Nearly two decades ago Gregory Merill and Dr Valerie Wolfe published an article titled Battered Gay Men: An Exploration of Abuse, Help Seeking, and Why They Stay. It was one of the first empirical studies that investigated the impact that intimate partner violence (I.P.V.) has on gay and bisexual men who are abused by their male partners. The results were disturbing. The authors found that gay men experienced recurring patterns of physical, psychological and sexual abuse from their partners similar to that observed in abused heterosexual women. In addition, they found that their participants were often unable to recognise their own experiences as abuse and had difficulty finding and accessing services to help them escape these relationships.

Yet, it was what the authors discussed in their conclusion that made the article stick in my mind long after I had finished reading it. Looking to the future, they suggested that the women's movement had taken nearly 20 years to gain the platform necessary to improve services for women and increase public awareness. With this in mind, they pondered what the state of the battered gay men’s movement would look like 20 years from their own article. Would support and recognition be given to gay victims or would, in Merill and Wolfe’s words, ‘silence and violence prevail?’

From my position as a student beginning his DPhil research in this area, these questions have recently been playing in the back of my mind. What has changed? What do we now know? Has the situation of gay male victims of I.P.V. fundamentally improved? In this blog post, I will consider these questions.

A Post-Queer-Society

Perhaps the most significant change since the original article is the radical shift in the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (L.G.B.T.+) people within the society that Merill and Woolfe studied. Both the public perceptions of homosexuals, and their legal status within the political sphere have changed dramatically. For example, when the original article was written, many states in the United States openly criminalised sodomy. Not only have these laws now been declared unconstitutional, but many states ensure strict protections for same-sex couples. This was highlighted most recently by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2016 which recognised the right of gay couples to marry. A man attempting to leave an abusive same-sex relationship would now, at least in theory, be doing so in a society that is significantly less openly homophobic than it once was.

A Developing Consensus 

The academic field on the issue of male on male I.P.V. has been steadily gathering pace in the past 20 years. There is now a greater understanding of the needs of gay and bisexual male victims of intimate partner violence with research demonstrating that I.P.V. occurs at roughly the same rate amongst same-sex couples as it does amongst heterosexual ones. A number of studies have pointed towards the importance of establishing specialist LGBT+ focused services for victims that would better understand their needs, rather than generic services which victims can feel uncomfortable using due to fears of potential homophobia from heterosexual staff. Accompanying this increase in academic attention, these developments have been mirrored by an increase in public attention. A number of domestic violence charities, such as SafeLives, and LGBT+ advocacy groups, such as Gallop and Stonewall, have begun to publicly speak out about the issue of same-sex domestic abuse and offer services such as domestic abuse hotlines and emergency shelter accommodation for victims. While these positive developments are important to note, there is  still a large amount of ground to cover in both research of and advocacy against the barriers and hardships faced by this group of victims.

Residual Stigma  

It is important to recognise that despite the large-scale acceptance of homosexuality in both political and legal circles this does not mean all discrimination and structural prejudice has been eliminated from society. Routine discrimination and hate crime remain a significant problem for the LGBT+ community. For example, recent reports have indicated that verbal and physical assault against gay people remains both endemic and poorly policed by criminal justice agencies. This informs the experiences of gay people who are abused within their relationships; research suggests that gay and bisexual male abuse victims are significantly less likely to use the police and third sector organisations than their heterosexual counterparts due to fears of homophobic abuse. This is not surprising given the lack of specialised support and resources that exist for gay male abuse victims. This suggests that for gay and bisexual survivors of intimate partner violence there is still little visible institutional support to rely upon, leaving many vulnerable men unwilling or unable to gain the support necessary to transition out of an abusive relationship.

Violence and Silence? 

In attempting to assess the progress that has been made, there is a temptation to focus on the negatives. Despite 20 years of research and advocacy, support for victims remains under-resourced and public awareness for same-sex intimate partner violence remains low. However, it is important to recognise that there have been improvements. There is now a concerted academic and policy spotlight on the issue and a number of researchers, myself included, are continuing to investigate this problem and map out the many intricacies and details that have remained hidden to us.

Like Merrill and Wolfe, I wonder what another 20 years of research and advocacy will bring for the study of same-sex domestic violence? I hope that we see radical change, more publicity surrounding the issue, a robust specialised service sector designed to meet the needs of queer survivors, and the eradication of the remaining prejudice and stigma that would hinder gay and bisexual victims fleeing abuse.

By: Joseph McAulay, DPhil Student, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford