The Broken Promises of the Lesbian Utopia: Woman to Woman Intimate Partner Abuse

By Mary Martin, BSW Alesha Kotian, BS



Martin M, Kotian A. The broken promisees of the lesbian utopia: woman to woman intimate partner abuse. HPHR. 2023;49. 10.54111/0001/XX1

The Broken Promises of the Lesbian Utopia: Woman to Woman Intimate Partner Abuse


The feminist movement of 1970s America notoriously prioritized issues faced by white, heterosexual women. The movement’s leaders explicitly distanced themselves from lesbian members out of fear of “lesbian baiting,” a sexist and homophobic tactic employed by anti-feminists to discredit the feminist movement by blanket-labeling its members as lesbians. In contract, others embraced “lesbian feminism,” a feminist movement that sought to prioritize issues faced by predominantly white lesbian women. These lesbian feminists promoted the concept of the “lesbian utopia,” which posited that lesbian relationships are “gender empty,” thus fundamentally egalitarian and devoid of interpersonal violence. A predominantly heterosexist culture further fueled this concept, layering it with homophobic stereotypes, including dismissing woman to woman intimate partner abuse (WWIPA), intimate partner violence occurring in a relationship between two sexual minority women, as a “catfight” or “mutual abuse.” Together, the lesbian utopia and heterosexism acted synergistically to erase the experiences of victim/survivors of WWIPA. Despite the promises of the lesbian utopia, sexual minority women are just as or more likely than heterosexual women to experience IPV and its adverse mental health outcomes. However, sexual minority victim/survivors face additional barriers to receiving support. Sexual minority women report formal support systems such as domestic violence shelters and police departments to be last-resort options out of fear of experiencing discrimination or compounding trauma. For sexual minority women of color and transgender women, these stressors are further compounded by experiences of racism and transphobia. Public health interventions centering diversity, inclusion and social justice to provide adequate support and healthcare services to victim/survivors of WWIPA are needed.


White, heterosexual women dominated the feminist movement in 1970s America. 


Many of the movement’s leaders explicitly distanced themselves from their lesbian members out of fear of “lesbian baiting,” a sexist and homophobic tactic employed by anti-feminists to discredit the feminist movement by blanket-labeling its members as lesbians.1-4 In contrast, some embraced “lesbian feminism,” a feminism that sought to prioritize issues faced by predominantly White lesbian women.2 These lesbian feminists promoted the concept of the “lesbian utopia,” which claimed that lesbian relationships are “gender empty,” thus fundamentally egalitarian.4 Wendt5 further elaborated on this concept, positing “that lesbian relationships are egalitarian, [that] lesbians do not oppress or beat each other…[that] women only use violence in cases of self-defense, and [that] even if they did [use violence], women are not big enough to really hurt each other.” These ideas paved the groundwork for the notion that interpersonal violence (IPV), defined as “abuse or aggression that occurs in a close relationship,”6 could not occur in lesbian relationships. A predominantly heterosexist culture further fueled this concept, layering it with homophobic stereotypes. While heterosexist culture and lesbian feminism are in almost all respects mutually exclusive, together they synergistically validated the lesbian utopia. Fifty years later, the concept that IPV cannot occur in lesbian relationships perpetuates the dismissal and mischaracterization of victim/survivors’ experiences and falsely justifies the absence of LGBTQ+ specific resources. Thus, the lesbian utopia poses a serious public health concern as victim/survivors themselves struggle to identify abuse at the hands of their women-identifying partners and existing IPV resources are ill-equipped to support their physical and psychological safety.

Defining Woman to Woman Intimate Partner Abuse

Contrary to the promise of the lesbian utopia, lesbian women are just as or more likely than heterosexual women to experience IPV.6 In the most recent nationally representative study of cisgender women, the CDC reported that lesbian women were more likely than heterosexual women to experience psychological aggression, stalking, physical violence and rape committed by an intimate woman-identifying partner.6 Lesbian women also experienced adverse sequelae from IPV at similar rates as heterosexual women, including feeling fearful, reporting safety concerns and having PTSD symptoms.6 While several studies have attempted to quantify the prevalence of IPV among gender diverse lesbian women, convenience sampling has limited their generalizability.7,8 Notably, the CDC found that bisexual women were at significantly increased risk for IPV compared to both lesbian and heterosexual women, though the gender identity of the abusive partner was unknown.6 Nonetheless, the language “lesbian utopia,” “lesbian relationships,” and “lesbian IPV” fail to include sexual minority women, including bisexual, pansexual, and other sexual minority women, as well as neglect to explicitly include gender diverse women despite that these women also experience IPV at the hands of women partners. The terminology woman to woman intimate partner abuse (WWIPA)9 will be used to refer to self-identifying sexual minority women (SMW) experiencing partner abuse from a self-identifying woman partner henceforth.

Modern Implications of the Lesbian Utopia on WWIPA

The lesbian utopia promises SMW relationships free from IPV. When WWIPA does occur, victim/survivors experience immense difficulty in identifying their experiences as abusive.10-13 SMW report a general lack of awareness of WWIPA and an inability to access language to describe their WWIPA experiences.14  Heterosexism further obscures the identification of WWIPA by propagating dismissive stereotypes, such as inappropriately labeling relationships as “mutually abusive.”15 When viewing WWIPA from this heterosexist lens, features unique to WWIPA are overlooked. For example, abusers can weaponize stress related to the victim/survivors’ SMW identity to exert control over the victim/survivor. Additionally, SMW may refrain from reporting WWIPA out of fear of drawing negative attention to already stigmatized relationships.14 WWIPA must also be considered within an intersectional framework in order to be inclusive of the experiences of racially and gender diverse SMW. In sum, the myth of the lesbian utopia reinforces traditional gender roles that women are non-violent, which in turn invalidates victim/survivor experiences of WWIPA and exacerbates feelings of self-blame, disillusionment, and shame.12,14,16,17

Heterosexism: Dismissing and Mischaracterizing WWIPA

Within a heterosexist culture, heteronormative assumptions are inappropriately applied to WWIPA.18 For example, while there is no correlation between presenting more masculine (butch) or more feminine (femme) and abuser status, cultural assumptions about gender roles paint butch SMW as obligate abusers.3,19,20 This provides femme abusers with a unique abusive tactic known as the “feminine victim.” Exemplified during police intervention for WWIPA, femme abusers can manipulate police officer’s stereotypes by emphasizing their femininity and casting the butch victim/survivor as the abuser.12 Similarly, violence perpetrated by a femme abuser is dismissed as a “catfight,” minimizing its severity and mislabeling the abuse as mutual.12,13 The mischaracterization of WWIPA is one of many reasons that victim/survivors of WWIPA are often fearful to report IPV to police and other formal and informal support systems.21,22


Notably, the concept of bidirectional WWIPA, colloquially referred to as “mutual abuse”, is a controversial topic among researchers. A few studies employing quantitative analysis of survey data have suggested that WWIPA is more likely to be bidirectional than monodirectional.23-27 In contrast, numerous qualitative studies analyzing SMW’s experiences with WWIPA found bidirectional abuse to be remarkably uncommon.10,15,22 This could be explained by quantitative researcher’s inability to create space for victim/survivors to react to the abuse, or in other words, defend themselves.15 Another possible explanation for this discrepancy is that survey data is analyzed outside of a given relationship-specific context; thus researchers cannot contextualize complex dynamics and often miss asymmetrical power distributions.10,28 It is also possible that quantitative WWIPA researchers23-27 identified a third role that exists outside of the perpetrator versus victim/survivor dichotomy: the “participant role.”10,15 In the “participant role,” the victim/survivor resists the abuse from the perpetrating partner with the intent of both self-defense and retaliation.10 While the discrepancy in conclusions between quantitative and qualitative studies must be further analyzed, stereotyping WWIPA as mutual abuse is undoubtedly harmful to victim/survivors.10,15,27,28 

Understanding Identity Abuse: Unique Features of WWIPA

Denying WWIPA’s existence or dismissing it as bidirectional obscures researcher’s ability to identify features unique to WWIPA.15 The limited body of research on the topic proposes that WWIPA results from a complex interaction of minority stress, internalized homophobia, and identity abuse. Minority stress can be understood as an “excess stress to which individuals from social categories are exposed to as a result of their social/minority position.”29 Minority stress can be distal, such as objective experiences of homophobic violence, or proximal, such as subjective experiences of internalized homophobia. Perpetrators of WWIPA may weaponize the victim/survivor’s proximal minority stress, such as the victim/survivor’s internalized homophobia, to exert power and control in a unique form of abuse known as Identity Abuse (IA).30-32 Perpetrators may also be motivated by their own internalized homophobia to commit IA.19,23 In the context of WWIPA, IA refers to abuse tactics that leverage homo/bi/transphobia to exert power and control over one’s intimate partner, exacerbating minority stress.30 For example, an abuser may threaten to “out” their partner as a SMW. Notably, SMW are more likely than other members of the LGBTQ+ population to experience IA, apart from the transgender population.31,32 IA has adverse consequences on the mental health of victim/survivors, including anxiety, depression and PTSD-like symptoms.31,32


Despite abusive partners committing IA, victim/survivors may continue to depend on their abusive partner to cope with minority stress.13,19 For example, Ristock10 first identified a pattern of WWIPA in which an “established gay,” a well-connected and openly identifying SMW, (the abuser) intentionally dates a SMW who has never been in a same-sex relationship previously (the victim/survivor) and is not well connected to the LGBTQ+ community. Thus, the victim/survivor may depend on their abusive partner to access affirming community as well as to explore or define their own sexual minority identity. The abuser can then leverage their partner’s lack of knowledge, connection, and confidence in their identity to exert control by normalizing abuse as typical for SMW or isolating the victim/survivor from the abuser’s LGBTQ+ social network.33 The couple’s local LGBTQ+ community can further exacerbate these power dynamics by pressuring the couple to remain in their relationship to serve as role models for the community.13

Intersectional Factors

SMW of color (WOC) and transgender woman face unique vulnerabilities as victim/survivors of WWIPA. However, there is a vacuum of research seeking to understand the experiences of racially and gender diverse SMW. The limited research that does exists suggests that Black women, American Indian women, Native Hawaiians, Alaskan Native women, and transgender women may be significantly more likely to experience WWIPA, and in particular more physical and sexual abuse,34,35 than their White counterparts.20,35-37 These populations are at increased risk for social stress and poor psychological and social wellbeing.38,39 These trends can be understood within an intersectional framework in which these populations experience sexism, racism and homo/trans/biphobia from the general public as well as within the LGBTQ+ community.2,38,39 In the context of WWIPA, the abusive partner can weaponize their dominant identities to isolate, pressure and coerce the victim/survivor.40 One way this can manifest is through microaggressions, including exoticization of WOC, assumption of WOC as inferior or as a spokesperson for their identities, questioning transgender women’s gender identity, and insulting transgender women based on their perceived transition status.30,41 

Public Health Implications

The public health implications of the propagation and internalization of the lesbian utopia are numerous. WWIPA victim/survivors view formal systems, including non-profit organizations, domestic violence shelters, and law enforcement, as a last resort for seeking help.35,42,43 Fear of experiencing “compounding abuse” in the form of dismissal, discrimination, or violence in response to their sexual minority status contributes to formal systems’ last resort status.12,22,40,42,44,45 Furthermore, victim/survivors are less likely to reach out for support in the absence of queer specific resources, which in most parts of the country are non-existent.40,45,46 Domestic violence shelter services are almost exclusively tailored to heterosexual women, leading some victim/survivors to choose protection through silence or to intentionally misidentify their abusive partner as a man.42 Other victim/survivors fear seeking help from a domestic violence shelter, citing that shelters lack the capacity to screen out their abusers given the dominant assumption that women are victims of male-perpetrated violence.42 In addition, there are few mental health providers with specialized training in WWIPA.45 Victim/survivors express concerns that potential therapists’ lack of cultural competency will be re-traumatizing.21,45,47


The invisibility of SMW’s needs can also be observed in health outcomes. SMW are more likely to experience health disparities in preventive care access and utilization as well as preventative screenings.42 Many SMW do not disclose their sexual minority status to healthcare providers out of fear of receiving sub-optimal care.48 These fears are affirmed by studies concluding that healthcare providers report feeling uncomfortable around SMW patients and unknowledgeable about SMW’s sexual practices.44,49 When SMW choose to share their sexual minority status, they become vulnerable to healthcare providers’ biases. For example, a misconception among health care providers is that SMW are not at risk for STIs and thus do not require universally recommended STI screening.50 This belief is especially harmful for SMW victim/survivors who are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior that could lead to contracting an STI.50

Proposed Public Health Interventions

A fifty-year history of erasing, disguising, and dismissing WWIPA in the name of the lesbian utopia and in the context of a heterosexist society exacerbated the public health problem of WWIPA. Nonetheless, public health interventions provide promise to preventing WWIPA and responding to its adverse effects. Following the framework proposed by Bermea et al.,51 interventions must be based in diversity, inclusion, and social justice in order to ensure effectiveness. Most clearly, these principles can be applied to currently existing formal sources of support. Domestic violence shelters could implement anti-oppressive work by hiring a diverse workforce trained to provide culturally competent care with inclusive services specific for WWIPA victim/survivors.45 Such services could include private space for SMW, education for heterosexual victim/survivors utilizing shelters on WWIPA victim/survivorship, and community outreach informing the LGBTQ+ community on WWIPA. Police departments could provide anti-bias training to its officers and implement culturally competent protocols for intervening in suspected WWIPA scenarios to prevent victim/survivors from experiencing compounding abuse.42

The Role of Healthcare Providers in Public Health Intervention

Given SMW women’s reluctance to engage in formal systems, healthcare providers can serve as a critical resource for victim/survivors of WWIPA by first educating themselves on SMW-specific healthcare needs.43 This includes identifying WWIPA and its associated health risks, screening universally for IPV52 which includes WWIPA, and identifying resources for victim/survivors of WWIPA. One such resource created by Bloom et al.53 includes a mobile phone application with specific resources for WWIPA survivors. In a pilot trial, most victim/survivors found the application to be feasible and appropriate.53 Healthcare providers must also provide training to other providers and students, as well as advocate for healthcare trainee curriculum to include WWIPA specific training.47 To create a safe office space for patients to disclose their sexual minority status, it is crucial for providers to establish rapport with their SMW patients. When deciding whether to disclose their sexual minority status, SMW scan their healthcare provider’s office for “clues” of inclusiveness, such as a diverse staff and LGBTQ+ specific health resources.48


The lesbian utopia promises SMW a relationship free from IPV. When this promise is broken, SMW victim/survivors struggle to recognize their partners’ behavior as abusive.13 Heterosexist assumptions silence WWIPA victim/survivors who fear their experiences will be dismissed or mischaracterized.20 Formal support systems lack WWIPA-specific services,42 leaving victim/survivors unsupported in securing their physical and psychological safety and in coping with WWIPA-specific experiences such as Identity Abuse,32 minority stress,29 and other intersectional considerations.41 However, SMW are just as or more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience IPV.6 Policies funding interventions grounded in diversity, inclusion and social justice45 are needed to provide adequate support and healthcare services to victim/survivors of WWIPA.

Disclosure Statement

The authors would like to thank Elise Radina, PhD, for her mentorship throughout this endeavor.

Disclosure Statement

The author(s) have no relevant financial disclosures or conflicts of interest.


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About the Authors

Mary Martin, BSW

Mary Martin is a medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. Her research areas include woman to woman intimate partner abuse, LGBTQ+ mental health, and student wellness. She plans to apply into the field of psychiatry in 2023.

Alesha Kotian, BS

Alesha Kotian is a medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. Her research areas include women’s health, health disparities, and student wellness. She plans to apply into the field of obstetrics and gynecology in 2023.