web_brownworth_lesbian_rapeThe rarely spoken about threat lesbians face, from one another.


For most women, it’s one of the scariest words in any language. When your mother warned, “You could be murdered, or worse,” rape was the unspoken “worse.”

The statistics on rape certainly accentuate that “worse” aspect of the crime. According to the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice, three-quarters of all rape victims require medical care after the assault. Nearly half of victims sustain injuries that are not a direct result of the act of rape itself. In 30 per cent of rapes, a weapon is used against the victim.

The DoJ and the FBI cite rape as the most common violent crime (a woman is raped every two minutes in the U.S.) and the most recidivist (the majority of rapists re-offend within three years). In addition, more than half of all rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. A quarter of all rapes are committed by an intimate partner of the victim.

The FBI estimates that only 37 per cent of all rapes are reported to the police. The main reason given by victims for not filing a police report is a reprisal from the assailant.

The October 2009 Annual Crime Statistics report from the FBI noted that reported rapes were at a 20-year low. But rape kits, which can increase arrests for and prosecution of rape by nearly 50 per cent, are still not being tested regularly. Los Angeles alone has a backlog of more than 12,000 rape kits.

How many of those rape kits include the DNA of another woman?

In April 2009, Melissa Huckaby, a Sunday-school teacher, was arraigned for the rape and murder of Sandra Cantu, an eight-year-old playmate of Huckaby’s own daughter in Tracy, Calif.

The murder itself was shocking—women represent only seven per cent of murderers—but what stunned most was the rape. Many, including former Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark, asked, “How can a woman rape?”

The Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center are among many around the country to acknowledge that while same-sex rape comprises a small percentage of rapes overall, it does in fact exist. The SFRCC details male/male rape and female/female rape information.

As SFRCC explains, “Because many people define rape as penetration by a penis, woman-to-woman rape is not acknowledged or taken seriously. But in fact, it is estimated that one out of three lesbians has been sexually assaulted by another woman.”

My own first sexual experience with another woman was rape. Like many women, I didn’t know that women could rape other women. It wasn’t until I recounted the incident to a friend and she said, “So you were raped?” that I truly recognized this is what it was.

A close high school friend, Toni,* slept over the night before we were scheduled to go to an event together. She was a junior, I was a freshman. After we had gone to sleep, I was awakened in the dark by her kissing and touching me. She had unbuttoned my pyjamas and pulled down the pants. She performed oral sex on me and tried to penetrate me. In the morning she acted as if it had never happened. Part of me thought it must have been a dream.

But each subsequent time she stayed at my house, the same scenario played out: She waited until I was asleep and then began having sex with me. It was years before I could acknowledge this was rape.

Sonya Nelson* had a similar, brutal experience with her college roommate.

“I had just started to think of myself as bisexual,” explained the now 34-year- old Nelson. “I was only 18, I was from a very small town and was now at this big university in this big East Coast city. Everything was very new and exciting.”

Nelson said she and her roommate, Tanya,* had “really good chemistry. We really clicked. I liked her a lot, but I don’t remember feeling anything sexual toward her. We talked about my starting to discover my lesbian side and we talked about sex. A few nights after this talk I woke up to her on top of me.”

Not completely awake and not exactly sure what was happening, Nelson describes her response as “slow and stupid. I should have yelled, I should have pushed her off me like I would have if she were a guy. She really hurt me physically–she just pushed into me and I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t had a lot of penetration and it tore me and made me bleed, the way she did it. The next day I called my best friend and told her about it. I said it felt like being raped and she told me that was impossible, this was another girl. And besides, she said, didn’t I just say I was bisexual?”

Making the victim feel disempowered is a key factor in all sexual assault, asserts Janelle White, executive director of San Francisco Women Against Rape. SFWAR, which “provides resources, support, advocacy and education to strengthen the work of all individuals, and communities in San Francisco that are responding to, healing from, and struggling to end sexual violence” is a women and queers of color run agency that has been, among other issues, addressing the hidden one of female/female rape for years.

White explains that women who have been sexually assaulted by other women face even more hurdles in coping with their rapes than do women who have been raped by men.  “Women are told conflicting things from ‘this isn’t really rape’ to how could you accuse another lesbian/bisexual woman of rape.”

White and SFWAR take the approach that when a person is raped “your power has been taken away from you. We like to provide people with a lot of different options. There are no ‘shoulds’ in response to being raped. Every woman needs to know that. First off everybody needs to choose their own healing path.” SFWAR tries to present specific and individuated plans to help rape victims find that healing path–including victims of rape by women. White explains that these can include “filing a police report, seeking medical attention, looking for community-based responses to get the healing that you need and healing from a community as well.”

Karina Spellman* was raped by her partner, Maria* after Spellman broke off their three-year relationship.

The tall, athletic Spellman says she still has not recovered from the experience, even though it was over a year ago, and it has “left me with a lot of trust issues.”

Spellman and Maria ran into each other at a club a month after the split.

“I should have known to just stay clear of her,” admits Spellman, her voice catching. “She was drunk and getting very loud–purposefully, you know, so I could hear her. She wanted me to know she didn’t care about me anymore and she was kind of trashing me to her friends.”

Spellman decided to leave and walk home. She soon realized Maria was following her.

“She told me she just wanted to talk. She apologized for her attitude at the club. So we went to this park together. We hadn’t really talked since we broke up. We were both still raw from it.”

At the park, Maria led Spellman to a secluded area. When she tried to kiss her, Spellman said no. Maria pushed her, knocking her to the ground.

“She just fisted me, right there in the park. Like it was nothing.” Spellman cries as she recounts the story.

“This was something that we did together when we were lovers and close and intimate and it meant something. She didn’t just hurt me–she also just trashed all of what we had together. I have barely had sex with anyone since this happened. I can’t really imagine how I will get past it.”

Neither Spellman, who is white and nor Nelson, who is African-American, filed police reports after their attacks. Spellman went to a clinic in her city and Nelson saw the student health physician’s assistant at her college.

Nelson said her experience “just heightened the humiliation for me–the PA acted like I just liked lots of rough sex, ’cause you know black chicks like it that way and kind of did this wink-wink thing with me which just made me want to scream. It felt racist and sexist and if I hadn’t been so freaked out, I would have explained that I was raped, but I just couldn’t.”

Spellman had a completely different experience, but she says it didn’t help.

“The woman doctor who examined me knew I had been raped and she was really kind about it and talked very obliquely about when our partners hurt us and so forth. She seemed to know that no stranger had done this to me. But that just made me feel like some kind of creepy stat in the bad lesbian report. She assumed it was a guy, but thinking that my female lover raped me was pretty hard to take. And still is.”

For Nelson, the rape made it more difficult for her to come out. “I felt like I hated all gay people for a while,” she acknowledged.

Women who are sexually assaulted by other women have a wide range of emotional and psychological responses to the assault. Some women, like Spellman, may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They can feel fear, have trouble sleeping and experience nightmares or anxiety. Most rape victims have residual sexual problems.

White explained that women who experience female/female sexual assault are less likely to seek help than women who are raped by men and have other fears associated with dealing with police and the court system as well as their own LGBT communities.

According to the SFRCC, the primary barriers to confronting same-sex sexual assault are disbelief and denial, with a giant dose of homophobia—external and internalized—thrown into the mix.

SFRCC notes that “Many people do not want to believe or are unaware that same-sex rape happens. If it is acknowledged, often it is thought to be ‘not as bad’ as male-female rape.” Much like Whoopi Goldberg’s declaration that Roman Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old was not “rape-rape.”

SFRCC recognizes the conflicts women have in addressing same-sex sexual assault, stating, “Even lesbians and bisexual women do not want to believe they could hurt each other. But rape and sexual assault happen in our communities: on dates, in relationships, between acquaintances, coworkers and strangers.”

Lee Carpenter, Legal Director at Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, adds that “We like to protect our own from outsiders,” asserts Carpenter. “We don’t want our dirty laundry aired in the straight arena. We don’t want to give them reasons to point fingers at us. So we pretend it’s alright, even when it isn’t.”

Spellman says she didn’t go to the police about the rape because “I just didn’t want to be that girl. I didn’t want to be the woman having her lesbian lover arrested. What happened to me was bad enough. I just couldn’t see putting myself through any more trauma. I was not about to let my being raped in a park after being shoved to the ground and really roughed up become she said-she said lesbian Dramarama. I was raped. But I could see how that would be totally diminished by everyone, just as it was by Maria who actually kept saying to me, ‘You know how you love this, baby.’ Oh–how could she do this to me? I used to love her. How could I ever trust another woman again?”

Seeking help if you have been raped is the first step toward healing, asserts Janelle White, executive director of SFWAR.


The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA)
459 Fulton Street, Suite 107
San Francisco, CA 94102
Website: glma.org
This national organization has a thorough website that includes a listing of LGBT health centres and a health care referral system for finding an LGBT-friendly health provider in your area.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP)
Website: avp.org/ncavp.htm
(212) 714-1141
A coalition of more than 20 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victim advocacy and documentation programs located throughout the United States. Can provide referrals to programs across the country.

24-hour hotline 415-647-7273

The Network/LaRed
Website: thenetworklared.org
Email [email protected]
(617) 423-7233 v/TTY
English- and Spanish-language services for lesbian, bisexual women, transgender folks, MTF & FTM transexuals, intersexed folks, and women involved with other women.

*the names of victims/survivors have been changed unless otherwise noted.

For more on rape, trauma recovery read Life After Rape: Trauma Recovery