A recently released report confirms what a growing body of national and international research has shown: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people experience family and sexual violence at rates similar to, or higher than, heterosexual women.
Despite this, discussions about sexual and family violence continue to be both gendered and heterosexual – as something that men do to women. Our national policy for addressing sexual and family violence frames the problem largely in these terms.
Yet, research suggests other factors are also at play here. It’s time to re-think the centrality of gender-based power relationships in our understanding of sexual and family violence.
LGBTIQ family and sexual violence
The small but robust body of work on sexual and family violence against LGBTIQ people paints a concerning picture – although it should be noted that Australian data relating to intersex and queer communities is limited.
In the aforementioned report, more than half of the New South Wales-based LGBTIQ participants had experienced emotional abuse. A further third had experienced sexual or physical abuse in their relationships.
These findings echo previous Victorian research and other studies which indicate that rates of violence in same-sex relationships are similar to those in opposite-sex relationships. Rates of intimate partner homicide are comparable in opposite-sex and same-sex relationships.
In Australia, an estimated one in five women and one in 20 men experienced sexual violence or intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Women and men who identify as homosexual or bisexual have experienced two to four times those rates. While sexual violence is often a form of family violence, it does not always occur within a family violence context.
The focus on gender inequality as a basis for family and sexual violence downplays aspects of LGBTIQ people’s experiences that are directly related to their sexuality or gender identity.
Heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia often play a role in shaping the experiences of LGBTIQ people. If a person isn’t “out” about their identity, for instance, their perpetrator may use this as a threat against them to control their behaviour. Or they may claim such behaviour is “normal” in an “equal” same-sex relationship and that police will not take their complaints seriously.
Partners of transgender people can stop them from taking their hormone medication, or expressing their gender identity. Same-sex-attracted and gender-diverse people can also be targeted for sexual violence because of their identity.
Barriers to getting help
Poor recognition of LGBTIQ family and sexual violence means people face barriers to accessing the justice system and support services such as the police or emergency accommodation. These services are often geared solely towards the needs of heterosexual women.
Focusing solely on men’s violence against women can act as a further barrier to LGBTIQ people recognising and labelling their experiences of family or sexual violence, and to seeking help or reporting to the justice system. Similar issues arise when other intersectional factors, such as race or cultural background, class or disability are taken into account.
People living with disabilities, for example, are disproportionately and overwhelmingly likely to experience sexual violence regardless of gender, though women with disabilities are more likely again to be victims. While gender is clearly relevant here, the social construction of disability and the ways in which this may contribute to sexual victimisation also require our attention.
We need to take into account a complex array of structural, social and cultural factors, and the ways in which they intersect with one another in different contexts.
Rethinking the centrality of gender
This is not to say that gender is unimportant when trying to make sense of sexual and family violence. Violence plays out in highly gendered ways. Most incidents of sexual violence, for example, are perpetrated by men against women. Likewise, men who enact certain types of masculinity – such as hostile masculinity – are more likely to be the perpetrators of such violence.
Gendered norms are also likely to play a role in the experiences of LGBTIQ people, people living with a disability, and so on. The point here is not that gender has no explanatory power. Clearly, it is very significant. To paraphrase Julia Gillard, gender does not explain everything about family violence, nor does it explain nothing.
But gender is insufficient to fully account for the experiences of diverse groups. A complex and intersecting set of structural, social and cultural factors are also at play.
In order to fully understand, address and, ultimately, prevent sexual and family violence, we need to recognise and better understand these factors. They need to become central to our understandings of, and responses to, this violence, rather than remaining at the margins.
Beyond gender: LGBTIQ abuse shows it’s time to shift the debate on partner violence
Bianca Fileborn, Research Officer at the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University and Philomena Horsley, Senior Trainer & Research Fellow, La Trobe University