Lepa Mlađenović is a feminist, lesbian and anti-war activist from Belgrade, co-founder of the lesbian organisation Labris and new group counselling for lesbians. She recently held a seminar together with Giovanna Camertoni on the topic of control and violence in lesbian relationships for the activists of the Anti-violence centres of the network against violence against women D.i.R.E. in Italy, organised together with Arcilesbica Nazionale. We will share some themes presented at this seminar.
First of all, Lepa stressed that same-sex couples in most countries do not have access to anti-violence centres, or that counsellors are not trained for such cases, except in Australia, Sweden, USA and Holland. But since lesbians, bisexual and transwomen are an even more vulnerable group of women, this problem must be addressed with particular care and consider the wider social and political context.
In explaining the types of relationship violence, Lepa Mlađenović uses the typology developed by researcher Michael Johnson and widely used by feminist counsellors, and adapts it to lesbian relationships. The one-way violence (‘intimate terrorism’) type in lesbian relationships is characterised by one partner being controlling and abusive, and the other caring for the abuser. The abuser accuses the victim of being selfish or not good enough – and therefore responsible for the violence she experiences. In other words, the abuser feels like she is being the victim. The abuser is emotionally dependent on the victim which manifests in controlling behaviour such as constant telephone or skype calls.
In the two-way violence (‘mutual violent control’) type both partners express violence and controlling behaviour. One has the ‘role of caring’ and the other has a ‘need to be taken care of’ while actually both perceive their position as the position of power and their partner as the one in need. It is very likely that both partners in this kind of violent relationship had been abused in their childhood. They cope with that trauma by identifying with the position of the abuser or the position of the victim, and by this complementary identification they become highly dependent on each other. But since this relationship mirrors their traumatic past, they also feel contempt for each other and that fuels the violent and controlling behaviour.
The type of violence when one partner reacts violently as a self-defence against the other controlling and abusing partner is called ‘violent resistance’. The partner who defends herself usually feels guilty and thus prevents her partner to take responsibility for her behaviour. The fourth type is the affect initiated situational violence when no one of the partners is systematically abusive and controlling but violence occurs rarely in emotionally intense situations. The victims usually do not seek help because they tend to diminish the event.
When talking about how the social context affects lesbian relationships, Lepa underlines the fact that lesbians are victims of a double oppression – as women and as lesbians. Thus, the following factors must be taken in account when analysing this problem: 1. misogyny of society and internalised misogyny; 2. past sexual and family violence traumas – more often the case of the abusive partner; 3. lesbophobia and internalised lesbophobia; and 4. compulsive heterosexuality and internalised compulsive heterosexuality which causes that partners often feel they should not report the intimate violence in order to avoid outing and protect themselves from society’s lesbophobia and heteronormativity. Furthermore, 5. the fear of the ‘coming out’ process can also be a factor of threatening and controlling between the partners; 6. limited social space for lesbian identity – makes the victims worry that if they report the violence and end the relationship they might lose their lesbian identity; similarly, the limited lesbian community induces the feeling of having restricted choices – i.e. the feeling that if one reports the violence and leaves the relationship, she might be gossiped and isolated from the community; 7. the impact of intersectionality in lesbian relationships – differences in ethnicity, culture, race, mental or body abilities, class, and other social factors might produce power imbalances in the relationship; 8. high emotional expectations of love and equality prevent the partners of recognising violence: particularly, two aspects of the lesbian love story script, that it is secret and/or that it is for life, prevent the victims from reporting; and finally, 9. many women consider the love and pleasure they gain from their relationship as the most important experience of their lives and are therefore more ready to tolerate abuse.
At the end, Lepa emphasizes the values that must guide the professionals: confidentiality, trust, listening to each other’s positions and opinions, awareness of lesbian emotional histories, a proactive political attitude and solidarity with all women in the struggle against misogyny and lesbophobia.
Anti-violence centres of the network against violence against women D.i.R.E. in Italy and Labris are preparing the brochure from the seminar documents which will be distributed to the counsellors in the centres for women victims of violence in order to improve their knowledge about the specific characteristic of violent lesbian relationships.