I’d been out for eleven years without ever having had a queer female community to speak of, so when I moved to a new city and entered into the queer scene for the first time, the experience was heady.
When queer women stand in a room together, we make space for each other. Our gender-bending and haircuts, our girlfriends and fur-babies, our double beds and love notes on the fridge back home create a myriad of possibilities — possible selves we could be, possible lives we could lead, possible stories of lust and love waiting to unfold. And these selves and lives and stories can be free and fully-formed, because others are already walking those paths and there’s a community here to hold and celebrate them, in this space that we make for each other.
I would go to all the queer parties just to lap up that powerful belonging. I would go to flex my sense of self, to see what others might see in me, to experience being desired, and to allow myself to wonder if there could be someone new out there for me.
I’d pay at the door and make my way into the party. It would already be pumping and there would be queer women as far as the eye could see. I’d spot my new friends across the room and try to join them, brushing past groups of women as I went. I quickly came to realize that the dance floor is a gauntlet; an anonymous hand reaches out to give my waist a squeeze. An acquaintance who can’t get over how great I’m looking these days manages to find a reason to rest her hand not quite on my bum, but not quite on my thigh either. By the end of our brief conversation, she’s done it three times. When I finally reach my friends, they get up to give me a hug, and when they note I’ve opted to go braless under my bodysuit, one of them casually cops a feel.
I register all of this, half-bemused, half-bewildered. On the one hand, I find it interesting to be wanted by women. Unlike the epic and angst-ridden love story of my queer youth, which was rife with secrecy, these brazen women show unambiguous interest in me — and I am just the impartial observer watching their displays envelop me. At the same time, I feel confused, because they use the same familiar gestures I recognize from countless threatening and lurid men in straight bars.
I wonder why I don’t protest. I tell myself it’s because we’re in a safe space. We’re all women. Sisterhood counts for something. It’s just a soft charade of seduction. I’m not in danger, am I?
In the final months of 2017, a dizzying number of sexual harassment and assault allegations came to the surface against powerful Hollywood figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and others. Alongside these scandals, social media was flooded with #MeToo stories shared by women the world over, which served to underline that these high-profile cases of abusive men are only the tip of the iceberg.
Daily catcalling, inappropriate touch, dehumanization, and worse is such a common feature in the landscape of female life that there was a collective eye-roll when people were genuinely shocked by the sheer scale of the #MeToo phenomenon — “Duh!” came the resounding response. How was the general public only now waking up to the reality of harassment and assault by a thousand tiny cuts that most women know and understand intimately?
A flurry of articles set about dissecting, analyzing, and deepening the discussion. Psychology professor Tomi-Ann Roberts, who experienced Weinstein’s abusive behaviour first-hand, raised the issue of the “socially sanctioned right that males have to consume females’ bodies. It can be done in a way that is seemingly benign, all the way to abject dehumanization, but that even on this seemingly benign end, it’s still a way of treating a woman or girl’s body like an object.” Actress Emma Thompson spoke of a “crisis of extreme masculinity”, and what better time to discuss such concepts than when we could put faces to the ideas? After all, the news was plastered with living, breathing examples of The Tyrannical Patriarch.
These current events percolated down into my personal life. I witnessed male acquaintances suddenly being held accountable for their behavior at parties, I swapped #MeToo stories with friends, and all the while, in the back of my head, I was grappling with how the chauvinistic behavior I’d experienced in the queer female community slotted into the bigger picture.
One night, I was watching drag queen Manila von Teez give an intimate performance at a queer farewell party at a restaurant-come-bar, just down the road from my flat in Cape Town. A tight circle had formed around the entertainer, and my friend Ladia and I were shoulder to shoulder. It seemed everyone at the venue was there for the farewell, but it was hard to know where the party-goers ended and the regulars began. A young guy pushed through the onlookers, moving towards the bar. He saw me and suddenly opened his arms wide for a hug. I didn’t recognize him, but the atmosphere at the event was warm and familiar, so I opened my arms for a why-the-hell-not hug. He squeezed me tight and instantly started kissing my neck. I pushed him off firmly, surprised, even after all this time, that anyone would do such a thing, let alone find some kind of fleeting pleasure in unwanted touch. I also felt disappointed in myself for misreading him, for creating the opportunity for him to strike — and I noted that this was just another #MeToo moment to add to my ever-growing list.
“Did you see what that guy just did?” I said, turning to Ladia.
“You didn’t know him?”
“No! Never met him in my life.”
“I thought ’cause you gave him a hug that he might be a friend or something, but then I saw you pushing him away so…”
Manila von Teez ended her performance with signature flair and Ladia and I headed over to the bar. I looked around at the faces in the queue — strangers peppered with acquaintances from the queer scene.
“You know, it’s not just guys that do that kind of thing. I’ve had a lot of queer women do similar stuff to me too,” I said, hoping for some insight. “I actually wrote an article about it once,” I said, but, feeling suddenly exposed, I hastened to add that, “It was quite a light, funny piece actually, about how a lot of queer women behave like the dudes we’d never date, but for some reason we just let it slide,” as though it being light and funny would protect the article from scrutiny.
Ladia paused and looked at me.
“But this is serious stuff,” she said, “It deserves a serious article.”
We tend to forget that while the archetype of The Tyrannical Patriarch is indeed real, so too is the Benevolent Patriarch. And in the same breath, it’s easy to think only of the Benevolent Matriarch, without recognizing the existence of the Tyrannical Matriarch. In other words, we tend to find it hard to believe — even to imagine — that women can be “the bad guys” too.
What I wanted to know was just how common my personal experiences of butt-grabbing, dudeish remarks, and aggressive, persistent come-ons were within the queer female community, and were others experiencing worse? I set about gathering research and stories from queer women all around the world and here’s what I discovered:
1. Harassment and abuse are common in the queer female community.
The internet is swimming with studies and statistics, but I wanted to gather some data and stories of my own. I put together a 21 question survey and got as many queer women as possible to reply to it in order to find out, first hand, about their experiences.
The women who replied were:
And 66 of them felt comfortable enough to share the kind of harassment and abuse they’d experienced at the hands of other queer women:
I compared the results I received to the information I’d found online. Sadly, the women who answered my survey said that the most common perpetrator of abuse was “my partner at the time.” This aligned with what I’d learned about domestic abuse in queer female relationships. Apparently, as many as “17-45% of lesbians report having been the victim of a least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a lesbian partner.”
One respondent shared a story about how she was coerced into a relationship that she didn’t want to be in, “But I didn’t know how to express those feelings and I didn’t feel safe doing so. She forced me to have sex with her multiple times, and I never felt like I could say no.” Another described a girlfriend who threatened to commit suicide to keep her from leaving. Yet another said she’d been beaten to the ground by her partner. Their stories were not unique. The themes of physical violence, bullying, manipulation, gaslighting, and threats were common throughout the testimonials. So too was the alarming reality of sexual abuse between women:
“(A) former lover insisted they designate drive me after an event. (I) allowed them to share (the) bed, but said no to sex. (I) passed out, woke up and clearly had been subject to rough sex.”
“(I was) sexually abused by my girlfriend who thought I owed her sex for her taking me on holiday.”
“(I was in an) extremely sexually abusive relationship. The signs were ignored by friends, and by myself, because she was a woman.”
It can be hard for anyone to identify that they’re in an abusive relationship, but it can be even harder when our cultural idea of women doesn’t really encompass the possibility of abusive behavior. Luckily, there are resources out there to help identify if we’re being abused. But even when we know it, it can be hard to address for all kinds of reasons. We might not be out to our support network (like friends and family), the police might not be sympathetic to queer individuals, and there’s also the possibility that, quite simply, we might not be believed.
Beyond the stories of domestic abuse, the survey results indicated a wider culture of casual harassment at parties and alcohol-induced bad behavior. Respondents described everything from women “not taking no for an answer,” to being “groped at clubs,” to being “cornered.” They also related stories of insidious powerplay reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein himself:
“A wealthy connected queer woman, who was hosting a party I was attending, cornered me when I tried to leave (…), got in my face, and implied that it would be good for my career to stay and sleep with her.”
“My partner and I worked for a queer female producer. Over the course of time, it became apparent that she was using her role to meet, date, and sometimes harass women. At one point, her harassment of women on a set we were running prompted us to ask her not to come back (…). She soon fired us.”
The data and stories I received not only served to confirm my personal experiences, but also showed the scope and severity of what others had suffered. I felt honored to have been entrusted with so many stories — all the more so because, I realized, it was a topic many were reluctant to discuss.
2. Queer women are hesitant to disclose harassment and abuse happening within the community.
While most of the survey respondents were forthcoming with their stories and points of view, I noticed a kind of shared anxiety about how I would treat all the information they had just imparted:
“This survey makes me nervous to be honest — I’ve been dreading this part of the hot take cycle. It is different when men abuse women or when men in power are predatory. (…) Being pursued by a woman I’m not interested in is awkward and gross. Being pursued by a man I’m not interested in is terrifying.”
“I don’t feel comfortable publicly outing my female abusers, because I don’t want (…) people believing ‘women are just as bad as men’ when it’s more complex than that.”
“Just… be careful with this? I know we’re a very PC community and we love being like, “WELL QUEER WOMEN ARE AWFUL, TOO,” but like, it’s not the same as it is with men who have patriarchal power and are entitled and feel confident that heterosexuality is accepted and popular.”
“I feel so much more defensive of the notion of queer womxn being harassing or predatory even though I’ve experienced it myself and I know there are other womxn who have experienced it on a much worse scale than I. I just don’t put it in the same boat as the type of harassing and aggressive behavior experienced at the hands of men. I don’t necessarily think that’s correct on my part. I need to explore that more.”
“It definitely is a strange sort of insidious double-standard — the shameful first thought is always that it still feels safer and much less dangerous than if a man were treating me like this. I have never felt like a persistent womxn was going to follow me home and kill me.”
On the surface, their anxiety seemed to boil down to a need to emphasize that harassing and abusive behavior in men and in women is different and feels different. It comes as no surprise, then, that 65% of respondents said that they found this kind of behavior in women less threatening than similar behavior in men:
But I believe there’s something more to their anxiety, and one respondent got right to the crux of the matter when they said, “In a strange way, calling out inappropriate behaviour (in queer women) feels internally homophobic.”
It might seem strange to feel the urge to cover for another person’s harassing or abusive behavior, but when you think about how marginalized queer women are already, can you blame us for closing ranks to protect the team from further criticism and stereotyping? To truly understand this, you need only look as far as — bear with me — lesbian vampires…
Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s gothic novella Carmilla, first published in 1872, tells the story of how a predatory and feline Carmilla preys upon the affection and blood of innocent Laura. The narrative is thick with lesbian undertones:
“Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one forever'”. – Chapter 4, Carmilla
Can you sense the dark underbelly of this indulgent fantasy yet?
It’s in movies that le Fanu’s lesbian vampire came to be a fully fledged trope. With homosexuality being such a taboo subject, people turned, in ignorance, to entertainment for guidance. Under the veil of vampires or interior decorators, movies “taught straight people what to think about gay people and gay people what to think about themselves.” The Lesbian Vampire, as it turns out, was a tool for homophobic propaganda. By turning a lesbian into a vampire, a kiss becomes an assault. Desire becomes deadly. The wiggle of an exotic jewel or a hypnotic stare serves to dazzle the innocent damsel. She is helpless in the clutches of the vile, lusty beast. Any notion of the possibility of willingness, reciprocity, or love between two women is erased.
Old tropes die hard and it’s easy enough to find movie characters today that perpetuate the “sexual deviant” stereotype that hangs over queer women. Take Cynthia Rose from Pitch Perfect, Miss G in Cracks, or Tamsin in My Summer of Love.
With so much negative bias stacked against the queer female community, it makes it so much harder to talk about gritty truths. As one respondent said, “the queer lifestyle has human subtleties and nuances that we don’t always get to see discussed in media. As long as homosexuality is treated as a novelty or one ruled by a sexual desire, the more important bits of information — like how to not treat each other like crap, or how society as a whole is held back by gender roles — doesn’t percolate down to the people who need it.”
3. The reason why this behavior exists in our community isn’t simple to explain:
- Substance abuse
For your average 18 to 40-something-year old, alcohol and recreational drugs are central elements of social life. The queer female scene is no different.
Bad behavior in this context should come as no surprise: “Research typically finds that between 25% and 50% of those who perpetrate domestic abuse have been drinking at the time of assault (…). Cases involving severe violence are twice as likely as others to include alcohol, and other research found that the risk of rape was twice as high for attacks involving drinking offenders.”
- Without queer role models, we’ve taken our cues from men.
Being lady-lovers, queer women are far more likely to identify with Han Solo than with Princess Leia, but pop culture — mainly in the form of movies — has taught men to approach sexual encounters in exactly the wrong way. And with little to no examples of how women can desire and love other women, the queer female community has largely modeled its seduction techniques on the very same materials as men.
Take the famous kiss scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo is painted as bold and roguish, knowing what Princess Leia wants better than she does. It’s a classic example of a man persisting until he gets what he wants. We’ve all seen countless movies where this kind of scene plays out, making it seem as though this is the way any regular love affair should begin. But put your “consent goggles” on and you notice that Princess Leia is being physically trapped and Han Solo completely ignores her firm rejections. She also escapes as soon as she gets a chance.
“This dynamic — where the “pursuer” overpowers a “victim” — is everywhere we look,” explained one respondent. “That is how the guy always gets the girl in mainstream media. So… that must be how the girl gets the girl, too.”
Having grown up with the same stories as straight men, our community also has “players.” Many of us believe “that using sexual energy to wield power is somehow hot”, and many studs proudly describe themselves as “aggressive females.”
- Consent between two women has its own complexities
There is a unique kind of affection and physicality that is common in platonic female friendships. Picture two girls playing dress up — you can almost see the one lifting a delicate fingertip to her friend’s lip to neaten the line of lipstick. That is the affection of sisterhood and it can be a beautiful and powerful thing.
However, when we grow up — and some of us discover our sexual attraction to women — the entitlement to each other’s bodies that we learned in girlhood has the potential to blur the lines of consent as sexual adults:
“I think there is an openness and camaraderie amongst queer women that can blur lines for what becomes invasive or aggressive behavior. I think because they may view their behavior as well-intentioned or non-threatening, they don’t think that it could be received as inappropriate or aggressive,” said one respondent.
“It’s almost as if she felt we were exempt from consent,” said another.
Our culture says women aren’t dangerous, so why would we consider ourselves to be dangerous?
- We are a vulnerable group of people.
Queer women are a minority living with largely unequal rights, in various degrees of secrecy and danger, and forced to deal with discrimination daily. This erodes stability and security, both essential ingredients for happiness and well-being.
The Center for American Progress reports that “lesbian women across data sets are consistently poorer than their heterosexual counterparts,” while “transgender Californians are twice as likely to be below the federal poverty line than the general population. What’s more, one-in-five survey respondents reported being homeless since first identifying as transgender.”
Throw into the mix the fact that “many lesbian batterers grew up in violent households and were physically, sexually, or verbally abused and/or witnessed their mothers being abused by fathers or stepfathers,” and you have a recipe for troubled and dysfunctional behavior.
One of my survey respondents put it very succinctly: “Untreated mental illness, alienation from family, (and) an inability to learn how to express sexual desire and agency openly,” are all important factors in explaining why women do bad things to other women.
“Just remember in your story, this is about power and not about sex!” said one respondent. In a way, society views and treats queer women as “lesser men”. It sees us as “monkeying manhood” and considers us unworthy of sharing the same rights, salary and respect as straight men. These very real disadvantages erode our power and our control, and and might drive some to seek ways to reassert themselves over others.
- Anything hard to identify or report thrives in silence.
As one respondent pointed out, “There’s a strange relationship with shame as a young queer womxn in a heterodominant society, where all feelings of desire and arousal feel shameful, which makes abuse difficult to recognize.”
Basically, we’re busy trying to figure ourselves out in a context that makes that tricky and confusing. Just like I found it thrilling to be openly hit on by women for the first time, it was also puzzling when they went about it in unpleasant ways. What was I supposed to think or feel?
“Being gay is like being a perpetual teenager,” explained another respondent, “because most of us never really got to be dumb adolescents given the space to figure our shit out. And that’s because, for most of us, it didn’t feel safe to. There was no mainstream conversation or vocabulary available for the nuances of dating life: teen magazines had a million advice columns for how to understand what little social cues and remarks meant when talking to boys, and NOTHING about how girls flirt. Occasionally somebody’d write to the Agony Aunt column and the response would ALWAYS be to ‘see a counselor or teacher you trust’, meaning ‘something is wrong with you’. So (…) I think the queer community (…) come into adulthood a little bit behind when it comes to how to treat prospective partners and relationships.”
I suppose many of us shrug off inappropriate behavior because we understand that, in the words of another respondent, “often women who are delivering unwanted attention or touch are clumsy about how to express desire and uneasy with their orientation.” Haven’t we all been there at one point or another? Most of us come into our identities in silence and secrecy, so it’s hard to know how to be smooth.
This willingness to accommodate each other’s shortfalls, our reluctance to badmouth a community that needs solidarity, and our inherent belief that, because we are physical and social equals, what happens between women “doesn’t count”, creates a context where there’s very little motivation for perpetrators to stop. No one is paying it attention and no one is calling them out.
This can lead to tragic situations such as this:
“The police did not take me seriously, even though I had bruises, emails, and voicemails to prove she wanted to kill me. She ruined my life and nobody took it seriously.”
I’ve been on a journey to deepen my understanding of my personal experiences in the queer female community. I have come away from the exercise with new tools with which to understand them. While I believe harassment and abuse from women is, in some ways, fundamentally different from similar behavior in men, I want to conclude with something my girlfriend said to me:
“As queer people, we want to be treated as normal. The thing is, ‘normal people’ harass and abuse. Straight men do it. Straight women do it. So do gay men and gay women. This is not a gender or sexual orientation issue. It’s about being human.”
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