When Women Rape: Everything We’re Not Talking About

Studies over the past two decades have explored the issue of female-on-female rape, with mixed results. The studies may be limited in that they don’t always include bisexual women raped by women or straight women raped by women. Studies done in the 1980s and 1990s (Brand and Kidd, 1986, Sloan & Edmond, 1996, Duncan, 1990, Lie, Schilt, Bush, Montagne & Reyes, 1991, Loulan, 1988, Renzetti, 1992, Walfner-Haugrud & Gratch, 1997, and Waterman, Dawson & Bologna, 1989) that focus on violence between women, excluding violence perpetrated by men, have found the number of women reporting violence from female partners ranging from 5 percent to 57 percent of their study population, with most studies finding rates over 30 percent, according to Lori Girshick, author of “Woman-to-Woman Sexual Violence: Does She Call it Rape?” There have been few studies that focus on lesbian sexual violence since then.

If one looks at CDC statistics, lesbian violence would appear to be higher than heterosexual violence, but these numbers can be misleading. According to the CDC, 43 percent of lesbians have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women according to 2010 CDC statistics. The number is even higher for bisexual women at 61 percent. However, the numbers relating to lesbians are flawed because they don’t account for sexual violence experienced from an intimate partner before coming out.

In order to get a better idea of intimate partner violence experienced by gay, bisexual or lesbian people, Naomi Goldberg and Ilan Meyer of UCLA used a probability sample of California residents defined by mutually exclusive categories of sexual identity and behavior in men and women to provide population estimates of intimate partner violence. They tested risk factors for intimate partner violence like psychological distress and alcohol abuse to help explain sexual orientation disparities.

The study found that all three groups of minority women, bisexual, lesbian and women who have had sex with women had greater odds of experiencing lifetime and 1 year intimate partner violence, but the difference was only significant for bisexual women. It is worth noting that bisexual women with greater prevalence of intimate partner violence had been battered or raped by a man 95% of the time.

In San Francisco, one in three lesbians reported being sexually assaulted by another woman, whereas one in five women of the total U.S. population have reported being raped, according to 2005 California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and San Francisco Women Against Rape data. These numbers don’t tell us anything about straight women raped by other women, however.

If police ignore these victims, it is because of sexism and homophobia, two types of bigotry that are inextricably linked. Homophobia exists because sexism exists and vice versa. A 2002 study, “Effect of Victim Sex and Orientation on Perceptions of Rape” found that traditional gender role attitudes were positively correlated to victim blame and to more blame being assigned to homosexual rape victims. A 2005 study, “Gender-Role Stereotypes and Perceptions of Heterosexual, Gay, Lesbian and Domestic Violence” found that this attitude extended to domestic violence, with respondents were more likely to consider violence perpetrated by men on women more serious and deserving of attention. The perception that men were more capable of injuring victims and that female victims were more likely to suffer serious injury, played a big role in their responses.

When the police ignore or dismiss a woman who wants to report her female rapist, they are telling that woman that women are incapable of rape, of force, of violence. They are also telling her that a rape, and furthermore sex, cannot take place without a penis. They are telling her that a crime was not committed.

 

Police Reaction

Suzana Flores, a clinical psychologist based in Chicago, said that it is common to hear police tell victims that a crime hasn’t been committed.

“The most common is that they will say, ‘There was no penetration by a penis and therefore there was no rape.’ And she would say, ‘If there was forced oral sex by a male would it have been rape?’ And the response was, ‘There was no penis.'”

Flores said the stories she has heard from rape survivors convey three types of assumptions from authority figures, whether they be police officers, school counselors or hospital staff.

“The three main implications are ‘Women are too weak to harm someone,’ ‘Lesbian rape is hot and it’s harmless. It’s not real.’ and ‘All rapists are men,” Flores said. Flores added that she recently spoke to a young woman who approached a college staff member and informed him of the rape. He responded by telling her that it was simply “experimentation,” something that everyone does in college.

When authority figures tell these women that they have not experienced rape, their experience is invalidated and they go through the trauma all over again. It is a common experience for all rape victims, but for rape victims who do not fit the typical mold, the minimization of their rape can be even more prevalent.

The exception to the rule is a female rapist and an underage female rape victim. Recently a 22 year-old basketball coach was accused of raping a 17 year-old student in Utah, which drew national media attention. Whether or not that media attention is the result of shock that a woman would prey on a teenager is another question.

The good news is that the laws are changing and expanding the definition of rape. After a female teacher was raped by a male off-duty police officer, the jury failed to convict because the law did not define oral or anal rape as rape, causing people to petition the state to change the law. The Steubenville rape case, in which two boys were prosecuted for penetrating the victim’s vagina with their fingers while she was unconscious, is also a good example of how state laws have progressed beyond traditional “penis penetrates vagina” sexual assault definitions. The Steubenville rapists would not have been prosecuted had the law not included digital rape.

Some state laws have further to go to, however. Idaho defines rape as “the penetration, however slight, of the oral, anal or vaginal opening with the penetrator’s penis.” The state has a separate definition for male on male rape, but not for female on female rape. In Indiana, rape is defined as a being an act where the victim is of the “opposite sex.”

A change in law does not always translate to the police officers who interpret the law, said Silvia Dutchevici, founder of the Critical Therapy Center in Queens. Dutchevici has also worked at Queens Pride House and Sanctuary for Families.

“We assume the police know the law but the police don’t necessarily know it. It’s more about educating them on what treatment looks like,” Dutchevici said. “With two women, there is a barrier to understanding, because within law enforcement there is a patriarchy and the notion of control and men as more powerful than women. They bring those expectations to the door.”

“If you’re brave enough to report, you have law enforcement and even hospital staff that don’t take you seriously,” Dutchevici said. “People go through the system and then they begin to think maybe it wasn’t really rape. It just creates more hurt.”

There are also different social reasons that factor into a female on female rape survivor’s decision to report. A straight woman may not report because family and friends will either see the rape as consensual and believe she is lesbian, or, assuming they view the act as rape, they may believe the rape “turns” her into a lesbian. Bisexual or lesbian women may not report because they are not out to their family and friends and there is a concern that reporting the rape will expose their sexuality. For women from particularly conservative backgrounds, the fear of being seen as lesbian or bisexual, whether or not they are, is all too powerful.

A former police officer based in Wisconsin, whom wishes to remain anonymous, worked on sexual assault cases during his career. He says that it was difficult to prosecute in part due to the same he said/she said limitations that prevent the conviction of male on female rapists. He also admitted that social perceptions factor into the district attorney’s decision to prosecute.

“People believe males to be sexually aggressive. They don’t think that is true of females. So a jury is more likely to believe a man forced a woman to do something even if there is a lack of evidence,” he said. “Hate to say this but if the DA looks at a case and says ‘Not going to prosecute it’…the next time an officer sees a case like the first one, the officer assumes the DA is not going to prosecute it and will not work the case very hard.”

Sharon Stapel, executive director of New York City’s Anti-Violence Project, said police officers she works with in New York City tend to be more sensitive to female on female rape victims. They are less likely to exercise sensitivity towards male rape victims or transgender rape victims. Stapel said there is less understanding of what female on female rape is, and how to prosecute, in rural areas where there aren’t large gay communities.

“That’s what I hear when I leave New York City,” Stapel said of the Wisconsin police officer’s comment about lack of prosecution and lack of evidence. “The hospital knows how to do rape kits with cisgender women. That (belief that there is lack of evidence) is more about the idea of ‘Oh, we don’t know what women do in bed together.'”

Rape survivors can take legal action other ways, however, if they are experiencing other forms of abuse within a relationship. Lesbian or bisexual women experiencing intimate partner violence tend to go around the system obtaining a restraining order through beatings and other kinds of physical violence. These women know that their intimate partner rapes are not taken seriously.

“If they report abuse within a relationship, they don’t mention sexual assault to police, because the domestic violence is seen as valid,” Girshick said. “When they get a restraining order against their partner it’s based on that abuse and not the sexual assault.”

 

Lack of Discussion in Gay Rights Movement and Women’s Movement

Sadly, attitudes about rape outside of the male rapist and female victim paradigm are not helped by a lack of research interest, especially for female on female rape. Girshick said there has been very little work done in the past couple of decades.

“In 25 years, I feel like it’s hardly changed at all,” Girshick said. She attributed the problem to a lack of work on rape and domestic violence in general but she has ideas as to why the feminist movement and gay rights movement have put the issue aside.

“In the 1960s and 1970s lesbians were at the forefront of the women’s movement. Then they were purged for a while, and they weren’t major activists—and then it was ‘Hey, let’s pay attention to the lesbians as well,’ Girshick said.

When asked why she thought it wasn’t a strong issue in the gay rights community she said, “The upper middle class focus of the gay movement is a problem. There is great local level work that is done all over the country where individual agencies are working on issues,” Girshick said. “But at the state and national level it’s more likely to be a whiter, higher social class in leadership and that definitely has happened with gay marriage. It has siphoned off attention on other desperately needed work.”

Ann Russo wrote about the struggle to discuss female on female rape within the feminist community, which has heterosexist elements, in her 2001 book, “Taking Back Our Lives: A Call to Action for The Feminist Movement.” Russo wrote that she has struggled in lesbian relationships characterized by abusive power and control tactics, and has spoken to female students who have experienced abuse and rape at the hands of lovers, friends and family members.

In the book, Russo states why feminists often leave lesbian and bisexual women out of conversations about rape:

“By labeling the source of violence against women as (heterosexual) male dominance and patriarchy, many feminists (lesbian and heterosexual) assume that lesbian relationships are free of oppressive mistreatment…”

Russo hits the nail on the head. It is important to remember that rape culture exists, and that it is pervasive. It also important to look at the ways in which misogyny hurts bisexual, homosexual and transgender people; in this case through police officers who may not acknowledge the validity of the person’s rape. In this case, women are not considered rapists because women are not considered agents of violence or initiators of sex.

The fact that some police officers have trouble understanding how to prosecute crimes because they don’t understand that sex between women, and by extension, rape of a woman by a woman, is real, should deeply upset feminists. It may seem strange and twisted to some feminists that in order to acknowledge women have sexual agency and are fully realized human beings, we must also acknowledge that women are capable of rape and other abusive methods of control and dominance. For the sake of rape survivors, I hope we can confront that truth.


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Casey Quinlan has written for the Daily News, The Atlantic, Minyanville and The Legislative Gazette. She has covered New York state politics, feminist issues and the financial world. She loves Mocha Chip ice cream. You can find her on twitter @caseyleigh2488

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18 Comments

  1. 0

    While I don’t generally describe myself as having been raped by my mother as the laws here say otherwise, I guess I was.

    I’ve found people are not very inclined to believe it, and I reckon it’s at least in part because she’s female. While it could be because she’s very manipulative and comes off well when talking to others, I don’t think it’s entirely that.

    Even if its not a proper experiment and just anecdotal, I’ve found that people are much more likely to believe me when I say my mother’s (male, 50-year old, not so great economic status/stereotype)ex-partner sexually abused me than when I say she did. 0 people have questioned me on him and almost everyone disbelieves me about my mother. Even people who otherwise think she’s a bad/abusive.

    They prefer to believe that with her I’ve “misremembered”. I had three social workers, I told them about one example (to see how they’d react) about what she did. And here’s a rant about how some of the more important people I’ve told we’re uninclined to do anything.

    Social worker #1: Ignored it completely.
    Social worker #2: Ignored it until I mentioned to another person at a meeting, then agreed that she’d heard about it and kept going on about how I needed to get on better on with my mother/she was trying hard – even going as far as to tell me that my mother was “honest” and that I needed to “try harder to co-operate with her”. On another occasion she told me that she was good at telling liars and my mother never tripped up and seemed “geniune”.

    Even when I told her that my mother had told me to get on massage board and when I refused that she told me I had “no right to my body”. Now, admittedly the time I’d told her about wasn’t one of the many times she used massaging as a front but I would have thought that my terror and the quote should indicated something given what I’d disclosed.

    Fortunately, I’d already voluntarily moved to my grandparents’ most of the time, at the time and because I could escape I refused – but my little brother was (is) still living there.

    Social worker #3: (After I’d spoken to the police) spoke to my mum, agreed that the other social workers must have been “mistaken” but still insisted on subjected me to a battery of questions (including questions asked in different ways) about whether I’d misremembered, picked up from reading it somewhere, etc and whether dissociation meant I could reliably remember. But never asked me any of those questions about the ex-partner. (Even though I’ve openly admitted that dissociation affected me more then.) She also suggested that I go to counselling to reconcile my differences with my mother to discuss what our different perspectives on what happened and sent me a follow up email about it.

    The policewoman I spoke to was very nice has agreed that the situation I described was undeniably considered abusive. So at least I’m fortunate there, although what the people in the courts will think is something else. 🙁

    • 0

      I don’t even know what to say except that I believe you.

      And no, you don’t need “to get on better on” with your mother. The only thing you need is whatever YOU think is best for you right now and in the future, Megan.

  2. 0

    “The fact that some police officers have trouble understanding how to prosecute crimes because they don’t understand that sex between women, and by extension, rape of a woman by a woman, is real, should deeply upset feminists. It may seem strange and twisted to some feminists that in order to acknowledge women have sexual agency and are fully realized human beings, we must also acknowledge that women are capable of rape and other abusive methods of control and dominance.” THIS.

    • 0

      I thought this was a really great point too, but at the same time I do have to say that we as a society sort of bring this on ourselves (choosing not to see women as aggressors) because we have always been so adamant about trying to prove how much more sensitive and less aggressive women are in general. Our media and justice system refuses to acknowledge violence by women as equal to that of male violence, and makes excuses for women’s.

      I have noticed that it’s fine to acknowledge aggression by women if it can be praised (in instances of fighting in combat, being tough with men, etc.), but is disregarded when it makes women look bad, as with in this post. Then we’re all ready to adamantly prove how much less violent women are compared to men.

      So in a way, we sort of bring a problem on ourselves by not choosing to see women as being capable of violence in the first place.

  3. 0

    I was raped 6 months ago (to the day even :/) by a woman. I didn’t bring it to the police for a variety of reasons, but largely because I knew it would be more stress than its worth. My friends encouraged me to report it because it would maybe be classed as assault. But I had no interest in an assault conviction. What happened was rape. It has made my identity and sexuality as a queer person nigh on impossible to navigate and the worst part of it is nobody seems to get how traumatizing it was. Finding therapists who understand the interplay between that kind of experience and identity is near impossible.
    The worst part is once you tell people, its horrifying how many come back to you with a similar story. No-one talks about it, but its huge.

    • 0

      You have my empathy for the trauma and pain that you are feeling and my complete respect for calling it what it IS. Keep talking. Keep affirming that it was rape. Keep knowing that there are many of us who believe you and have your back and support your identity and sexuality and your absolute right and power of them. There is a national hotline on this page at the bottom that I hope will help. It is not therapy but I know from personal experience how much lighter I feel when someone unequivocally agrees with me that my being groped by a straight female superior at work was molestation/assault/WRONG. I am blessed to have a therapist who is that person for me- a year and a half later the pain is no longer from the actual act but from being treated dismissively when I tried to have her disciplined.

      http://www.contactlifeline.org/

  4. 0

    Thank you for this article. I knew from anecdotal sources and from my own clients how common same sex sexual violence was, but hearing it laid out like this is different somehow. It is really troubling to me how far under the radar this stuff is for law enforcement and hospital staff.

  5. 0

    It wasn’t until years after my assault when i told a friend about it, and somehow saying it out loud made me realise i had been assaulted.

    After recounting the story i said, wow, had she been a man i’d have called that rape. And my friend just looked at me and slowly nodded over and over with this look of horror in his eyes. My whole world changed.

    And we all need to talk about it to heal, and to minimise assault in our community, because such things flourish in the dark. Thank you for a shining a light with this article.

  6. 0

    Thank you so much for this article! More people need to tell their stories because this has been an invisible horror in the lesbian community.

    I had an experience in college soon after I came out that still haunts me. An older student I was interested in invited me to her dorm after a party. She was incredibly intoxicated. I had been drinking, but she was black-out drunk. We had hooked up a few times before, but that night she kept going, past anything we had done before. She ignored my repeated requests to stop and then “didn’t remember” anything about it the next day. I told close friends, family and even a dean at my university. I never tried to press charges, mostly because I couldn’t believe it was actually rape. It took me years to accept that it had been rape. A friend at the time even told me that I could have pushed her off of me if I really wanted her to stop.

  7. 0

    Thanks for the kind comments. In one sense, I’m sorry to read all of these stories but at the same time I’m glad you’re sharing them so that people understand this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

  8. 0

    Hi

    I am a man here, lol. I would like to say that this is a very fascinating article you posted. I had no idea that lesbian rape hadn’t been taken so seriously. I’ve always been under the impression that all rapes on men – either by women or other men – were typically ignored or made a joke, but you showed us a different side here.

    I was especially intrigued by the part on how feminists don’t want to recognize lesbian rape. Although the women’s movement has done a lot to advance women and help in that area, in recent years I have learned more how the movement is really just political like many others. It ignores women of color and contains it’s own racist vibes, which upsets me as a black man. For years it has loved taking credit for doing so much of what they think has been noble, yet disregard women who aren’t white, aren’t wealthy, or hetero. Overall, I’ve come to see that, yes, for the most part feminism DOES seem to be more concerned with doing battle with men and trying to race to the top, while not even trying to fix issues with women’s society.

    Thank you for this post, it has been very informative.

    • 0

      Hi, Nate. I think it’s important to clarify what I think about feminism in general and where I agree and disagree with what you’re saying. First of all, thanks for your comment.I agree with the contention that feminism is dominated by middle class to wealthy straight white women and that there aren’t enough diverse voices. It is a flawed movement, like most movements.

      However, I disagree with the idea that most feminists see feminism as a way to do battle with or defeat men. I think most feminists like men and really do want equality rather than dominance. I think the reason behind not discussing this issue enough in the feminist community lies with a lack of interest in paying attention to LGBT issues on the part of some feminists and it has to do with the way we talk about rape culture. As I said, I believe rape culture exists, but I think some people think of female on female rape as not fitting in with rape culture and perhaps it’s easier simply not to talk about it.

      • 0

        I suppose. I’ve heard feminists try to argue this to me before, that they don’t dislike men, but in my experience many of them say one thing, but do another, especially on the Internet.

        I’ve been on several sites where feminists claim to respect and be accepting of men, yet will often make bold, loaded, disparaging statements about men, and harass you if you are a man and don’t agree with all of their views. You become a “misogynist,” “woman-hater,” or an “oppressor.” And they tend to be very paranoid – many like to keep track of my posts and comments, as well as some other mens’, on one site I’m on and perceive almost all of your statements on women as being “misogynist” or somehow full of hate.

        I hear you on the part about why they disregard rape culture, but still wouldn’t you say that they choose to focus more on hetero rapes is because they can always use it as an argument against men? If they focus on violence by women, it means they have to acknowledge that women aren’t perfect, and they don’t want to face that.

  9. 0

    You’re absolutely right. As someone who suffered female-on-male sexual abuse in my early teens, I agree that female abusers are ignored for a number of reasons. Partly because people think women incapable of such abuse, the idea of ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth being nonsense, of men projecting by thinking any female initiated sex is ‘hot’ and therefore harmless, that women don’t suffer from it like they would with a man, that men are only ever thinking of sex so if it’s thrust upon them they should be grateful or want it anyway, by elements of feminism who think that female-on-male violence is justified as punitive responses to societal mistreatment of women, that they’d never treat another woman that way because of a ‘sisterhood’ or most importantly, that the idea of females being rapists or abusers AT ALL is mind boggling and too difficult to contemplate because it just blows all our assumptions about sex, men and women out of the water completely.

    Mercifully for people like me, female on male abuse is recognised more than it was in the past, though society is really struggling to come to terms with it. However, I do wonder about female on female victims and how badly they’re being left in the dark. After all, they do say ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’.

    TL;DR: Though male victims of female violence are slowly getting recognised, female victims of female violence are not, and we are all responsible for that.

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