When Stephen first stepped into therapist Susan Holt’s office, he already had a track record: An arrest for domestic violence. Time in a batterers’ program for court-mandated abusers. Six years in a turbulent relationship.
But the more she talked with her client, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, Holt began to believe that he was not a batterer.
After she treated Stephen over a period of weeks at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Holt saw his partner, Alan, whose name has also been changed, as the primary aggressor in the relationship. After facing abuse for days, Stephen would sometimes also lash out at Alan, in defense or retaliation.
Because he was bigger than Alan, and because he admitted to lashing out, Stephen was the one who was arrested when neighbors called the police.
Stephen wasn’t merely a victim—he had also engaged in violence. Yet it seemed significant that he had done so only after first being mistreated. Here was a couple who didn’t fit the black-and-white framework of a victim-abuser relationship that psychology texts referenced when talking about domestic violence. It wasn’t the last time Holt treated a client who didn’t fit the classic profile of a victim, but still had clearly been victimized by an abusive partner.
That realization led her to develop a groundbreaking system a decade ago, one that recognized four categories of actors in intimate partner violence: primary victims, defending victims, secondary aggressors and primary aggressors.
This four-category system that Holt created with her colleagues at the LGBT Center has become a standard of practice at the non-profit, the largest provider of LGBT medical and mental health services nationwide. But Holt and her colleagues are still working to spread the word about the four categories, which, Holt believes, can be helpful for treating the wider community as well.
According to Holt’s framework, a primary victim is someone who, once conflict begins, “the only thing that they want to do is disengage (from the conflict) as quickly as possible.” This is the traditional way of viewing a victim of domestic violence: Someone who is abused but does not fight back.
A defending victim, by contrast, will fight back in self-defense. “Once they’re clear that they’ve defended themselves, and there’s been some degree of safety that wasn’t there before, then they will disengage,” Holt explained.
A secondary aggressor, which “is actually a really common category,” Holt said, is someone who will fight back in self-defense or retaliation. Once the conflict begins, secondary aggressors have no interest in disengaging. This is the category that can be most confusing for police officers, judges or shelter workers. “For service providers who don’t have a lot of training or way to differentiate, it looks like a mutual conflict,” she said.
The Center most often sees LGBT clients that are defending victims or secondary aggressors.
“A lot of people may become defending victims and secondary aggressors simply because of context, or because of a lack of resources that are LGBT-specific,” Holt said. “When there are fewer resources, people are often placed in a position where they feel that only thing they can really do is fight back.”
The final category, primary aggressor, describes a person in a relationship who initiates abuse, and whose goal is usually to obtain power and control over the other person.
‘Much more complex’
Holt’s four categories encompass the diversity of relationships, said Devika Shankar, program coordinator for the LGBT Center, who leads trainings on treating LGBT domestic violence, including the four-category system.
“Traditionally in this kind of work, we’ve looked at it as this binary, as victim and abuser, but when it comes to domestic violence and people experiencing trauma, things are so much more complex than that,” she said.
Shankar worked at other domestic violence shelters for eight years before coming to the LGBT Center, “and it was only when I learned this model that things started falling into place.”
At the previous shelters, she “would see clients who were being victimized but were acting out in ways that we couldn’t understand or that felt ‘problematic’ in a certain way,” she said. “By not understanding these dynamics, we weren’t really providing the best services that we could to the other people that didn’t fit in these categories.”
Elizabeth Denny, volunteer coordinator for the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, which operates domestic violence shelters, attended one of Shankar’s trainings in March.
Denny is now working to revise her agency’s curriculum to include the four-category system. Peer counselors at the Los Angeles nonprofit, which has a community center in Koreatown, have already begun using the framework.
“We want to be able to provide support to all survivors—not just those who come in and fit a certain understanding of what it means to be a victim,” she said.
The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, the state’s largest coalition of domestic violence programs and advocates, said it hasn’t worked directly with Holt’s curriculum, but it supports the concept. Jacquie Marroquin, the Partnership’s director of programs, said that there is “a growing awareness that a one size fits all approach to services is not effective for different communities.”
The LGBT Center has tried to get the court system to take the framework into account when addressing domestic violence cases, Holt said, but has not had much success.
Still, Holt holds out hope that the four categories will become better known. And in her organization, they are already helping people like Stephen.
Stephen, who first came into Holt’s office in 2000, spent two years in treatment at the LGBT Center. Cases like his helped Holt develop her description of a secondary aggressor and showed her that people who retaliate or act in self-defense typically aren’t otherwise violent.
Holt last heard from Stephen in 2005. “He was in a new, and very healthy, relationship,” she said, “with a non-abusive partner.”