Lesbians in Currently Aggressive Relationships: How Frequently Do They Report Aggressive Past Relationships?

Article excerpt

Findings are reported from a survey examining the frequency with which women in currently aggressive same-sex relationships also report aggressive past relationships involving female partners, male partners, or members of their family of origin. Particular attention is paid to victims who also used aggression and their perceptions of whether their aggressive behavior was self-defensive or mutually aggressive.

Results indicate that about one-fourth of participants had been victims of aggression in current relationships, roughly two-thirds had been victimized by a previous male partner, and almost three-fourths had experienced aggression by a previous female partner. Among those reporting having been both victims and users of aggression, about one-fifth had used aggression in their current relationship, almost one-third used aggression with a previous male partner, and nearly two-thirds had used aggression with a previous female partner. A majority of victims who had also used aggression with a previous male partner characterized this use as self-defense, as compared to only 30% of those who had used aggression with a female partner. Instead, aggression in relationships involving a female partner was most frequently described as mutually aggressive in nature.


Although research on the use of aggression1 in intimate relationships has increased considerably in recent years, very little attention has been directed toward intimate same-sex relationships, especially those involving female couples. Results from a few studies have recently emerged (Bologna, Waterman, & Dawson, 1987; Brand & Kidd, 1986; Kelly & Warshafsky, 1987; Lie & Gentlewarrior, in press; Renzetti, 1988, 1989), but many unanswered questions still remain about the prevalence of the use of aggression in these relationships, its patterns and correlates, and whether such acts conform to traditional perpetrator/victim models. This paper reports on a survey of women that either used or were targets of aggression, or both, in current and previous relationships.

Two recent studies provide the best available information on victims of aggression who also used aggression in intimate same-sex relationships. Bologna, Waterman, and Dawson (1987) surveyed 70 gay male and female college students. Eighteen percent of gay men and 40% of lesbians in the study reported being victims of physical aggression or violence in their current or most recent relationship. By comparison, 14% of men and 54% of women reported using violence in current or most-recent relationships. Among respondents who had past relationships, 44% of gay men and 64% of lesbians had been victims of violence, while 25% of gay men and 56% of lesbians were reportedly users of violence.

The authors found that for both females and males, being a user of violence in a current relationship was positively correlated with being a victim of violence in that relationship. Similarly, users of violence in past relationships were more likely to be victims of violence in past relationships. Among women, use of violence in current relationships was also found to be positively correlated with using violence in past relationships.

Comparable findings concerning the relationship between experiencing and using aggression in lesbian relationships were reported by Lie and Gentlewarrior (in press). In a survey of 1099 lesbians, 52% indicated that they had been victims of aggression by their partner, and over half (51.5%) of this subgroup also indicated that they themselves had used aggression with their partner. Another 30% of women said that they had used aggression toward a female partner but had never been the target of aggression.

Findings that victims of aggression resort to use of aggression raise questions concerning the circumstances and motivations that lead to this response. Particularly pertinent is the issue of whether such aggression qualifies as self-defense or as a mutually aggressive act. …