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.
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.