No more suffering in silence

Bringing lesbian spousal abuse out of the closet

Credit: Joshua Meles

The idea that all lesbians live in loving, nurturing and safe relationships is a comforting illusion, but far from reality.

A study conducted by Health Canada in 1998 found 20 percent of lesbians had experienced some form of emotional/psychological or physical violence in a relationship with a woman. The same study showed 11 percent of the lesbians surveyed had experienced physical violence and two percent had been sexually assaulted in a relationship.

Numbers like this provide hard evidence of the suffering endured by many lesbians. But what are the numbers not telling us? Considering the barriers associated with reporting abuse, and considering that many researchers openly stated that the majority of the women they spoke with were white, middle-class, able-bodied women, these findings are not representative of the entire population, and it is fair to guess that these numbers are probably higher.

According to Health Canada, “There are no reliable statistics that clearly demonstrate the scope of this problem. Studies have attempted to identify the incidence of lesbian violence, but there has been little consistency in the results. Lesbians must often rely on anecdotal reports to fully appreciate the scope of abuse within the lesbian community. The results from our survey indicate that 66 percent of the respondents (125 of 189) knew of lesbians who had experienced abuse in their relationships.”

Lesbian survivors of physical and sexual violence not only have the common concerns of other women survivors, but must contend with barriers and issues specific to lesbians as well. Lesbians are less likely to use shelters, medical services, legal services and police services to seek help. One explanation is that these services are often heterosexist, and not responsive to lesbian clients. Another is that when lesbians seek help, they can be forced to simultaneously come out.

If the perpetrator is well known within the community, or has threatened to “out” you to family and friends, two common situations among lesbian victims, isolation can become an unsurpassable barrier.

Lesbians may also fear that by talking about violence, they will reinforce negative stereotypes about homosexuality. Heterosexuals that abuse or are abused do not feel pressure to defend their community and sexual orientation when they are seeking help.

Compounding these issues are the feelings of self-blame, shame, low self-esteem and lack of confidence, anger and depression common to all victims of abuse in intimate relationships.

Lesbian victims of abuse also share with other victims a frequent difficulty in identifying abuse. According to Abuse in Lesbian Relationships: Information and Resource from Health Canada, “Many women do not recognise when a pattern of abuse has developed in their relationship. Rather, they perceive abusive behaviours as isolated incidents that are unrelated to one another. Yet abuse can often happen in cycles, so that abusive episodes are interspersed with calm, loving periods, characteristic of those positive things that initially drew the two women together.”

And what constitutes abuse is not always clear. The term “abuse” tends to imply physical violence and rape, but this type of overt abuse is often accompanied by more subtle forms of emotional abuse such as repetitive and excessive criticism, humiliation and degradation, restricting access to social resources or friends, economic manipulation, destruction of property and verbal threats.

Although there are counselling services out there which respond to the particular concerns of lesbians, there is a consensus among researchers that there is still a lot of work to be done. The Ottawa Police Service’s LGBT Community Liaison Committee works to build communication with the LGBT community and lower barriers so that everyone can access police services when they need them. There are also services that provide counselling while preserving the anonymity of their clients, such as the Rape Crisis Centre and PTS’s Gayline.


If you know a woman who is being abused, encourage her to access community resources and help her by exploring her options in a non-judgmental way.

If you are being abused, Health Canada advises you to seek counselling, and remember the following: “You cannot control or change your partner’s behaviour, she must take responsibility for her actions, no one has the right to abuse you, you do not have to be alone when dealing with abuse and you can tell someone what is happening to you.”

* Devorah Kobluk is a summer placement student at the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.


Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre 562-2333.

Gayline 238-1717.

Read Abuse in Lesbian Relationships online at