Abuse. Although everyone knows “it” happens, the prevalent ideation in the lesbian community is that “we don’t do that.” Well, yes, we do, to the tune of 43.8%—or almost half—of lesbians, and 61.1% of bisexual women, having been the victims and/or survivors of rape, physical violence, abuse, or stalking by an intimate partner.
These numbers mean one thing very clearly: If it’s not you, it’s someone you know. In fact, abuse is one of our most serious health risks, affecting significant numbers within our communities.
“Abuse is not about violence; it’s about control,” said Beth Leventhal, executive director of The Network/La Red in Boston. “You can be just as controlling of someone if you are small as if you’re large. It’s about using violence or any other means of gaining and maintaining control.”
Myths about domestic violence, victims’ fear and shame, a silence that stems from a desire not to harm perceptions of the gay community—all these together contribute to making the problem invisible to others. Many people who are suffering either don’t realize that they’re in a terrible situation or don’t know where to go or who to tell. They wonder who will listen, who will believe them.
So what do you do? You have a friend, a sister, a neighbor (or maybe it’s you) who’s in a terrible situation—how does one help?
In addition to the rest of the myths surrounding domestic violence is this, the most dangerous one: the sufferer either a) likes it or b) has to somehow make it out on their own, and there’s nothing anyone can do to aid. Speaking as a survivor, I can tell you that this is one million percent untrue (and I use the word “survivor” here, because victims end up in body bags). So how do you help, really help, in a way that can lead to safety?
Begin with acknowledging, at least for yourself, that there’s something going on.
Recognition number one:
Your friend, your sister, whatever she is to you isn’t “allowed” to hang out with you. There are limits on when and if she can see you, speak with you, hurried “I’ve got to go now” hang-ups, or more subtly, “Well, So and So will be home soon, so I’ll talk with you later.”
Why is this a sign? It means the abuser is slowly and certainly working the isolation process—elimination of friends and family, to remove support.
Recognition number two:
This person you care about not only has to “work around” the significant other to speak with you in any way, but if and when you do spend time together they also work the timing out in such a way that it doesn’t “interfere” with the SO’s time demands (they may even ask you to “not tell” the other), the SO is in constant contact/requires constant updates via phone, text, or email, to verify location, timing, etc., the SO may even show up.
In some ways, this is a more obvious sign (especially the “showing up” part) and is a display of control. It could be an attempt on the SO’s part to even bully you a bit, hoping you’ll “see” the sort of pressure your friend is under/they’ll be punished/how unwelcome by the SO you are, thus making you uncomfortable—and making you go away.
The flip side of this is that the SO may actually try to groom you as their own friend and, in the process, drop in statements about the person that you’re concerned about that are derogatory in some form, things that may make them seem somehow less credible. “Oh, you know how she is—she’s flighty,” or “She’s so silly,” and even things that allude to their truthfulness and responsibility. The play here is that you’ll trust the SO’s words over your friend’s, because hey, the SO knows them best, right?
Recognition number three:
It’s your gut. You know it, somehow, you see it, you feel it, the missed days at work for a sudden illness that clears in a day or so (from being up all night fighting and/or being battered), the sudden flinch and the hunch of shoulders, the reluctance on your friend’s part to go home (but panicked to be on time, even if they clearly don’t want to go, and perhaps even for a moment share their dread), the “I’ve really got to go now” hang-up, the insistence—and maybe even the acted portrayal—that everything is fine, just fine.
But…you know. Somehow, you know it’s not. How do you handle this, and more importantly, how do you help? Become an advocate.