Practice blog

Managing counter-allegations

Luke Martin is a consultant primarily focusing on working with male and LGBT victims of domestic abuse. Luke worked as an Independent Domestic and Sexual Violence Advisor (Idsva) for eight years. He has also worked extensively for and with Respect, including on the national helpline for male victims of abuse, The Men’s Advice Line. Luke currently trains on SafeLives’ Idva accreditation course, DA Matters (a change programme for police responders) and Respect’s ‘Working with Male Victims’ training programme. Luke has consulted for organisations such as SurvivorsUK, the national male rape and sexual violence service and worked on campaigns such as the Home Office’s ‘This is Abuse’ campaign.

One of the more common challenges for those coming in to contact with domestic abuse is counter-allegations, where both parties allege that the other is abusive. For those less experienced in working with domestic abuse it can be easy to fall in to the trap of believing this is so, and that they are ‘both as bad as each other’.

Johnson (2004) speaks of several different typologies of domestic abuse, including bi-directional abuse. After publishing he was approached by several academics evidencing that if professionals dedicated time and had a good understanding of the dynamics of abuse they would almost always identify a primary victim and primary perpetrator and that in fact bi-directional violence was at the least very rare if it exists at all.

So why do counter-allegations throw us so much? Often because it is purely one person’s word against another. As curious humans we like evidence. We might automatically look to the physical evidence of injury. The difficulty of this arises when our victim might use violent resistance (Johnson). A victim might retaliate with violence because they might feel it is their only option. They might also use violence to instigate a violent attack, understanding their own cycle of abuse and wanting to trigger an incident rather than spending hours or days feeling like they are walking on egg shells waiting for an incident. This may cause difficulty when a perpetrator doesn’t retaliate, but instead reports the use of violence to the Police.  Police would generally stick to a Positive Action Policy enforcing the primary victim to be arrested as the perpetrator in this offence. We are aware that victims frequently don’t report their experiences of abuse to the Police so this may be the first time the Police become aware of this couple. This feeds into a power and control dynamic where the primary perpetrator might use withdrawing their statement to control the victim or continue to abuse.

We commonly see professionals identify bi-directional violence in cases that might be identified as complex needs, where we see substance misuse and/or poor mental health. Again, it is important that we understand that a victim under the influence of substances or struggling with their mental health may have lower inhibitions when using retaliatory violence or abuse. This could then lead to an incident escalating and becoming more violent than it may have been previously, increasing the risk to our primary victim.

Bi-directional violence is also often misidentified in cases of same-sex domestic abuse. Again, this stems from professionals not being able to identify who does what to whom. When we speak of domestic abuse we talk of a power imbalance and the perpetrator taking control from the victim. However, we commonly associate this with male abusers and a female victim, which research tells us is the most common form. This then challenges our perception when we have two men or two women in a relationship and one is using abusive behaviour. Some professionals make the assumption that the more ‘masculine’ or ‘butch’ must be the perpetrator, and the more ‘effeminate’ be the victim as this fits with our societal perception of gender norms and abuse. The challenges we might see here are, again, victims who might use some form of violent resistance and professionals feeling they don’t necessarily have the skill set to identify a primary perpetrator.

In cases of counter-allegations we look for fear, our victim is more likely to express some fear of their partner or fear of consequences and might report feeling like they are walking on eggshells. We might also look at who might take responsibility for incidents; victims might justify their partner’s abuse or take responsibility for antagonising or not having done what is expected of them. Perpetrators might tell a professional that they have used abusive behaviour but might justify their use. We also look for the level of detail someone might give us; perpetrators are more likely to be vague whereas victims might give us a great amount of detail, if they are not in a state of shock. Where physical violence has been used we might look for injuries that are in line with the description of the incident given. When looking at coercive and controlling behaviour we might explore what somebody’s day normally looks like, or what happens when there is an argument? How is it resolved?

Although it can be challenging for us as professionals when presented with counter-allegations, with the appropriate understanding and training we can identify the power dynamic and our primary victim. By doing this we can increase safety and manage risk. Always start from the point that the abuse is never equal and oppositional, even if that is how it is presented to you in the first instance.

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Like a Supernova: Why a volunteer project built a tool for the global LGBTQIA+ community

Michelle, a volunteer with the Supernova Project tells us more about this ambitious and pioneering global initiative. 

“The name Supernova came to me when I was watching a Brian Cox documentary on the cosmos. Something flashed in my head when I learned that Supernovas (i.e. the last stage of the death of a star) are the only place in the entire universe that are hot enough to produce complex molecules such as carbon. And carbon forms the basis of all known life. It was quite beautiful that this seemingly awful thing is happening as a star dies, but it’s only through that can we truly gain life. And as a victim of familial abuse myself, it resonated a lot with me — the idea of life beginning at the end of something.”

– Maryam Amjad, founder of the Supernova Project


The standard narrative of domestic abuse in a romantic relationship goes a lot like this: a stronger male physically assaults a weaker female. Fearing for her life and/or paralyzed by love for her partner, the female doesn’t leave; she instead holds fast to the idea that it was a “one time thing” and “it won’t happen again.” Most recently, we’ve seen it with Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård on the mini-series Big Little Lies, but also with Rihanna and Chris Brown; with Liverpool FC’s Jon Flanagan and his girlfriend Rachael Wall. It is a powerful narrative, and an important one to discuss – but it’s hardly the only one. Enter the Supernova Project.

The Supernova Project falls under the wider organisation, Chayn, a “volunteer network tackling gender based violence globally by creating intersectional survivor-led resources on the web.” Although Chayn carries a lot of information resources about domestic abuse, we identified the need to create resources specifically for the LGBTQIA+ communities so that their experiences were also reflected, therefore empowering LGBTQIA+ individuals to recognise any patterns of abuse in their own relationships.

The Supernova Project is a volunteer-led initiative that aims to sharpen the idea of what domestic abuse looks like in LGBTQIA+ relationships. To be sure, it does, at times, resemble that which is described above. A 2010 American study, The National Intimate Partner Violence Survey, found that 26% of gay men and 38% of bisexual men experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, relative to 29% of heterosexual men. They also found that a staggering 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women had experienced the same thing, compared to 35% of heterosexual women.

So what is it about queer relationships? Quite telling is the share of LGBTQIA+ respondents who experienced psychological aggression within an intimate relationship: 63% of lesbians and 76% of bisexual women, along with 60% of gay men and 54% of bisexual men, compared  with 48% of heterosexual women and men, reported experiencing this kind of violence in their lifetimes. One reason for this is the constant threat of outing, which is less common in heterosexual relationships due to the relatively small taboo of being part of a straight couple worldwide. Particularly in non-Western nations, the consequence of sharing the existence of a relationship with one’s loved ones can be life-threatening - for example, the primary punishment for homosexual behaviour in Pakistan is death. The hiding or withholding of hormones which a transgender person may take as part of their transition or gender expression is also a form of abuse which cis-gendered individuals are unlikely to be subject to.

The secrecy with which LGBTQIA+ relationships must be carried out can lead to enhanced feelings of isolation amongst abuse victims, even more so than already exists in heterosexual couples. Though we are not currently in a position to offer any location specific services, the Supernova Project understands the importance of accessing local services, and endeavours to signpost to different organisations across the world who may be able to offer more personalised support to individuals who need it. Further, we have included a “Leave this site” button, which immediately redirects users to a different webpage. This feature may be critical to the safety of users who are looking at the website in secret and may need to leave the site quickly if someone, such as their abusive partner, suddenly looks at their screen.

The Supernova Project launched in July 2017, and received wide press coverage upon its launch. There is, as ever, always more to do. The Supernova Project is an entirely volunteer run initiative and we are always looking for volunteers to help with tasks such as building relationships and partnerships with relevant service providers; gaining coverage in the media; developing new resources for different groups within the LGBTQIA+ communities and more! Our volunteers come from a multitude of different backgrounds and experiences and we welcome volunteers from any country, (professional) background, of any age, gender and sexuality. We only ask that you fall in line with our values of providing non-discriminative help to the LGBTQIA+ community regarding information and support to survivors, and their friends and family, of domestic abuse.

If you are interested in volunteering for the Supernova Project, please email us at

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The importance of Relationship and Sex Education for young LGBT people

Following the recent government consultation on sex and relationship education, young Stonewall campaigner Jacob shares his thoughts on why this education is so important for young LGBT people. 

RSE stands for Relationship & Sex Education. At school, I only received the latter of that and not very much of it either. I remember the first (and only) lesson in sex ed I had was held in the IT classroom when I was 11 or 12 and it basically consisted of us all sitting on the carpet and watching a video that showed us a boy standing there in swimming shorts as the video explained what would happen to our bodies as we started to get older. It was a walkthrough of puberty essentially. No mention of sex, safe sex, girls and absolutely nothing about LGBTQ+ people. Looking back part of me thinks they kept it so brief and ‘male’ oriented because it’s a faith school and you’re supposed to be married before you even think about any of that. The only other lesson in school that remotely resembles sex ed was in secondary school and that was a science lesson about how babies grew inside a woman. As usual, the class was split into ‘boys and girls’ and taught about this separately.

Inclusive RSE is something that NEEDS to be accessible to all children, regardless of their family's faith or the personal beliefs of the parents. This is about the child's knowledge and understanding of others as well as themselves. Diversity needs to be included in RSE in order to prevent bullying, misunderstandings and hate based on misinformation. We also need to stop separating classes by ‘gender’ or anything else. I may not be sexually attracted to women but thinking that they were the same as men but without the penis until I was 18 is still so embarrassing for me to admit but it’s also why I am so passionate about RSE and believe it is vital not only for the individual's understanding of themselves but of others too.

I also believe the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people is essential for children in order to create a much more accepting future society, and by LGBTQ+ I don’t just mean saying “some people like the same sex” I mean explain things, outlining relationships, how would a same-sex couple have a baby? Etc… and don’t make it just ‘Gays and Lesbians’ either, include everything, especially gender as people are still confused by the fact there are more than two genders and that your gender and your biological ‘sex’ are two different things! In short, the more information/topics covered, the better.

I missed out on so much, including what sex even was. It’s true, sex was a load of rumours spread around the school for me and then after leaving primary school I was bullied so bad at secondary school my social skills took a nosedive, making me the outcast at school and excluding me from peer groups that may have helped my understanding of sex at that age. I only understood how (gay) sex worked when I found out myself online years later and that was scary. As an anxious gay teen the last thing you need to stumble across online is a hardcore adult video. We need to stop 'protecting' young people from topics like sex because they will and do find out, and a lot of the time they get the wrong idea. As I did.

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LGBT Young People’s Experiences of Domestic Abuse

Janice Stevenson is a Development officer for LGBT Youth Scotland. In this blog, she writes about the work done by the project Voices Unheard to better understand LGBT young people’s understanding, knowledge and experience of domestic violence.

The Voices Unheard project was established by a group of young people from LGBT Youth Scotland. Using a peer research approach, the group sought to find out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people’s understanding, knowledge, and experience of domestic abuse in their families and relationships. The findings of this initial investigation have enabled Voices Unheard to engage with service providers and help them to increase their knowledge and understanding of LGBT young people’s support needs when experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse.

The research highlighted a lack of recognition of abuse amongst LGBT young people. Participants were asked about their experiences of controlling behaviour from partners or ex-partners, and although 52% reported having had experienced some form of abusive behaviour from a partner or ex-partner, only 37% of the young people recognised this as abuse. The media often depicts negative portrayals and stereotypes of same sex relationships, meaning that LGBT young people are not aware of what a healthy LGBT relationship looks like.

Perpetrators of domestic abuse and people who sexually exploit children and young people can and do use stereotypes and gendered expectations as tools of abuse and control; telling LGBT young people that they are ‘not a real gay man, lesbian woman, bisexual person etc if they fail to live up to the stereotype. Young people can feel pressured to engage in certain types of sexual activity or to express their sexual orientation or gender identity in stereotypical ways in order to ‘prove’ their LGBT identity, which contributes to the normalising of abuse within LGBT relationships.

As well as experiencing abuse within their own relationships, young people also described their experience of living with domestic abuse, where 61% of the respondents had witnessed some form of abuse in their families. If a young person is witnessing abuse in their families they are less likely to feel safe and confident within their home, creating additional barriers to ‘coming out’. 79% of the young people who took part in the research believed that someone who had witnessed domestic abuse in their family or home would feel less confident to ‘come out’ as a result. It is therefore vital that services and agencies that work with young people experiencing domestic abuse provide safe and positive places for young people to talk about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBT young people also face additional barriers to seeking support. They may not be ‘out’ as an LGBT person to family or friends, making it difficult to utilise their own support network. 47% of the young people said that fear of homophobia, biphobia or transphobia from service providers would make them less likely to access domestic abuse support services. They also shared concerns about confidentiality; specifically, concerns about being outed by services to family, or through other referrals.

Transgender young people were concerned that services would not be inclusive of them and recommend that clarity about inclusion of transgender and gender variant young people is made clear in literature, websites and promotional materials.

Following their research, and through extensive engagement with the domestic abuse sector in Scotland, Voices Unheard and the LGBT Domestic Abuse Project have developed some key recommendations to help domestic abuse services to be more inclusive. These include;

  • Be clear that your service is inclusive of LGBT people in literature, website and promotional materials
  • Clarity over what support services offer to LGBT people – particularly transgender inclusion
  • Advertise flexible opening hours to accommodate young people who may struggle to access services during office hours
  • Provide remote services, such as telephone, email and online support
  • Provide clear examples of LGBT domestic abuse in case studies/ stories on websites, in literature and promotional materials
  • Access appropriate training; without the correct training, staff may not be able to support LGBT young people in the way that they need
  • Have clear links with other organisations, including LGBT services,  and be able to make referrals
  • Ensure you use gender neutral language at all times, such as using ‘partner’ rather than husband or wife

Further information and resources are available from the LGBT Domestic Abuse Project or from Voices Unheard

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Supporting GBT men: The Dyn Project

Dyn, meaning man in Welsh, is a project in Cardiff offering support across Wales to gay, bisexual, trans and heterosexual men who have experienced domestic abuse. Collette Eaton-Harris met with Simon Borja and Carol Stringer of the Dyn Project to find out more about the services they offer.

Collette: Can you tell us how the Dyn Project started?

Simon: The Dyn Project was launched over 10 years ago in 2006. The project started up on the back of the Women Safety Unit.  We were approached by James Rowlands (currently domestic abuse, sexual violence and VAWG coordinator, Brighton, Hove and East Sussex) who was studying at Cardiff University at that time, with a proposal of setting up a service for male victims.

At that stage we didn’t know what Dyn should look like, what the barriers for men accessing support were, what the data would indicate or where the need was, so it was kind of starting from square one.  There were so few male services, it was difficult to have a clear idea of the model.

We managed to get some funding from Welsh government and we started a pilot project.  Very much of the focus in the early days was whether we should have a service which was for all men, or whether we should only be for gay, bi and trans men.  I think one of the assumptions people still make with the Dyn Project is either that we only work with gay, bi or trans men, or that we only work with heterosexual men. Actually we work with all men regardless of sexuality or whether they are cis or trans men.

Collette:  And do you have an idea of how many men are accessing your services annually?

Simon:  Yes, I’d say we get about, between 200 and 250 come to us through the advocacy service in Cardiff, that’s men who can access one-to-one support.  We get about between 700-800 calls to our helpline for Wales, so through that we’re offering support for men who are calling us from across Wales. 

We do get some calls from England which are then referred to the Men’s Advice Line.

But we’re actively working with easily, I’d say, between 600-700 men per year.  So, we don’t just constantly signpost men, so we do direct work with men, we do safety planning, risk assessments, we liaise with the police, give them housing advice. So we’re not just saying, “okay David, thanks for calling us, why don’t you contact so and so in your area?”  We’re doing a lot of ground work and the background work as well.

Collette: Can you say a bit more about what that direct work entails?

Carol:   Well I’m an IDVA, an independent domestic violence advisor.  I answer the helpline calls, I support clients face-to-face, I do all the safeguarding, I put all that in place, and I advocate for them. I’ve been here for three years with Safer Wales, and it’s going from strength to strength.

When a client comes in I’ve got no idea of his sexuality so I tailor the support I offer to the needs of the client. It’s about the client and what they want and what they expect from the service, and I’ll tailor it to that.  I’ll say to them I’m not here to judge, I’m not here to make any judgment on them whatsoever, all I ask from them is complete honesty when they’re completing any assessments with me.  A lot of what they tell me they don’t recognise as abuse.  We complete a self-assessment and when they read it back they’ll go, “oh my God, I didn’t realise that was abuse at all, I didn’t realise that was abuse”.  Anything that’s threatening or that makes you feel uncomfortable, or physically hurts you, or makes you feel bad, is deemed to be abusive and in a relationship that shouldn’t happen. 

Another part of the work is thinking about who is at risk and in what way. When the referral comes through to me I read that and look for any safeguarding issues around that client; tendency for depression, self-harm, whatever it might be.  Then I will check with relevant agencies, i.e. probation, or if they’ve come from another area, that police force area, to see if this client and the perpetrator are known to those services, and in what capacity they’re known. 

It’s important to do background checks so that you’re not helping a potential perpetrator to perpetrate.  You don’t want to give the perpetrator tools to equip them to become better perpetrators.  My goal is to safeguard and listen; and find that right support and put everything in place for that person to stay safe, and anybody else around them.  You know, a perpetrator needs to be safe, he may be perpetrating but he still needs to be safe.

Collette: It’s unusual for many domestic abuse services to get large numbers of referrals for male victims, so I was wondering what barriers you find your clients have come across before they’ve found your service?

Carol:   Definitely, homophobia, I can’t believe it still happens in this day and age to be honest.  I recently supported a client, he was out of area, he called me and I completed a risk assessment. It wasn’t domestic abuse that he was going through, it was homophobic abuse.  The neighbours were threatening him, they were really aggressive to him, they were really abusive. He was absolutely petrified to be in his own home.  I advocated for him with housing in another area, making the calls, telling them that this guy is not safe in this house. He had experienced domestic abuse, but at this particularly time it wasn’t domestic abuse that was the pressing issue.  He was in fear for his life because of homophobic abuse.  He’d had somebody actually threaten him with a shot gun and he was frightened to go home. So I had to find somewhere else for him to go to be safe. Even though it wasn’t domestic abuse, I didn’t just say to this guy, “well that’s not domestic abuse, I’m sorry, I can’t support you”, it’s about the safety, it’s about keeping everybody safe, and taking those steps, and helping them to make those changes to keep themselves safe as well.

Simon: I think lots of men, and this is very common, don’t recognise that they’re a victim of domestic abuse. I think as well, if we think of heterosexual men it could be issues around masculinity and pride, but with gay, bi and trans men, I think we see much more fear of being outed, disclosing who they are. And confidence in the police; because that’s another thing for us, most of our referrals do come from the police.  So, if gay men don’t present at the police they might not know about the Dyn Project.

Collette:  And is low confidence in the police something that is changing for GBT men?

Simon:  I think it’s something that’s changing and I think that we’re very careful as a project, even doing a podcast like this, we don’t keep saying the same line as, gay men won’t present to a service, gay men think no one believes them, because that can further this fear of not being believed. 

We want to be a bit more proactive because actually, we do support GBT men. We’ve got 235 referrals, about 20-30% of them would identify as gay or bi men.  We do have some experience of working with transgender men, but the majority of our service users are gay or bisexual. So we do get gay men who access the service, who want the service, who want the support. But even then a lot of men will come here, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, not expecting support, not expecting help, that’s quite consistent.

Collette: So, their experience previously has been that services are not able to work with them directly but just refer them on?

Simon:  Just refer them on. Or they’ll experience something like minority stress, believing that there aren’t people out there that will help you, that people will laugh or ridicule.  With domestic abuse, because the majority of victims are women, it’s what’s seen in the media, what’s known; “this is what heterosexual men do the heterosexual women”.  So, GBT men don’t fit into that narrative, that storyline.

Carol: Yes and it’s also professionals who sometimes don’t recognise abuse in same sex relationships. I worked with a man who went to London to try and source support around housing, he was a very high-risk victim of domestic abuse.  And when he approached this service in London, it was like they didn’t believe he was in a relationship with a man.  They wouldn’t accept that he was in a gay relationship. He felt very outraged.  He was made to feel very small and belittled.  He ended up coming back to Cardiff where he wasn’t safe because they wouldn’t accommodate him there, and I think that’s an issue.  There are people out there still working in public services that are not accepting of GBT individuals or their experience of domestic abuse.  When the person behind the counter spoke to my client, he said, “oh your friend”, it wasn’t his friend, it was his partner, and that’s still happening out there, even in the professional sector, and I think that’s really sad.   Even though the client was saying, “we were partners, we were in a relationship, we’ve been living together for seven years”, this person behind the counter just would not accept that they were in a relationship and just kept referring to his partner as his friend, and it just really upset and hurt this client.

Simon: We did some work at BBC Wales in November last year. We managed to get two case studies of two men who wanted to share their experiences.  And specifically as a project we wanted to target GBT men as kind of reaching out, because we know most of our referrals are heterosexual men.  We know that there are many GBT men out there that are just not aware that they’re in abusive relationships, so we wanted to use that story, those case studies to reach out to men to come forward.

Collette: What advice you would give to projects who are thinking about their provision for GBT men?

Carol: For us, it is a men’s service, regardless of sexuality. If you’re a man and you’re experiencing domestic abuse in any way, shape or form, we’re a service that can offer you support, it’s about keeping them safe, and it’s important that you put that across to men so they feel able to approach you.

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