We Need To Talk About Intimate Partner Abuse in the Bisexual Community

downloadIn 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the results of a survey into domestic- and intimate partner violence (IPV) in the USA. It found that 38% of bisexual men and 75% of bisexual women and had experienced physical or sexual or mental abuse from a partner. In the UK, Stonewall research has also found 75% of lesbian and bisexual women have experienced domestic abuse. Two thirds of the perpetrators were female.

We asked four bisexual survivors of domestic- and intimate partner violence to tell us their stories, and this is what we learned. [Contains frank descriptions of abuse in survivors’ own words]

We don’t have a frame of reference for our experiences

Stereotypes abound when it comes to partner violence. We believe men are abusers and women are abused and we believe same-sex relationships are by their nature free from violence. We believe abuse must be constant or else the victim is attention-seeking or being a drama queen. Those assumptions are ripe for debunking.

“The stereotype of an abuser is that they’re mean all of the time – that one doesn’t ring true”, Sandra, who escaped violence from her female partner in the 1980s, told us. “I had a struggle being believed by people who knew her socially because she was outwardly sweet, funny and charming and she had a sensory disability. When I told people after I got free, quite a few of them said they found it hard to believe. Only a friend of hers who’d known her for years put their heads in their hands and accepted what I was saying, because they’d seen her do it before. They’d seen her drunk and proudly talking about having put people in hospital – that was a side she didn’t show most people.

“I was fighting to defend my right to be with a female partner and hearing a lot from within the lesbian community about how men are the abusers and how women are wonderful for each other. I bought all of that even while I was making excuses for having bruises”.

Mark remembers being in a similar situation. Mia “self-defines as cis female, pansexual and submissive”, he tells me over email. She was petite, charming and feminine, and Mark was tall, gruff and solidly built, with a beard that would impress Brian Blessed. Mia used emotional manipulation and steadily escalating threats of violence towards herself and others to closely control Mark’s behaviour.

But the picture was so different from what partner violence is ‘supposed’ to look like, that Mark simply didn’t recognise what was happening to him. “[After contact with the police] I discussed it with some good friends. The overwhelming answer from them was ‘if she were the man I’d call it domestic violence without hesitation’. It took me a long time to really consider the experience as abuse. I generally think of it as a ‘fucked up relationship’”.

Even when the abuser does fit the heterosexual male template, the abuse might not. “I’m not exactly Little Mo”, says Foziah, in reference to the 2001 EastEnders domestic violence storyline. “He never laid a finger on me, and that’s what domestic violence is, isn’t it? It’s violence,” she adds, balling her fists and sparring at the webcam.

Today Foziah lives happily with her daughter in a suburb of Leeds. She’s a confident, independent and houseproud, keen when we speak to show off her wallpapering skills, but when we first met a decade ago she was a living a double life. Outwardly formidable and with a reputation in the office as capable and forthright, at home she was, in her own words, “controlled absolutely.”

“We married just after graduating, and I got a job quite quickly but he didn’t. I think he felt sort of emasculated”, she says. As his period of unemployment lengthened, Foziah’s husband began to demand total control over the couple’s finances, his wife’s social life, diet and even sleep patterns, using the threat of outing as his primary weapon. “It was slow”, she says, “incremental.”

“I suppose he didn’t really believe what he was doing himself.”

Abusers weaponise our sexuality

Each survivor we spoke described their abuser using biphobic memes to destroy their sense of self, isolate them from their community and undermine their autonomy, as well as using negative bisexual stereotypes to both justify and fuel their behaviour.

Cora, who witnessed an abusive parental relationship, experienced violence from a teenage boyfriend. “I think my ideas of what constituted acceptable behaviour among loved ones were incredibly warped. I could tell the behaviour he exhibited was abusive, but I’d also internalised the belief that it was my fault, and that I didn’t deserve to be treated better.

“Accusations of cheating with men and women alike were fairly regular, and became another [reason] for him to lose his temper and become threatening or violent,” they tell me, “with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that he never trusted me. I doubt my sexuality is why he didn’t trust me, but rather a convenient excuse.”

Sandra described the same tactic. “Alongside controlling who I spoke to, she’d say that she reckoned I ‘couldn’t wait’ to leave her for a man,” she says. “[I had to] reassure her constantly – which didn’t appear to work but not doing so would have got me into trouble.” By stigmatising their bisexuality, both Sandra and Cora’s abusers absolved themselves of responsibility for their behaviour, transferring blame not just to the abused, but to an aspect of their identity which they were unable to change, thus ensuring ammunition was always available.

Foziah’s husband used her sexuality slightly differently: “He knew I’d been with girls before him [and] threatened to tell my family. It was always hanging over me. If I misbehaved” – here, she corrects herself, still unlearning the behaviour he instilled – “if I did something he didn’t like, it was the first thing he’d say. The other thing he’d do is he’d say that I should be straight now, because I was with him, like it was an insult to him to call myself bisexual.

She pauses. “Actually, it’s sort of weird, isn’t it? He tried to make be ashamed for being bi, but then if he saw a woman he fancied on TV he’d taunt me with that too. Like, ‘I bet you want to fuck her’. He wouldn’t let it go until I agreed, but then he’d call me a slag and a lesbo. You start to believe it.”

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Researcher in bisexuality Sarah Head has found that bisexual people experience distinct patterns of abuse in the form of the control of sexual boundaries, with abusers often exploiting models of ethical non-monogamy to exert their control. In a mutually agreed polyamorous relationship with his abuser, Mark does not link the mistreatment he suffered directly with his sexuality, but nevertheless describes how Mia “changed the rules about how ‘things should be’ regularly.”

“She was able to see whomever she wanted. I was allowed to see people whom she saw as fit for me to see. The list of people who I was ‘allowed’ to see became reduced to practically nothing as she showed her displeasure at me being allowed to meet anyone”. At the same time, Mia used her own sexual relationship with Mark to exert her control: “[Because of consensual BDSM activity] she was able to manipulate a situation where I was slowly disempowered largely due to fear of legal reprisals,” he tells us. “More than once her threats were backed up by a sharp knife.”

Cora reports even more direct sexual coercion. “On a few occasions he prompted another woman into making advances on me to test my response, and later suggested that he wanted a threesome with this woman,” says Cora. “Like a foolish teenager with a desire to impress, I went along with his fantasy, but midway through the act he quietly excused himself with a promise to return quickly. He didn’t, and later went on to use my consent to pleasure someone else (at his request, may I add) as further ammunition.”

Fear of biphobia stops us from asking for help

Well documented institutional failings mean services meant to aid both the general public and queer people in particular are neither equipped to respond to bisexuals in crisis nor, mainly, aware of their need to improve. Today the website for Refuge, the best known domestic abuse organisation in the UK, contains only one mention of LGBT people. It is a link to a helpline that no longer exists.

With large numbers of bisexual people reporting negative experiences with the police, NHS and other services, it’s not surprising that our interviewees weren’t sure where to turn.

“I didn’t go to the police,” says Sandra. “I had previous experience of trying to get help when an ex was making death threats over the phone to me and of them being not just unhelpful but patronising and generally nasty. I tried talking to my GP and got told my relationship was not what God wanted.”

“It was my mum who helped me leave in the end,” she tells me. “Did I mention my mum is my absolute hero?”

We’ve learned to expect that authorities, whether through malice or accident, will probably make things worse, not better, for us, and too often our expectations are validated.

Cora recalls the involvement of public services only made the situation at home more precarious: “On one occasion the police were called after he’d deliberately taken an overdose of insulin because I’d tried to break up with him. When I tried to call an ambulance he grabbed my wrist and twisted hard so I’d drop the phone, then grabbed it and smashed it. […] I got a pleasant warning from my landlord the next day that they’d been notified of an altercation at my address and that anything else could result in me losing my tenancy, so that firmly put to rest my ability to trust the emergency services.”

Only Mark reports having a positive experience with police, who took him through the DASH (Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour Based Violence) Risk Checklist.

“During one outburst she stabbed herself in the leg twice and when I called an ambulance the police came too. She was screaming at me when they arrived. After she had gone to hospital the police did a domestic violence screening questionnaire with me”. The checklist rang bells for Mark and he started trying to break up with Mia. She would resist for months before fleeing while he slept.

As she had never experienced physical violence, Foziah had no contact with the police. Instead she sought help from her GP who referred her to the National Domestic Violence helpline.

“I talked through loads of stuff with them – the money and that. But I never mentioned the stuff related to my sexuality to either of them,” she tells me. Feeling afraid to disclose her sexuality, Foziah got valuable practical advice, but little catharsis.

“I remember getting a flyer for [now defunct LGBT domestic abuse charity] Broken Rainbow from somewhere but I don’t think I even considered it”, she says, “I didn’t think that was for me”.

***

All of the people I spoke to are now free from their abusive partners. With their own experiences now in the past, they are all keenly aware that partner abuse is made invisible in our community (“I think sometimes we think we’re above it”, says one) but that it nevertheless remains constant.

Cora’s email describing her experiences ends with a plea. “I just want anyone who might be experiencing or have experienced a similar situation to know that the abuse you’ve suffered wasn’t your fault at all. It wasn’t anyone’s fault but theirs. You deserve better, no matter what you might think right now”.

Quite so.

Domestic abuse is a crime.

To speak to someone in confidence about domestic violence and intimate partner abuse, call GALOP’s National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Trans Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0300 999 5428 or 0800 999 5428 or email help@galop.org.uk

 

Barking and Dagenham PCT has produced a guide for lesbian and bisexual women facing intimate partner violence. You can download it here.

 

All names have been changed.

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Libby Baxter-Williams

Libby is a 30-something Londoner, who spends more time reading picture books than is seemly. She became a bi activist entirely by accident, but now she can't imagine living any other way. In the event of an emergency, she'll have a large gin and tonic, thanks.
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3 Responses to We Need To Talk About Intimate Partner Abuse in the Bisexual Community

  • Rebecca says:

    But with so many local domestic violence units closing, where do you go? I am in a forced marriage that I was coerced into in 2002. I was put on antidepressants in 2003 shortly after i married which worsened my ill health and cause me to be physically aggressive – which of course made me feel like I was the abuser and gave family more leverage.
    The first time i tried to leave – 5 years later my mother told me taht my husband’s family had no right to treat me as they did – taht was her job – hitting me and controlling me – hers and my husband’s because ‘You are annoying’. She threatened to put me in a facility for people with learning disabilities when I tried to leave my husband and social services used my mental health spiralling down as a means to take away physical care support and effectively ruin my chances for my husband to cease being my carer so that I got little time alone. The Domestic violence refuges refused to take a disabled woman. On one occasion a refuge put the phone down on me so I have had to negotiate my own solutions although the police are aware of the fact it was a forced marriage I only found out they are illegal in 2016. Had I known when the legislation came out, i would have left and i am afraid that the CPS, Home office would not make a case from my situation given the power my relatives wield politically and socially.
    My partner’s sister (like mine) was emotionally abusive and her son eventually committed suicide. My own experiences at her hands compounded the effects of childhood abuse ad trauma and left me with PTSD. Between learning to fight back against abusers and PTSD reactions, and learnt behaviours from family , we both now have PTSD and feel complicit in a cycle of familial abuse.
    Things are easier now I am out and we share a house but effectively don’t try to make the marriage work on the terms it was set up in.
    But yes, i fear violence, I fear stress and I fear biphobia escalates the risks I pose and the risk others pose to me. As a disabled woman I know my options are limited even if I try to leave..

    • Elizabeth baxter-williams says:

      That sounds like an extremely stressful and tiring situation. I would urge you to call GALOP on the number above if you are able to. They have resource lists, and may be able to give you some more solid suggestions.

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