Teen Dating Violence

This is the eighth part in a series about domestic violence, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. You may want to read Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI and VII. I have two more parts in this series, and then I’ll be done with it. They’re about domestic violence and mental health, which is actually where *my* job comes in.

Teen dating violence is something that is rarely talked about. Domestic violence is underreported and underdiscussed as well, but teen dating violence has even less awareness. The relationships that teenagers engage in will often shape their patterns and beliefs about relationships for the rest of their lives. Yet, one in five teens who have been in a serious relationship report being hit, slapped, or pushed by a partner. One in three teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked, or physically hurt by their partner. Oftentimes, teens model the relationships they’ve seen in their homes, and if they’re abusive ones, they may not know any better than to accept or perpetrate abuse in their own relationships. Their lack of experience also hinders their ability to know when something is wrong or a behavior is unhealthy. Teenage love, since it’s the first time any of these feelings are experienced by the parties involved, can be very intense.

Like adult domestic violence relationships and child abuse, there is a power and control wheel for dating violence. Many of the aspects are the same, and power and control is still the overriding theme and goal of the abusive behaviors. More than one in four teenage girls in a relationship report enduring repeated verbal abuse and one-third or more have been with a partner who frequently asked where they were or who they were with. Isolation also plays a large role; one in four teens have had a partner that tried to prevent them from spending time with friends or family or that pressured them to only spend time with their partner. If they have never been in a relationship before, they may think it’s normal for their partner to become their world and for their relationships with friends and family to suffer.

However, there are some differences between teen dating violence and domestic violence in adult relationships.

SEXUAL ABUSE: Sexual abuse can take many more variable and less obvious forms than in adult relationships. One in four teenage girls who have been in a relationship reveal that they have been pressured to perform oral sex or engage in intercourse. Forced sex by way of physical abuse and threats to the victim, loved ones or others is an example. Sex may also be coerced by the infliction of emotional abuse. Some ways this is achieved include, but are not limited to, degradation, humiliation, daring, jealous challenges, threats to tell lies, threats to have sex with someone else, threats to withhold affection, threats to ruin the victim’s reputation or spread other rumors. Teen’s sense of self and peer expectations may effect decisions to keep the abuse private. This may include decisions to get medical treatment for injuries, pregnancy or to tell about lethal threats.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE: Although substance abuse does not cause violence in dating, teen dating abuse may be affected by the presence of substances. This may be true to the extent that risk elements in a teen substance abuser’s inhibitions, perceptions of power and control, decisions, and episodic choices may be affect by the presence of substances. It is essential to confront violence and substance use simultaneously, but as unique problems. Abusers may pressure their victim to partake in the use of alcohol or drugs in order to lower their inhibitions and force them into sex, or in hopes that they will black out or pass out so that the abuser can have sex with them*.

USE OF TECHNOLOGY: Technology presents a whole new avenue for utilizing abusive behaviors. Constant texting, phone calls, or embarrassing postings on MySpace or Facebook pages can also be a form of abuse. While communicating online or via text message is normal, it can be used as a way to monitor, control, or even blackmail a girlfriend or boyfriend. 30 percent of teens say they are messaged 10, 20, or 30 times an hour by a partner inquiring where they are, what they’re doing, or who they’re with. Approximately 70% of teens say that partners sharing private or embarrassing pictures or videos on cell phones and computers is a serious problem and that partners spreading rumors about them on cell phones and social networking sites is a serious problem.

PEER APPROVAL: Teens experience more reliance on peer approval and the need to conform to peer norms. If these norms characterize dating violence as “normal” behavior, teens may think it is acceptable for abuse to occur in a relationship. The victim may be unable to determine if the abuser’s behavior is out of line with the norm. However, unlike in abusive adult relationships, where the abuser is more likely to be nice and treat the partner well in front of others, the opposite is true for teen relationships. Many teens are rude, disparaging, or just plain mean to their partners in front of their friends, while being nicer when the two are alone, to preserve their public image of looking “cool” and so that it does not appear that they are “whipped” or controlled by their partner.

GENDER-ROLE EXPECTATIONS: Teens may rely on perceived gender differences, often reinforced by popular media, which emphasize stereotyped ideas of male dominance and female passivity. There may be an expectation that a female’s status depends on her attachment to a male and his status. Female socialization also may lead women to take primary or sole responsibility for problem solving in a relationship.

LACK OF EXPERIENCE: Teens have less experience in dating and in sexual relationships. This can lead to misunderstandings about appropriate behavior in intimate relationships, the inability to make beneficial decisions and the impetus to take action on their own behalf. In addition, jealousy and possessiveness by the abuser can be rationalized as proof of the abuser’s love. Even though teen relationships may often be more transient than adult relationships, the emotional intensity may equal or exceed that of adults. Teens’ experience may prevent them from putting the relationship into the proper or most relevant context.

LITTLE CONTACT WITH ADULT RESOURCES: Most teens in violent relationships do not tell adults about the abuse. (Worchester, Nancy, A More Hidden Crime: Adolescent Battered Women, The Network News, July/August, 1997, p7) Teens may feel the adults around them do not take them seriously. Further, they may believe that adult intervention will make matters worse. They may fear that an adult would make decisions or take steps without the teens’ input or consideration. The loss of independence might be another fear.

LESS ACCESS TO RESOURCES: Access to health care for teens is usually attached to permission or arrangements made by their adult caretakers(s). Independent resources are minimal in most areas and non-existent in others. The same is true with regards to counseling and advocacy. Many teens avoid available resources because of the fear that information will not be confidential from their parents or, in some cases, from the abuser. This can be especially true when a teen is dating an adult (someone over the legal age).

LEGAL ISSUES: Legal services or advice is very difficult for a teen to receive unless their parent(s) is involved. This is due to the costs as well as the legal premise that a parent has the right to direct and control anything that happens with their under-aged children. Unless teens have access to the court or police because of another matter, legal remedies can be very difficult. In the case of medical needs, treatment may not be provided to teens without the permission of a parent or guardian. Many teens opt to avoid treatment rather than reveal the abuse.

PREGNANCY: Pregnancy may be part of the abuse. A teenager, for example, may be forced into having sex or their partner may refuse to use birth control. Teens, like older victims, are also at risk of experiencing abuse while they are pregnant. They are often blamed or harshly judged for their pregnancy and may have difficulty accessing resources available to them. These factors can lead to feelings of isolation, helplessness, and self blame, and make it easier for them to be manipulated and controlled.

GAY AND LESBIAN RELATIONSHIPS: The dynamics of abuse in gay or lesbian relationships are, in some respects, similar to those in abusive heterosexual relationships. There are some additional dynamics that may also apply. The batterer, for example, may threaten to “out” the victim to family or others as a way to tighten control. Gay and lesbian victims, being familiar with social norms may not call police, hotlines or medical services for fear of the repercussions of judgmental attitudes of potential helpers. Further, some of the community-based advocacy that is available to heterosexuals may not be readily available i.e. intervention and counseling from clergy.

CULTURE AND RACE: Both culture and race may strongly impact a victim’s decision making when seeking alternatives. In the event a person’s background, for example, includes disapproval or penalties for out of wedlock sex, interracial dating/marriage, or religious integration, a victim may face additional distress should they seek support from within their represented group. There may be added difficulties, as well, in talking with and trusting persons outside the person s cultural or racial group.

It can be just as hard for teens to break off abusive relationships as it can for adults. They may fear the social repercussions of doing so, and do not want to risk losing friends, being ostracized at school, or having their partner retaliate by spreading rumors or leaking pictures to their peers. In high school, your reputation is your world, and it’s hard to see past that into a future where those things won’t matter. Many teens may fear injury or death at the hands of their partner if they leave. And the newness and intensity of these feelings can have a bonding effect; they think that this is what love feels like, they’ll never find it again, and they have to do whatever they can to hold on to it. The thought of losing the person that they love seems devastating and painful, even moreso than the abuse itself.

There are several great resources for teens: Love is Not Abuse and Love is Respect are great places to start.

*When I was 16, my first boyfriend slipped a ruphie into my drink at a New Year’s Eve party and planned to rape me that night because he was “sick of waiting for me to give it up.” I was still a virgin; we had been dating for 4 months. I was lucky that his brother felt bad at the last minute and called my parents to come get me. So I’ve been there and know that it *is* possible for someone you’re dating to attempt to take advantage of you and get what they want by any means possible.

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  1. Sa
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I know teenage boys who have felt pressured into having sex too soon. Thanks for this, again, Britni. In France, domestic violence kills 200 women and 30 men a year at the minimum. I truly hope that a teenager will find your site by google and will be inspired by you. unact

  2. Emmy
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Good topic! This is just another topic that should be discussed with teens as they start dating. If you look at what they may model their own dating experiences after (TV, magazines, movie), they are not receiving the correct models of what is and is not appropriate. Thanks for posting this. As a parent, it is a good reminder to include these types of dialog into the discussions as our kids get older.

  3. Another Suburban Mom
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    As a parent I thank you for this post. Respect, trust and the proper treatment of people is an important conversation to have with any gender.

  4. eva
    Posted November 11, 2009 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I'm glad digital cameras, mobile cameras, Facebook and Myspace and all that wasn't about when I was a teen. It takes control and bullying to another level.
    Some people I've spoken to has given me the impression that they don't take abusive relationships amongst teens seriously, as if it somehow doesn't "count" when you're a teen.. how fucked up, since (as you mentioned) relationships experienced as a teen can have an influence on all later relationships in life. It can be the start of a bad circle, and one that it must be hard to get out of if one has never experienced a normal, healthy relationship before.

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