Bisexual Women and Intimate Partner Violence
By Lynn A. Addington | August 20, 2019
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals historically receive less attention in terms of intimate partner violence (IPV) services and support than cisgender, heterosexual female victims.
This bias is reflected in national data that tend to omit information on sexual orientation and gender identity or that only capture current intimate partner gender. As a result, bisexual IPV victims are overlooked or misclassified as heterosexual or lesbian (based on their partner). Even less is known about the victimization risk for bisexual individuals who are trans*, people of color, older adults or other marginalized communities. The proposed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) [provides an opportunity to expand our understanding of the prevalence and patterns of bisexual IPV. This knowledge can inform policies to support victims and survivors.
A Brief Background of VAWA
As the landmark VAWA celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, it is also awaiting reauthorization by Congress.
The passage of VAWA in 1994 marked an important change in addressing violent crimes such as rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking that traditionally, but not exclusively, affect women. VAWA funded a range of initiatives including protections and support for victims and survivors as well as prevention programming.
As we learn more about gender-related violence and increasingly recognize the diversity of those affected, VAWA has changed to reflect this understanding. VAWA’s evolution is evident in its most recent version passed in 2013. The 2013 VAWA, among other things, explicitly addressed diverse populations and did not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It also expanded the previous definition of domestic violence to include intimate partners beyond current and former spouses. These changes reflected the pervasiveness of IPV and reinforced the imperative to serve all victims, including LGBT individuals.
The 2013 VAWA, among other things, explicitly addressed diverse populations and did not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Currently, VAWA is awaiting reauthorization. The present bill includes a recommendation for a federal study to focus on data collection, an initiative that could provide the information needed to better understand bisexual IPV. On April 4, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the bill, which is awaiting a vote by the U.S. Senate.
Prevalence of IPV Among Bisexual Women
The need for additional information about bisexual IPV victims is underscored by the fact that the limited data we do have suggests bisexual individuals are at heightened risk for IPV.
Only one national survey currently reports rates of IPV by sexual orientation: the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Analyses of the NISVS data by the CDC and this author show that bisexual women experience the highest percentage of IPV across all sexual orientation groups. These patterns occur both during a given 12-month period and over the course of a bisexual individual’s lifetime.
The NISVS data provide insights about the perpetrators and forms of IPV involving bisexual women. For instance, more than 90% of bisexual women IPV victims reported a male perpetrator, a statistic that mirrors the reports of female heterosexual victims.
Despite this similarity, bisexual women experience higher levels of intimate partner violence than lesbian or heterosexual women. Over their lifetimes, 61% of bisexual women reported being raped, assaulted or stalked by an intimate partner, compared to 44% of lesbian women and 35% of heterosexual women. In contrast to lesbian and heterosexual women, bisexual women also report higher levels of severe violence, such as being choked or slammed into something hard.
Over their lifetimes, 61% of bisexual women reported being raped, assaulted or stalked by an intimate partner, compared to 44% of lesbian women and 35% of heterosexual women.
In addition to physical violence, bisexual women are more likely to experience psychological aggression, including coercive control and expressive aggression. Coercive control behaviors include limiting where the victim can go or monitoring her relationships, whereas expressive aggression behavior are actions that belittle, insult or humiliate a partner.
Explanations for disproportionately high rates of IPV among bisexual women center around their sexual orientation. Some reasons are shared with others in the LGBT community. For example, modes of controlling behavior that include threats of “outing” a bisexual partner. Other explanations center on anger and jealousy are specific to their bisexuality, including perpetrator bi-negativity and assumptions about bisexual infidelity.
Compared to male IPV victims of any sexual orientation, bisexual and heterosexual women IPV victims tend to be more willing to disclose their experiences and more open to seeking help, especially from friends and professional counselors. While more female victims than male victims seek some form of help, it is noteworthy that nearly a quarter of female IPV victims of any sexual orientation group do not seek any form of professional counseling or social support.
Moreover, victims of IPV are unlikely to obtain formal victim services such as legal, medical, housing, community and victim advocate services. Almost 80% of bisexual female victims and 75% of heterosexual female victims do not seek any such services, and little is known about the reasons for the limited access to, or accessing of, services.
How VAWA Can Help Us Better Understand Bisexual IPV
Initial insights from CDC’s NISVS data highlight the need to better understand IPV among bisexual individuals and to increase our understanding of particular bisexual victim groups—especially people of color, trans* individuals, and older adults. As it currently stands, bisexual individuals in these victim groups—especially transgender bisexual individuals—are largely ignored by research and excluded from federal surveys.
As it currently stands, bisexual individuals in these victim groups—especially transgender bisexual individuals—are largely ignored by research and excluded from federal surveys.
The current VAWA reauthorization bill recommends improving data collection, and while this is an important step, future data collection needs to specifically identify gaps in existing research. In particular, data collection initiatives should include clear recommendations and best practices for collecting demographic data concerning sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in federal data collections.
These best practices include, for example, asking directly about sexual orientation rather than current partners and asking separate questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. We can see these recommendations reflected in some data collection initiatives such as the National Crime Victimization Survey; however, additional work is needed to build on these initiatives, including encouraging those collecting IPV data to partner with community representatives involved in victim services and the LGBT community to ensure data are collected in a way that ensures victim safety and respect.
IPV data, especially when it uses best practices for collecting SOGI information, will help us target prevention policies and develop resources to serve bisexual IPV victims and survivors. The proposed VAWA reauthorization provides an important opportunity to gather the data we need to improve our understanding.
Lynn A. Addington is a Professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Addington’s research interests include the nature of violent crime and its impact on victims, measurement of crime, and utilization of U.S. crime statistics.