17 Jul 2009
In harm's way: Higher level of abuse among same-sex couples than straight ones, Hong Kong study
Four times as many individuals in a same-sex relationship than in a straight one have reportedly been victimised by physical assault, according to a landmark study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Women Coalition of HKSAR.
(Above: from left, Mabel Kwong, Eddie Chong, Professor Winnie W.S. Mak of CUHK’s Department of Psychology, Connie Chan and Yeung Wai Wai of Women Coalition of HKSAR)
The study, which is the only rigorous study made to date in Asia of same-sex partner violence, found higher levels of abuse than a Hong Kong study into heterosexual couple violence had found using the same measurement tool in 2005 (see note 1), For instance, whilst 9.6% of heterosexual individuals responding in 2005 had been victimised by physical assault, in this new study the comparative figure for same-sex individuals was 38.9%. For psychological abuse, the figures were 59.2% for heterosexual and 74.6% for same-sex individual members of partnerships.
The results of the study titled ‘Same-sex Intimate Partner Violence in Hong Kong’ were made public on Jun 16 at a press conference by Professor Winnie W.S. Mak of CUHK’s Department of Psychology, her two students from the University, Mabel Kwong and Eddie Chong, and two spokespersons of the Women Coalition of HKSAR, Connie Chan Man-wai and Yeung Wai Wai.
The results support the need for a speedy extension of the coverage of same-sex relationships under Hong Kong’s Domestic Violence Ordinance (DVO).
Proposals to amend the DVO to extend coverage to same-sex couples are again back before the Legislative Council (Legco). This time the bill is causing less argument than the first attempt to pilot it through last year, as the Government has fulfilled its pledge to amend the DVO to extend coverage to any couple living together in an intimate relationship, though it has bowed to pressure from the largely fundamentalist Christian right to define this as those living ‘in a cohabitation relationship’. Hitherto, opposition on the right had been aroused to the use of the word ‘domestic’, as in its Chinese translation, this can either be translated - as it has been so far - as ‘family’ (which the conservatives oppose being extended to same-sex couples) or as ‘domestic’, which, in Chinese, has no connotation of people, just property. Both sides seem to be able to live with the compromise of ‘cohabitation relationship’ which will apply to everyone, not just same-sex partners. The tongzhi community does not much like the change, and sees no need for it, but has largely come to accept it in order to see protection extended quickly to same-sex couples.
I went up to Shatin to CUHK to speak to Professor Mak about her research. She told me that the idea for it had come from the Women Coalition of HKSAR, which had contacted her and asked her to research the issue. Connie and Wai Wai of the Women Coalition had been prime movers in a survey conducted by many of the LGBT groups in Hong Kong in 2007-2008, which had revealed a much greater level of abuse than anyone had suspected. What was worse was that they found that most of the cases of abuse were going unreported. This had been highly useful information in the campaign to amend the DVO during 2008 (a campaign led in the tongzhi community by the Women Coalition) but it had not been possible to conduct the LGBT groups’ study on rigorous academic lines, and Connie and Wai Wai saw that this was necessary if the argument to amend the DVO was to be persuasive enough to convince a majority of Legco members to pass the bill. They had heard of Professor Mak’s interest in the stigma attached to the many minority groups in Hong Kong (stigma, for instance, of people with HIV/AIDS, immigrants from the mainland, ethnic and sexual minorities). Same-sex couple violence (unreported in part due to the stigma attached to it) seemed a subject that might interest her. They were right, and Professor Mak recruited her two students to help her, making, with Connie and Wai Wai, a team of five in all for the study they now embarked on.
Winnie Mak was well placed to lead this team. Born in Hong Kong, she had moved to the US when she was ten years old and had studied psychology at UCLA for her undergraduate degree, taking, in the nineties, a growing interest in minority issues, particularly affecting the Asian American community. She obtained her PhD at UC Santa Barbara and continued her post doctoral training at UC San Francisco, working on minority mental health issues. In 2002, she moved back to Hong Kong and took up a teaching post at CUHK. Her experience with minorities proved invaluable in making her take notice of the stigma which often attaches to any form of minority in Hong Kong. She was angered by the non-acceptance of those with mental illness, of immigrants from the mainland and, of course, of anyone differing from the usual default position of heterosexuality in Hong Kong society. She has made these stigmas her subject of study ever since.
The team decided to use the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale developed by Straus and colleagues in 1996 and now widely used around the world (as it was by the 2005 Chan study at Hong Kong University into violence in heterosexual couples, the closest comparator). They devised additional LGB Salient Tactics as they rightly supposed that there were factors involved in same-sex couples that were not there for the heterosexual, for instance threats of outing a partner to colleagues or family. A lengthy questionnaire in both Chinese and English was published on the net and the team placed as wide as possible a spread of advertisements and notices to draw volunteers to open the site and complete the form. All respondents were and remained anonymous. Some 398 individuals responded between November 2008 and February 2009. Winnie says that she believes this approach was the best that could be achieved given the impossibility of finding volunteers to come forward in person.
The first part of the study asked questions about abuse, and that from both sides, both the victim and the perpetrator. It covered psychological aggression, physical assault, sexual coercion and injury. The second part investigated help-seeking, in an attempt to determine how many victims had sought help, how many would seek help in future, and what the barriers were to seeking help. The data from these were published at the press conference this June, but the results of the final part of the research, into risk factors marking those more prone to violence (such as substance abuse, jealousy, anger management, histories of abuse, etc), have yet to be revealed. The team intends to have its results published in academic journals sometime this year and perhaps also to present them to the Government.
339 of the submissions were valid enough to use; the remainder were disqualified by incomplete forms or failure to fulfil criteria of eligibility, which were designedly tight. For instance, couples had to have been together for at least two weeks, and still be together or to have been so in the last two years. Of these, only 92 individuals were cohabiting with their partners, the remainder living separately. Winnie was herself surprised by the rates of abuse the study revealed. Nearly 13% of all respondents were found to have suffered all four forms of the abuse investigated. The figures for physical assault were shocking: 39.8% of respondents stated that they had perpetrated assault, 19.8% severely. 38.9% of respondents had been victims of physical assault, 20.9% of severe assaults. And the figures for those who had actually sought help to protect them were correspondingly low: only 1.6% had gone to appropriate NGOs for assistance, 2.2% had sought the help of the police, and only 9.9% had gone to social workers, counsellors or psychologists for aid. Friends who knew their sexual orientation were the mainstay; around 60% of victims had sought help from those they knew.
One other surprising finding of the study was that male and female same-sex couples produced almost identical ratings. Only two items differed: the incidence of forced sex was higher for men (22.3% to 11.9%) and the incidence of threatening to self harm was higher for women (14.2% to 2.5%). Otherwise, abuse was found to be equally as bad in both sexes.
Professor Mak told me that her findings were consistent with those of studies in the US, which had found that between 12 and 50% of same-sex couples (see note 2) had been involved in abuse as opposed to between 17 and 32% of heterosexual ones (Chan’s 2005 figure for Hong Kong heterosexual couples was 14%). Studies of lesbians in the US had found that 25-33% of couples had abuse problems (see note 3). I asked her why she thought the rates of abuse were so much higher for same-sex couples. ‘This may be something to do with the mean age of our study’ she said, ‘which was 26 as against the Chan’s study’s 40. But it is highly possible that the difference lies in societal pressures arising in Hong Kong, where parents and employers in the main do not accept same-sex couples. Also, the different degrees of being out (not at all, to a few people, to some types of people or to all) can create tensions in a relationship.’ Hiding in the closet is clearly dangerous to both mental and physical health.
Has the Hong Kong Government reacted yet to the study? No. The only response so far has been from Harmony House, which provides a shelter for battered women and their children, which has asked about what services are required, and from the CEASE Crisis Centre, part of the Tung Wah Hospital Group and sponsored by the Government, which provides crisis support and shelter for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, which has asked about training to cope with same-sex partner abuse.
The widespread lack of confidence shown by victims of abuse in either local NGOS dealing with similar issues or in experts in social work, psychology and counselling is shown by the low figures for those seeking their help. Most victims of abuse reported that they were worried about accountability and privacy in these organisations and about the lack of insight and experience among those operating the services they offered. The Women Coalition is pressing for greater attention to be paid to this area and for enhancement of services to remedy their current lack, in particular for the establishment of domestic violence shelter services and hotlines to cover same-sex couples, better education for social workers and the police to enable them to understand same-sex domestic violence and for the allocation of more resources for NGOs to enable them to develop programmes to deal with these issues. The Women Coalition has already agreed to collaborate with Harmony House to provide services and education for front-line workers.
This ground-breaking study will surely do more to change attitudes in this area than anything we have seen before. It will provide the only firm basis for argument over the next month in Legco as the amendment to the DVO passes through the stages of consideration. It is timely indeed.
1. Chan, K. L., Chiu, M. C., & Chiu, L.S. (2005). Peace at Home: Report on the Review of the Social and Legal Measures in the Prevention and Intervention of Domestic Violence in Hong Kong. Department of Social Work and Social Administration, The University of Hong Kong. Hong Kong.
2. Rohrbaugh, J. B. (2006) Domestic violence in same-gender relationships. Family Court Review, 44(2), 287-299.
3. Renzetti, C. M. & Miley, C. H. (1996). Violence in gay and lesbian domestic partnerships. New York: Harrington Press.
Correction (Jul 20, 2009): The number of individuals in the survey who satisfied the researchers’ criteria as being defined as cohabiting with their partner is 92 (not 306 as originally reported.) The article has been amended to reflect the correction.