Blue Rinse Blues? Older Lesbians’ Experiences of Domestic Violence
Pervasive public stories about intimate relationships, as Jamieson (2002) has
suggested, have a significant impact on both public and private lives. The dominant
story about domestic violence has placed the phenomenon within heterosexual
relationships, rendering the experiences of same-sex couples, especially partnerships
involving older women, silent (Todd, 2011). The intimate relationships of lesbians,
however, have undergone significant changes in recent years. The introduction of the
Civil Partnership Act (2004) has created the first legitimate lesbian couples in the UK,
and with that have come the first ‘legitimate’ victims of lesbian domestic violence. As
dominant discourses about same-sex domestic violence emerge, I explore whose story
is left untold. Based on interviews from ESRC-funded research into community
responses to lesbian domestic violence, I argue that cultural stereotypes about age,
gender and class have a significant impact on whose story is listened to.
There has long been the need for a paradigmatic shift in sociological studies of
intimate lives and, in particular, there has been relatively little research to date in the
area of lesbian domestic violence (see Ristock, 2002; Hester and Donovan 2009).
Research into lesbianism has traditionally existed within a different academic
framework, reflecting a preoccupation with sexuality and identity: hence where
domestic violence is mentioned lesbians are largely absent and where lesbians are
mentioned domestic violence is absent. The few studies which have been conducted,
mainly in the US, indicate that this is a very real problem within the lesbian
‘community’ (see, for example, Kaschak, 2001). Within the last five years or so,
however, there seems to have been a growth of interest in this issue in the United
Kingdom, resulting in a small but burgeoning presence at sociological conferences.
Part of what I want to look at is why this sudden interest, who is doing the talking,
and who may benefit from the way we talk about it? This chapter explores the ways in
which lesbian domestic violence had been addressed, if at all, in lesbian and feminist
groups. In part this research is in response to some earlier studies which have
attempted to suggest either that there has been a collective feminist and lesbian refusal
to acknowledge the issue of lesbian domestic violence, or that the existence of lesbian
domestic violence undoes all the work feminists have done in the past to explain and
better understand heterosexual domestic violence. For example, Girshick, reflecting
on the ways in which male-to-female domestic violence has been used as a tool to
fight sexism, claimed that ‘the feminist analysis views violence as inherently
male…and to admit woman-to-woman violence would discredit this analysis’ (2002:
55). I want to avoid that dangerous slippage whereby we assume that because ‘women
do it too’ we should move away from a gendered analysis of violence to look at why
people are violent. This can lead to a worrying neo-liberal trend to individualize such
problems, rather than focusing on the wider socio-political and historical contexts.
Women and lesbians do not live outside of patriarchal and heterosexist ideologies and
institutions. Violence is still very much gendered; the vast majority of violent crime,
rape and abuse is perpetrated by men against women and we should not forget that
(Walby and Allen, 2004). Even in the context of lesbian domestic violence we need to
consider gender; if violence is considered an attribute of men for example, how does
this impact on expectations of who is violent within a lesbian context? And are these
assumptions gendered, centring on butch/femme dynamics for example? Although
neither partner in a lesbian relationship enjoys male privilege and power, lesbians
occupy other identity/power positions through living in a society that promotes
hierarchy, power differentials, inequality and violence. These are endemic to
patriarchy and can occur in all relationships lived in this cultural milieu. Same-sex
relationships are directly influenced by other societal power inequalities that impact
all citizens, including sexism, and those based in class, age, and ethnic inequality, as
well as interpersonal differences in power (Best, 2006). Rather than presenting
women’s violence as the cost of feminism, a feminism which according to Linda
Kelly (2003) deliberately obscures women’s violence, could we see it as an old story
which is, through the endeavours of feminism, beginning to be heard more widely?
This chapter will focus primarily on one strand of my research, namely the various
ways in which age intersects with understandings of, and responses to, lesbian
domestic violence; and the ways in which perceived exclusionary practices within
lesbian communities impact on the women’s sense of belonging. First, I provide an
overview of recent key research in the area. This is followed by a brief outline of my
own research methods, before exploring the ways in which age and cohort effects, in
interplay with class, shape responses to lesbian domestic violence.
Researching Lesbian Domestic Violence
At the time of undertaking this research, there were a number of doctoral projects on
same-sex domestic violence taking place (for example Barnes, 2011; Scott, 2011).
Hester and Donovan’s (2006) research was the first study in Britain to compare
violence between heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Preliminary findings
suggest that first same-sex relationships are the relationships in which domestic
violence is most likely to take place. Additionally, Browne’s (2007) research provided
much needed data about same-sex domestic violence, disabilities and mental health
issues. Though these studies offer insight into the phenomenon from a UK standpoint,
sustained analysis of the intersections of age, class and sexuality has not been
adequately provided in relation to domestic violence, though this has been attended to
elsewhere (see Taylor et al, 2010).
Much previous research had been conducted using survey methods, being concerned
with mapping the extent of the problem; an understandable focus given that the goal
has been to establish lesbian domestic violence as a substantive social problem
(Renzetti, 1992). A qualitative method was, I felt, vital for this study in order to
redress some of the existing imbalances. Established methodologies in research into
domestic violence have often been criticized by lesbians for not including the voices
of lesbians (Ristock 2002). More generally, it has been argued that the voices of
lesbians have historically frequently been silenced, a silence which my research will
remedy. The 25 participants, recruited via snowballing methods and purposive
sampling, came predominantly from the North East of England, though some were
from North Korea and others lived in the United States, Australia and Italy. What the
women had in common was involvement with British lesbian ‘communities’ at
various times over their life course, as well as being able to reflect on experiences in
LGBT communities elsewhere in the world. Because the research was about charting
how this issue had been discussed over the years, I deliberately selected women who
spanned four broad age categories, to help reflect the significant changes in lesbian
feminist politics over the last 40 years or so. Thus, participants ranged in age from 24
to 73. Given the wealth of literature on class and sexuality, it is surprising that studies
into lesbian domestic violence have largely overlooked the impact social class might
have on issues related to lesbian domestic violence. My participants were thus
selected to represent those from working and middle class positions. This is not to say
that social class and age are the only social variables which would have an impact on
understandings of lesbian domestic violence, others include, for example, issues
surrounding ethnicity and disability. Due to likely samples, I decided not to include
these, although all bar one of the participants are ‘white’ and that is a racialized
position. This is not to suggest that these social variables are less important than
social class or age, but rather that they should be considered in their own right.
The time has come, it would appear, for particular stories about lesbian domestic
violence to be told, which in itself is an interesting phenomenon. What is also of
interest is what conditions have led to particular stories being told at particular times,
and what has contributed to the suppression of others (Plummer, 1995). I draw on
Plummer’s (1995) work on sexual stories when approaching this research topic.
Sensitivity to the context in which stories are told, the discourses which produce
particular stories and an audience primed to listen, is a necessary counter to the
danger of missing out the complexities of storytelling and story hearing. There are
many ways, I suggest, in which age and class may impact on understandings of
lesbian domestic violence and whose story can be told. Life experiences and sense of
(dis)comfort in particular places, for example, impact on the kinds of stories told and
listened to. Berger and Quinney argue that ‘society runs through our blood. We are
not separate from it’ (2005: 8), and personal history and experience structure
interactional behaviour and shape expectations. This, I argue, becomes significant in
shaping social networks in later life, and thus forging the settings in which stories
about lesbian domestic violence are either told or silenced. Like Plummer, I stress the
social role of stories, 'the ways [stories] are produced...the work they perform in the
wider social order, how they change, and their role in the political process' (Plummer,
1995: 19). Narratives can be explored as representations of knowledge which are
imposed on lived reality to construct meaning, but I believe more importantly, they
can also be examined as an ontological condition of social life whereby narrative is
not just an explanatory device but is actually constitutive of the way we experience
social life. In this sense, I encourage a move to consider the social conditions which
enable stories to be produced and heard. Doing so highlights how a story never stands
alone but is rather linked to broader contexts or previous stocks of knowledge. Such
an approach is vital in an attempt to understand lesbian domestic violence; stories
must have an audience at least partly prepared to hear them if they are to achieve
currency. At the time of writing, a certain sexual story of lesbian domestic violence
appears to be having such a moment, but why now? Foucault (1979) argues that what
is left out of discourse is often as important as or more important than what is left in.
Discourses, he argues, only have meaning in reference to what is absent, speech can
only be understood in the context of what is not said. Discourse and silences, if you
will, function alongside one another. It is with these ideas in mind, that I look to the
stories of lesbian domestic violence which were (and were not) being told.
Consequently, the next sections reflect on the ways in which time (cohort effects) and
age have impacted on the responses to, and understandings of, lesbian domestic
violence of the women interviewed in this study.
There are several acknowledged methodological issues concerned with studying age,
primarily when trying to work out which phenomena are a result of becoming or
being a certain age and which result from belonging to a certain cohort. Like Glenn
(2005), I argue that age, period and cohort effects must be considered as a package
because the three kinds of effects are so closely interrelated that it is impossible to
deal empirically with one without dealing with the others. Ryder (1965) argued for the
importance of recognising ‘cohort as a structural category with the same kind of
analytic utility as…social class’ (1965: 851). By placing cohort as a key analytical
tool, Ryder drew on the arguments of Mannheim (1952 ). Three elements,
Mannheim suggested, make up a generation – a shared temporal location (birth
cohort), shared historical location (exposure to a common period) and finally a shared
socio-cultural location (generational consciousness). Such factors predispose
individuals to particular modes of thought. These modes of thought have bearing on
the kinds of stories about lesbian domestic violence which are told or silenced. Within
this chapter I shall address the ways in which age impacts on understandings of
lesbian domestic violence but I shall also consider cohort effects. By this, I mean the
ways in which lives are shaped by different historical roots, tied through particular
An Age Old Story?
Ageing is increasingly becoming an issue of importance, not least because we are an
ageing population. In addition, with the formation of a coalition government, between
the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties (following the U.K.’s general
election of May 2010), pressures on older people have increased - and are likely to
continue to do so (Todd, 2012). In particular, these pressures result from the
determination of the Con-Dem government to cut the national economic deficit
rapidly, by making swingeing cuts to public services - including the National Heath
Service and care for the elderly. We know that older people are disadvantaged in the
labour market, partly because they are perceived as being unable to learn new skills.
Older people are more likely to live in poverty. It is also important to remember that
older people are not a heterogeneous group with similar needs; they are a diverse
group reflecting different social divisions (Cronin and King, 2010; Cronin and King,
this volume). In other words, structural inequalities persist into old age. Nevertheless,
until recently the research community, with some exceptions (Heaphy et al., 2003),
has largely ignored older lesbians, and recruiting has often been limited to those
active on the scene. The lack of a focus on age may, in part, be due to the fact that
older lesbians are a particularly hard to reach population. It may also be because, as
Heaphy et al. (2003) suggest, the lack of recognition of age stems from a focus on
sexuality as a key determining factor of lesbian and gay experience. The potential to
age as an ‘out’ lesbian, in a comparatively tolerant society is a relatively recent
phenomenon and is itself a consequence of social change (Weeks, 1986).
My respondents, in common with those of Heaphy et al. (2003) were very aware of
what they perceived to be youth-orientated lesbian communities, and felt less
involved and increasingly excluded. Several of the older lesbians I interviewed were
mothers and carers, and as such had diminished chances of accumulating financial
security through an adequate pension and savings. Many lesbians are disadvantaged
both by the gendered, and the heteronormative, nature of the labour market (Bernard
and Phillips, 1998). This, I suggest, coupled with the fact that older women are more
likely to be in long-term relationships and living with their partners, means that
leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult. The value of friendships amongst the
women I interviewed was striking. Many of the women in my study relied on
informal, hidden and local networks, in part because there are few organized networks
for older lesbians. However, it must be stressed that, particularly for older women,
such ‘families of choice’ were constrained by geography and finances (Taylor,
2009b). Many women expressed a sense of risk involved in being open about their
sexuality in the local community, as Heaphy et al. explain: ‘older lesbians may have
particular concerns about “going public” about their sexuality, and experience greater
pressures to conceal their sexual identities’ (2003: 6). The fact that I had problems,
initially, recruiting older lesbians for my survey may well be as a result of such
concerns: if this is so, it would mean we are not hearing their stories about lesbian
domestic violence. It is also important to remember that coming out is not a ‘once and
for all’ event, which is often the dominant assumption of a heteronormative culture.
Most of the older women I interviewed, for example, wanted to be discreet about who
they came out to, a problem which they frequently had to negotiate, and again, one
which will impact on who may be told stories of lesbian domestic violence.
These women also held limited expectations of community support in a context of
recognition and respect for who they were:
Lesbian community is a self-chosen and created community of the
oppressed for survival and resistance. It is a political community.
A lesbian community has to be based on common ethical values.
They used to be feminist ones. There are now huge problems with
the expanded community because feminist values have been
attacked and derided.
(Fiona, 57, middle class)
Fiona, a lesbian feminist campaigner and educator in British communities of the
1970s and 80s, now living in Australia, compares contemporary lesbian communities,
understood as visible, economically-thinking urban commercial scenes (bars, clubs
and social spaces), negatively with hidden, political or caring communities of the past
(not all women, however, felt they had access to these caring communities of
yesteryear; class in particular, acted as a determinant of acceptance) (Fish, 2008). For
some women, this had less to do with increasing commercialization and more to do
with predominant ageist values. Related to this is the belief that to be lesbian is less
about political choice, and more about sexual identity. Modern conceptions of self are
increasingly rooted in the body, and the ageing body is generally posed as a problem
in contemporary cultures (Mellor and Shilling, 1993). This is not an individual
problem but rather it shapes social interactions, producing stereotypes of the older
individual as isolated, excluded and lonely. Ageing in youth-orientated cultures can
thus present the possibility of non-identity. Older lesbians are women who are
experiencing an uncomfortable contradiction; they have experienced an increasingly
open sexualization of identity, while at the same time becoming subject to the
convention that sexuality is inappropriate for older age, as Rebecca suggests:
It can be really frustrating, I make lots of efforts to work with
younger lesbians, a kind of mentoring program, and then you go
out on the scene or to community events and young women look at
you like you’re not welcome, too old to enjoy yourself. I want to
walk up and tap them on the shoulders and say if it wasn’t for
women like me, all the campaigning we did, you wouldn’t be
having such an easy time of it. Give me a break.
(Rebecca, 47, middle class)
Perceived exclusion from the scene one feels one helped shape no doubt is a bitter pill
to swallow, and Rebecca’s experiences resonate with the findings of Heaphy et al.
(2003). Such women as Rebecca thus suffer both direct and indirect discrimination.
The image of the older lesbian as depressed, isolated, desperate and sexless is
prevalent (Gin and Arber, 1995), and risks are associated with an ‘out’ identity in
certain circumstances, meaning there is little sense of support from lesbian
communities. For example, if you feel your values are derided or you are just ‘too
old’ to enjoy yourself, it may mean that there are few safe spaces in which to discuss
lesbian domestic violence. Such views of older lesbians as isolated, desperate and
vulnerable also render potential perpetrators (and victims) of domestic violence
invisible, as Annette suggests:
I don’t think we focus enough on age, whether in a heterosexual or
same-sex situation. There’s some stuff on elder abuse but I mean
domestic violence. I think older people are seen as safe somehow
and so we might not think that they can be violent but I know for a
fact they are. A friend of mine was abused by her partner who was
much older and I don’t think people believed her partly because of
the age of her partner.
(Annette, 24, working class)
A friend of mine is in a care home and she had real problems
getting the care workers to recognise her partner and to let her stay
over. She had some funny stories about it but really, it’s
(Jean, 56, working class)
It may be that we find it easier to conceptualize the possibility of an older victim of
domestic violence, as this comfortably maps onto our stereotypes about older women.
Jean’s comment demonstrates that despite political changes in relation to same-sex
relationships, lesbian couples, especially involving older women, frequently remain
invisible. Because older lesbians may be viewed as asexual, the potential is for that
victim to be viewed as a victim of elder abuse, rather than a victim of lesbian
domestic violence (O’Keefe et al., 2007). The next section reflects in more detail on
the significance of social change for the women I interviewed, and its impact on
discussion of lesbian domestic violence.
In order to reflect on the possible implications time may have on debates about
lesbian domestic violence, at the outset of the research I devised two timelines, one of
key moments that may have been significant in the lives of lesbians and feminists, and
another of key literature. I used these timelines to select participants, by recruiting
women of varying ages, who would have experienced some of those significant
events. On examining the key moments it was possible to view the changes in lesbian
communities as broadly following a pattern from repression and victimization (pre-
1967), through to a ‘politics of difference’ (1967-1997), resulting in what could
currently be described as a ‘politics of sameness’ (Pugh, 2005). Such changes, I felt,
must surely have had an impact on the women who had lived through them, and this
was something which had not been explored fully in the existing literature. I therefore
used the interviews as an opportunity to ask the women what events or texts had held
significance in their own lives. What I wanted to consider were the ways in which, as
Mannheim (1952) has discussed, the generations have contributed to social change
and how this has impacted on the stories they tell. Gin and Arber (1995: 1-3)
purported that the connectedness of gender and ageing must be understood as
stemming from both social change over time and from age-related life course events. I
argue that sexuality needs to be included in this dynamic. The complexities of gender
and ageing have only just begun to be studied, so it is perhaps not surprising that
sexuality has attracted even less attention. This contributes to the social invisibility of
older lesbians, which stems from the historical invisibility of lesbians’ lives in
mainstream social and cultural life. It is the product of what Blasius (1994) calls the
‘heterosexual panorama’, which works in conjunction with compulsory
heterosexuality (Rich, 1980), to confirm heterosexuality as the only visible and
legitimate option. It also stems from the idea that sexuality is a private matter.
Certain events loomed large in the lives of the women I interviewed. One of the
earliest was the defection of Burgess and MacLean in 1951:
I can vaguely remember the whole furore around Burgess and the
fact that he was a ‘filthy homosexual’
(Barbara, 73, working class)
In part the scandal surrounding the defection was the fact that these were two upper-
class English men defecting to the Soviet Union, and the revelation that they were gay
was to cement the outrage, and perhaps even explain it (Vargo, 2002: 83)1. Awareness
of the fact that a homosexual identity was a stigmatized one as far as much of society
was concerned may well have impacted on the ability to talk about lesbian domestic
violence for many women at the time, and in later years.
The Wolfenden Report of 1957 was also mentioned by a couple of the women. In
1957, the Wolfenden Committee recommended the decriminalization of gay male
practices (DCHOP, 1957). The 1967 Sexual Offences Act (England and Wales), put
the Wolfenden recommendations into law, decriminalizing consensual sexual
practices in private places between adult males. In effect, the Act discriminated
against gay men by setting the age of consent at 16 for heterosexual sex and 21 for
(male) same-sex relations. Rosenfeld (2003) has argued that such political, social or
cultural events are of crucial importance in relation to sexual identity, particularly
1 The combined fear of communism and homosexuality was a pervasive one in the 1950s. In England
and Wales the arrest of gay men rose by 50 percent between 1950 and 1955, in part as a result of
deliberate ‘sting’ operations, with homosexuality frequently being linked to general subversiveness and
threats to the nation (Vargo, 2002: 103).
when an individual first identifies as straight or gay, making the difference between
an accredited or discredited sexual identity. Despite the fact that women were never
included in age of consent laws, in effect, all same-sex relations were rendered
undesirable. A couple of the older women I interviewed went through a period of
what could be understood as heteronormative conformity in their 20s, opting to marry
and have children. Perhaps this was perceived as the only option in a time when a
lesbian identity was a particularly stigmatized one2. This certainly reflects the findings
of Pugh (2005) who argues that the current generations of lesbian and gay older
people almost invariably have histories of protecting themselves from social prejudice
by hiding who they are, whether through heterosexual marriages or taking opposite-
sex friends to work-related social events. Others ‘simply’ pretended to be single or
lied about their hobbies and interests. Many turned down jobs and other opportunities
that threatened their efforts to appear heterosexual. As Pugh (2005) argues, such
ruptures in the life course are particularly significant in the lives of older lesbians,
who are more likely to have felt pressure to marry. In such an atmosphere, even if an
individual is ‘out’ within a lesbian community, it is understandable that discussion of
lesbian domestic violence may not be welcomed, particularly if that story may be used
to perpetuate stereotypes about lesbians. As Rebecca explains:
The community has provided much support and guidance for a lot
of us. To then ‘come out’ as a community or an individual within
that community and say ‘look, we are violent too, it’s not just men
after all’, well, it’s just terribly difficult, to confirm everyone’s
stereotypes about us, to contradict the belief that our relationships
are equal and loving, and we really did believe that. It’s difficult
but we have to do it.
(Rebecca, 47, middle class)
Several of the women I interviewed were involved in early work on heterosexual
domestic violence in the 1970s, and many of them saw lesbianism as a political
alternative to patriarchal relations. This understandably, produced a climate where
discussion of women’s use of violence might be problematic. For a minority of
2 Such challenges are shared by older trans people who came of age during decades when transgender
people was either unheard of or heavily stigmatized and pathologized, thus marriage was a necessary
route to hide their identity (Sanger, 2010).
women, the fact that such a difficult topic as lesbian domestic violence is not talked
about much meant that it does not exist as a significant problem:
I know that Women’s Aid nationally is predominantly staffed by
lesbians, so that if it had been an issue for the lesbian community
I’m sure they would know and would have addressed it…but I
don’t think the lesbian couple is such a big trap as the heterosexual
couple…I don’t think women seek to possess women in the kinds
of ways that some men have.
(Barbara, 73, working class)
Barbara’s assumptions follow feminist critiques of the institution of marriage and its
role in domestic violence (Clark, 1995); a debate that is curiously silent during current
demands for same-sex marriage. Rather than always serving to suppress discussions
of violent women, however, for many of the women work around domestic violence
more generally opened up a (small) space in which to discuss lesbian domestic
In Eugene and Portland much of the early domestic violence work,
in the 70s I’m talking about, got started by lesbians, and we also
acknowledged lesbian domestic violence from the very beginning,
and in community meetings too.
(Penny, 54, middle class)
Clearly, in early discussions about lesbian domestic violence, particular stories were
being told and others suppressed, at times leading to the view that, for example,
feminists, and women more generally, are not violent. The 1980s, however, signalled
a new phase of activism for several of the women I interviewed. For example, despite
the fact that early responses to AIDS/HIV came from gay (male) communities
(Richardson, 2000) at a time when lesbian and gay movements were developing along
separate lines, several of the women worked in health, or related, professions, and
AIDS/HIV touched on many issues with which they were already familiar, such as
reproductive rights and control over one’s sexuality. In addition, early on in the
1980s, lesbians were initially also perceived as high-risk (Richardson, 2000: 120). A
few of the women, for example, could recount the feeling of being lesbian at a time of
homophobic media attention.
Many of the women also mentioned the campaigning around Section 28 which they
were involved in. This, coupled with prominent and widespread homophobic media
representations of AIDS (Richardson, 1989), created a highly charged moment in
which to be lesbian or gay in Britain. The pro-Section 28 discourse differentiated
between the undesirable political gay and the acceptable, apologetic good gay. Such
distinctions between the good and bad gay perhaps already existed within lesbian
communities, in debates around SM for instance. Supporters of Section 28 often drew
explicitly on Thatcherite and Powellian racist discourses of ‘disease, foreign
invasions, inassimilable “other” cultures, dangerous criminals, subversive
intellectuals, excessive permissiveness’ (Smith, 1994: 22)3. During the Thatcher
administration homophobic attitudes in society increased markedly. It is not
surprising that during this time some of the women I interviewed were very cautious
about the contexts in which they spoke about lesbian domestic violence, as Barbara
I think there’s a huge difference between discussing it within the
community and it being raised from the outside and I think some
people who were attempting to raise it from the outside were doing
so from weird agendas that seemed to have more to do with
attacking feminism than concern for the community or the lesbians
they were persuading to speak out.
(Barbara, 73, working class)
Such caution, however, is often read as feminist denial (Kaschak, 2001). It also raises
the question of who is considered legitimately able to tell a story, echoing feminist
debates regarding whether men can effectively research women’s lives. The debates
in lesbian communities in the 1980s, as outlined above, were to prove to be one of the
catalysts for promoting discussion of lesbian domestic violence. The lesbian ‘sex
wars’ and the supposed self-policing nature of lesbian communities at this time (Eves,
2004), actually opened up a space for talking about difficult issues, as Fiona suggests:
It became an issue in the early 80s in London. I was in Lesbians
Against Sadomasochism from 1984…I see SM as a variety of
3 Similarly, during the smear campaign against Peter Tatchell (a human rights campaigner and member
of the gay rights group OutRage!, Tatchell stood as a Labour Party candidate), in the 1983 Bermondsey
by-election, Tatchell’s sexuality was linked with anti-patriotic feeling in the wake of the Falklands
War, the effect being to tar the politics of the left with ‘filthy homosexuality’, in much the same way as
had happened with Burgess and MacLean (Smith, 1984: 187).
lesbian violence, the SM issue really brought up the issue of
lesbian domestic violence for me.
(Fiona, 57, middle class)
In organizing workshops when working with Women Against Violence Against
Women (WAVAW), Fiona facilitated seminars on lesbian domestic violence. Rather
than become a moment of silence and repression, this is one example where lesbian
feminism of the early 1980s opened up space for new debates, as argued by Jeffreys
(1993). It has been argued by some, however, that at this time only a particular/partial
story was being told and that the voices of butch or SM victims of lesbian domestic
violence would not have been heard or considered ‘authentic’ (Ristock, 2002). The
1980s and associated SM debates were clearly a time of repression as well as debate.
Despite many of the women felling disillusioned with New Labour politics, it was felt
that policies implemented by the then Labour government heralded a shift in the ways
in which lesbian domestic violence was responded to.
New Labour, New Britain?
In the U.K., a range of gay and lesbian equality policies have been put in place by the
New Labour governments of Blair and Brown, which were in power in the UK
between 1997 and 2010, covering the period of this study (Wilson, 2007). The age of
consent has been equalized, civil partnerships which legally recognize same-sex
couples have been introduced, along with increased access to fertility treatment,
adoption and fostering. There have also been changes in the law which offer more
protection to gay men and lesbians such as the repeal of Section 28, recognition of
hate crimes against gay men and lesbians (Criminal Justice Act, 2003), anti-bullying
policies in schools centred on sexual orientation and anti-discrimination legislation in
employment (Equality Employment Regulations, 2003; Equality Act Regulations
2007). For Weeks (2007), it has been a period of profound social/sexual revolution.
Whether or not these changes have been enforced by the European Court of Human
Rights, rather than any deep-seated change in opinions, such amendments have
nonetheless created a perceived climate of liberal attitudes for many of the women I
interviewed. Perhaps it is coincidental that this is also a period when most research in
Britain into lesbian domestic violence has been conducted; however, it could be
argued that State policies focusing on equality have played their part in enabling a
particular story about lesbian domestic violence to be heard. Certainly, some of the
women I interviewed felt that a renewed interest in lesbian domestic violence was as a
result of top-down equal opportunity policies but that, nevertheless, this was to be
welcomed. Irrespective of views about the rights and wrongs of civil partnerships,
having a legally recognized relationship means that for the first time in history (some)
abused lesbians are recognized as such, as victims with a story to tell. The dominant
story of the moment may well be a normative one, used to claim that ‘we are all the
same’, as some women suggested, but it stands alongside other stories which may be
used to ‘prove’ the inherent deviancy of lesbians (see Ashford, 2011 for more on
Now lesbians who came out in the 1950s, 60s and 70s are approaching middle age and
beyond, many of them ageing members of the radical ‘baby boom’ generation. Yet the
ageing of the population as a whole and the increase in numbers of older ‘out’ lesbians
has not resulted in older lesbians gaining a greater voice in the community to the
extent one might imagine. Many excellent anthologies do not consider representations
of older lesbians, with the exception of a few texts (for example Richardson and
Seidman, 2002). Instead they focus on a younger lesbian, ignoring the relationships
between the older individual and her community. The latter concerns are especially
silenced in a culture which has ‘sold out to youth at the expense of age and is now
having to reconsider the cultural, socio-economic and political meanings of age in a
rapidly ageing society’ (Griffin, 1993: 161). Despite the fact that age, and the
meanings we attach to it, is socially and culturally constructed, it clearly has material
consequences. Many of my respondents felt that class was significant in terms of who
were considered to be ‘authentic’ members of the community. There is now a wide
literature which highlights the relevance of class and age within lesbian communities
(McDermott, 2004; Taylor, 2007) , with which Shirley’s experiences resonate.
The middle class groups are definitely culturally powerful and it
would be a brave person who challenged them, their values.
Certainly when I was younger I would not have felt comfortable
doing this. I think it requires a confidence which comes with being
middle class, an ability to articulate, to challenge, those skills
taught in middle class schools.
(Shirley, 43, working class)
Shirley, an academic with experience of both working class and middle class lesbian
communities in Britain, explains how middle class lesbians are, for her, the ones with
the ‘cultural capital’ to decide what happens within the community, and operate in
ways that exclude working class lesbians (see Taylor, 2005). To an extent, Shirley’s
experience of lesbian communities parallels some of the debates from the 1980s,
before ‘difference’ became a buzzword, which constructed hegemonic feminism as
middle class and unrepresentative (Phillips, 1997). For Shirley and some of the other
working-class women, class habitus mediates experience of lesbian communities and
the interactions within. For many of the women, linguistic confidence and social ease
of the middle classes, distinguish them from the working classes (McDermott, 2006),
making it difficult to challenge what is, or is not, on the agenda. She also highlights
one of the ways in which class and age intersect, suggesting that confidence to broach
a difficult subject comes, not only with the ‘valued’ class, but also with age.
Many writers have pointed to a growing perception of community as ‘the scene’, and
a highly commodified one at that, and an awareness of the strength of the ‘pink
pound’ (see, for example, Guidotto, 2006). Several of the women in my study
commented on this and linked it to a perception of lesbian communities as
increasingly geared towards the youth market. Such contemporary, ‘problematic’
scene spaces were also viewed, conversely, by some of the middle class women as
inherently working class:
The community is very incestuous, younger women, the working
classes, those who enjoy pub culture, I would see as being ‘in’ and
as such, there is no space for any discussion about an issue like
lesbian domestic violence.
(Rebecca, 47, middle class)
Many of the women I interviewed, working and middle class alike, perceived so-
called working class space as excessive and potentially violent (Moran and Skeggs,
2004). Working class space is here associated with violence. It is also linked with a
particular (working class) way of being lesbian. Bodily appearance, Lawler has
argued, is assumed to indicate a deeper, pathologized psychology (2008). When
considered with reference to lesbian communities, many have suggested that the butch
lesbian has suffered such pathologization (Munt, 1998). Perhaps these identities tell
us more about those producing the stereotypes, and not the (perceived) working class
lesbians themselves. Such identities may be conferred on people rather than
necessarily being claimed. Unchallenged, middle class identities are allowed to pass
as normal: ‘what we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by
the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put
into effect’ (Skeggs, 2004: 126). In contrast with Rebecca, McDermott (2004) argues
strongly that those women from disadvantaged class positions find themselves in less
inviting spaces in which to tell their stories, spaces in which it may not be appropriate
to talk about lesbian domestic violence. There is also evidence to the contrary, which
suggests that perceived ‘working class’ spaces, frequently described as apolitical by
many of the women I interviewed, have enabled discussions of lesbian domestic
violence. Penny for example, suggests that:
Things have changed a lot, feminism’s become the F word and in
many ways that makes me really angry, when I think about all the
things we’ve had to fight so hard for, and young women sometimes
take that for granted. But they say every cloud has a silver lining
and I think we’ve lightened up a bit, we’re more easy going and
maybe that’s why we are acknowledging women’s use of violence.
(Penny, 54, middle class)
Penny suggests that with lesbianism no longer being feminism’s ‘magical sign’
(Wilton, 1995: 7), has come a more humanistic approach to thinking about violence,
enabling recognition of women’s use of violence. It is clear that there are dangers in
being lured into treating any group, such as older lesbians, as homogenous. As Taylor
(2009b) has argued, those who claim sameness and transformation (Giddens, 1992)
have not usefully explored divisions such as those along lines of class. There are very
real ways in which intersections, such as those of age and sexuality can effect
multiple inequalities and differences within a social group (Taylor et al, 2010).
It is clear that in the popular imagination, domestic violence conjures up a particular
public story. Jamieson (2002) argues that typically, pervasive public stories originate
with people in powerful positions within powerful institutions. However, in relation to
the public story about domestic violence, rather than coming from powerful
institutions, it has been the result of feminist activism. The outcomes have been both a
story of success and a story of exclusion. Arguably, within the social psyche,
domestic violence is a heterosexual phenomenon. Such understandings of domestic
violence prevent discussion about experiences that lie outside the defining boundaries,
thus denying opportunities for recognition and support for those living with such
experiences. Certainly among those in same-sex relationships, the overriding public
story has prevented many from recognising their experiences of domestic violence
(Ristock, 2002). The story that is presented about lesbian domestic violence
frequently cites lesbians and feminists as responsible for a collective silence, whilst
pointing to similarities to heterosexual domestic violence, but in such a way as to
neglect the differing constraints placed on some women, namely those found along
lines of class and age. Nevertheless, my research revealed that a number of lesbian
communities and feminist groups had addressed the issue of lesbian domestic
violence from the 1970s onwards. Failure to pay heed to the multiple inequalities
experienced by women suffering abuse in same-sex relationships will only serve to
further entrench existing inequalities.
When talking about ‘the lesbian community’, the women I interviewed were referring
to many smaller, at times overlapping, communities, identified by the type of lesbians
who are part of them. These communities or ‘subcommunities’, can act as regulatory
structures, with rules or codes about who is welcome and what can/cannot be said,
resulting in several of the women feeling ambivalent about the community and the
levels of safety they experience within them. Older women, in particular, felt
unwanted at lesbian events and thus were denied access to the support mechanisms
available to those welcomed in LGBT spaces. There is also a danger that this very real
social problem is slipping under the radar because of social stereotypes about older
people. Firstly, there is a suggestion that because we don’t conceptualise older women
as sexual beings the domestic violence they experience may be understood as elder
abuse (O’Keefe et al., 2007). Secondly, because older people are often viewed as
weak and vulnerable, we are unable to recognise older perpetrators of domestic
violence. Nevertheless, what these communities have in common is that, contrary to
the findings of other research (Kaschak, 2001), they have facilitated the discussion of
a very difficult topic.
Building a common language and perception takes time. In many ways, the story of
lesbian domestic violence has emerged as lesbian communities have, in a sense, gone
through stages of growing up over time. With each new generation comes, perhaps, a
slightly different articulation of the same story, a different social understanding,
whilst never entirely losing other understandings. My access to some stories and not
others no doubt, in some ways, has its roots in the history of lesbian communities and
their changing natures. Feminism, arguably, opened up the first spaces for debate,
possibly precluding the hearing of some stories (the butch victim, the feminist
abuser), though most of the women I interviewed were able to listen beyond those
dominant discourses. It also reflects cultural and political shifts more broadly, and the
changing (at times uneasy) relationship Britain has had with ‘the lesbian’, and
expectations of who she is. Stigmatization of lesbians may well silence some women,
but as we have seen, it has also proved to be the catalyst for debating lesbian domestic
violence. Many ‘new’ sexual stories of sameness emerged alongside/as a result of
New Labour’s raft of neo-liberal policies. Since 2010, the new Con-Dem coalition
government looks set to continue such policies, proposing same-sex marriage for
instance. Normative stories of domestic violence within legally sanctioned
relationships may well, in the future, come to be the dominant story about lesbian
domestic violence but we must try to ensure we also listen for those stories which do
not fit the prevailing pattern.
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