CW: discussion of domestic abuse, sexual violence, intimate partner violence.
Almost a third of sexual minority men, and one half of women, report being a victim of domestic abuse. For psychological abuse the figure is even higher: over half of queer men and 75 percent of queer women report being victimised by a romantic partner. A 2013 study by the CDC estimated 4.1 million LGB Americans have experienced domestic abuse in their lifetimes.
Studies on violence in queer relationships account for only around 3 percent of the total research on the subject, but they routinely show that domestic violence within the LGB population occurs at least as often as within the heterosexual population, and is likely even more prevalent among sexual minorities.
Outcomes for queer victims of domestic abuse are also more difficult. From lack of familial and social support, to community ostracisation, loss of employment, poverty, and homelessness, the LGB community commonly has less resources to fall back on when things go wrong. The unique risk factors related to minority stress might even be an underlying cause behind the higher rate of domestic violence within queer relationships.
Domestic violence is a problem within our community, one that too often remains hidden in the shadows. There is a tendency—among individuals, police and community services, and society at large—to consider queer relationships as equal, and queer domestic abuse as mutual combat. A man who hits a woman is scorned. A man who hits another man is simply picking a fight. When that fight gets out of hand and the authorities get involved, the victim is often seen as equally culpable.
Data collected by the National Institute of Justice showed that in male-on-male instances of domestic violence, the severity of injuries was the determining factor in whether or not an arrest was made, regardless of mandatory arrest policies. Only when real bodily harm was caused would police reliably treat the incident as a criminal matter.
Against this backdrop, maybe it isn’t surprising that those writing about queer relationships from the outside so often rely on violence between same-sex (usually male-male) partners as a signifier of sexual interest. There’s a whole tangled mess of toxic masculinity tied up in this trend too. Big, butch, manly men can’t talk about their fweelings without being seen as sappy, so they’ll punch a dude instead. It’s the “he’s mean to you because he likes you” playground philosophy all grown up and being used to normalise harmful tropes and real-world toxicity.
I’m not citing examples or naming names, because this is a meta complaint. If you’ve read m/m romances for any length of time I’m sure you can think of an example or two off the top of your head.
Violence in m/m romances tends to fall into tropes. The first is the man who expresses his feelings with his fists. Eventually the fighting will morph into sweatily rolling around in other ways and they’ll fuck it out instead.
The second trope is the abusive man who usually has a traumatic past he needs a magic peen to heal. For him, the cruelty is the point. Unlike the first type, who acts impulsively, his violence is calculated, systematic, and often psychologically abusive as much as, or more than, physically. He might call himself an Alpha or a Dominant but underneath he’s just a dick.
Finally there’s the broken victim. He’s been kicked out by his parents, abused by ex-boyfriends, raped, beaten, left for dead in the street, spat on and scorned by everyone he meets. His scars as mental as much as physical and he needs a big, strong man to scoop him up, take him home, and nurse him better. His suffering is gratuitous because it’s what makes him sexy.
These tropes (or at least the latter two) aren’t exclusive to m/m. Romance has a lot to answer for in general when it comes to normalising abusive relationships. But too often in m/m I find abuse used as a plot device without calling it by its name, without addressing and satisfactorily resolving it, and without ever really condemning it. Even in the last trope, the poor broken boy, in almost every instance he’s taken in by an authority figure (a billionaire, a doctor, his dad’s best friend…) and kept like a mindless pet, denied the ability to make his own decisions. His heroic rescuer, by removing his agency, becomes just another abuser, albeit one who uses honey rather than vinegar.
Y’all, I get it. Watching some big, strong dude come undone because he can’t get that guy out of his head can be glorious. The confusion, the angst, the agonising about what it all means before he finally lets all the BS go and allows himself to feel his feelings…. It’s why I read m/m. It’s why I write it.
I am not here to shit on your happy. We can totally have those tropes, that angst, the tough guys brought to their knees, the delicate guys finding their protectors, all of that schizz. We can even include the abuse—but we need to call it what it is.
Just because the studly alphas decided fucking was more fun that fighting doesn’t mean it all gets swept under the carpet. Somebody’s pitiful backstory isn’t a good enough reason for riding roughshod over their partner’s autonomy and consent, or for having their autonomy removed because Daddy knows best.
It is not okay that we blindly accept violence in male-male romances.
It is not okay that we perpetuate the nonsense that men can only channel strong emotions through aggression.
It is not okay that we give same-sex domestic abuse a pass because the partners are somehow “equal.”
None of this is okay. None of this is sexy. And none of it has a place in modern romances that profess to push the envelope.