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Theoretical understanding of the meaning of the term violence is underdeveloped. This paper examines the question of how violence to the person is socially defined, and in particular how understandings of violence are both gendered and sexualised. It highlights how victim characteristics, as well as the social and interactional contexts in which violence occurs, influence interpretative frameworks, with specific reference to the binary distinction between the public and private and to notions of culpability and victimisation. This entails a consideration of the social meanings which constitute notions of a ‘person’ with a ‘right to life’ and occupation of ‘public space’. The importance of the victim/perpetrator dichotomy in theorising violence is also considered. These themes and issues are examined in relation to a relatively new area of study; the case example of public violence towards lesbians and gay men.