Domestic Violence Likely More Frequent for Same-Sex Couples

Domestic violence occurs at least as frequently, and likely even more so, between same-sex couples compared to opposite-sex couples, according to a review of literature by Northwestern Medicine® scientists. 

Previous studies, when analyzed together, indicate that domestic violence affects 25 percent to 75 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals. However, a lack of representative data and underreporting of abuse paints an incomplete picture of the true landscape, suggesting even higher rates. An estimated one in four heterosexual women experience domestic abuse, with rates significantly lower for heterosexual men. 

“Evidence suggests that the minority stress model may explain these high prevalence rates,” said senior author Richard Carroll, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Domestic violence is exacerbated because same-sex couples are dealing with the additional stress of being a sexual minority. This leads to reluctance to address domestic violence issues.”

The review was published Sept. 4 in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. The first author is Colleen Stiles-Shields, a student in the clinical psychology Ph.D. program at Feinberg.

Domestic violence - sometimes called intimate partner violence - is physical, sexual or psychological harm occurring between current or former intimate partners. Research concerning the issue began in the 1970s in response to the women’s movement, but traditionally studies focused on women abused by men in opposite-sex relationships.

“There has been a lot of research on domestic violence but it hasn’t looked as carefully at the subgroup of same-sex couples,” Carroll said. “Another obstacle is getting the appropriate samples because of the stigma that has been attached to sexual orientation. In the past, individuals were reluctant to talk about it.”

Domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence) can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income, or other factors.
The Victims

-  1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime.

-  Women experience more than 4 million physical assaults and rapes because of their partners, and men are victims of nearly 3 million physical assaults.

-  Women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than men

-  Women ages 20 to 24 are at greatest risk of becoming victims of domestic violence.

-  Every year, 1 in 3 women who is a victim of homicide is murdered by her current or former partner.

The Families

-  Every year, more than 3 million children witness domestic violence in their homes.

-  Children who live in homes where there is domestic violence also suffer abuse or neglect at high rates (30% to 60%).

-  A 2005 Michigan study found that children exposed to domestic violence at home are more likely to have health problems, including becoming sick more often, having frequent headaches or stomachaches, and being more tired and lethargic.

-  A 2003 study found that children are more likely to intervene when they witness severe violence against a parent – which can place a child at great risk for injury or even death.

Of the research that has examined same-sex domestic violence, most has concentrated on lesbians rather than gay men and bisexuals.

Domestic Violence Likely More Frequent for Same-Sex Couples' “Men may not want to see themselves as the victim, to present themselves as un-masculine and unable to defend themselves,” Carroll said.

He suggests that homosexual men and women may not report domestic violence for fear of discrimination and being blamed for abuse from a partner. They also may worry about their sexual orientation being revealed before they’re comfortable with it.

Mental health services for people involved in abusive same-sex relationships are becoming more common, but this population still faces obstacles in accessing help, reports the paper.

  According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families.

  In New York City, 25% of homeless heads of household became homeless due to domestic violence.

  Survivors of domestic violence face high rates of depression, sleep disturbances, anxiety, flashbacks, and other emotional distress.

  Domestic violence contributes to poor health for many survivors.  For example, chronic conditions like heart disease or gastrointestinal disorders can become more serious due to domestic violence.

  Among women brought to emergency rooms due to domestic violence, most were socially isolated and had fewer social and financial resources than other women not injured because of domestic violence.

  Without help, girls who witness domestic violence are more vulnerable to abuse as teens and adults.

  Without help, boys who witness domestic violence are far more likely to become abusers of their partners and/or children as adults, thus continuing the cycle of violence in the next generation.

  Domestic violence costs more than $37 billion a year in law enforcement involvement, legal work, medical and mental health treatment, and lost productivity at companies.

“We need to educate health care providers about the presence of this problem and remind them to assess for it in homosexual relationships, just as they would for heterosexual patients,” Carroll said. “The hope is that with increasingly deeper acceptance, the stress and stigma will disappear for these individuals so they can get the help they need.”

Domestic Violence Statistics

  Every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten.

  Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Most often, the abuser is a member of her own family.

  Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women - more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.

  Studies suggest that up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.

  Nearly 1 in 5 teenage girls who have been in a relationship said a boyfriend threatened violence or self-harm if presented with a breakup.

  Everyday in the US, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.

  Ninety-two percent of women surveyed listed reducing domestic violence and sexual assault as their top concern.

  Domestic violence victims lose nearly 8 million days of paid work per year in the US alone - the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.

  Based on reports from 10 countries, between 55 percent and 95 percent of women who had been physically abused by their partners had never contacted non-governmental organizations, shelters, or the police for help.

  The costs of intimate partner violence in the US alone exceed $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion are for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion.

  Men who as children witnessed their parents’ domestic violence were twice as likely to abuse their own wives than sons of nonviolent parents.

-Nora Dunne, content specialist at the Feinberg School of Medicine, is the author of this story.


Northwestern University

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