Approximately one in every five female high school students (aged 13 to 19) reports having been physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. To put this in perspective, imagine a high school class with 20 female students: four of those students have probably been abused in a relationship. When I was 16 years old, I was one of them.
Dating violence is a type of intimate partner violence that occurs in a close relationship. It can be physical, emotional, or sexual. Dating violence in teen relationships usually begins with small things, like teasing, name-calling, or play-fighting. These behaviors often lead to more serious acts, and the physical assaults become more frequent and more violent. Abusers often use physical violence, threats, emotional abuse, harassment, or stalking to control their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s behavior. Females aged 16-24 are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group – a rate almost triple that of the national average. Teen dating violence runs across race, gender, and socioeconomic lines. Both males and females can be victims.
As a 16 year old in my first serious relationship, I was vulnerable to the escalating violence. At first, I was flattered by a boyfriend who said that he loved me so much he wanted to “protect” me from other boys. I was showered with gifts and attention. His faithfulness was unquestioned because he told me when my best friend flirted with him, trying to break us up. He told me of about the jealousy of friends and even family, who were trying to tear us apart. I didn’t see how much control he was exercising over my life.
Soon we were spending all our time together. I never went anywhere without him. He told me he didn’t trust anyone, and eventually he told me he didn’t trust me. I decided to prove to him I would NEVER betray his “love.” He decided that the best way to prove my faithfulness was to have sex with him. I lost my virginity in what I came to recognize as rape. Still, I did not break up with him. I did not tell anyone—not my friends, not my parents. When I was 18, I married my abuser. No one knew I was afraid. I covered bruises. I made excuses for behaviors. I was isolated.
I was one of the lucky ones – eventually, I moved away. In 2001, the Bureau of Justice released a report that said,
“Between 1993 and 1999, 22% of all homicides against females ages 16-19 were committed by an intimate partner.” In 2005, the TV news show 20/20 reported the 2003 story of Otralla Mosley, who was stabbed to death by her boyfriend Marcus McTear in a school hallway because she was trying to break up with him.
Not all violent dating relationships end this way, but there are often lasting repercussions for the victims. Intimate partner violence among adolescents is associated with increased risk of substance use, unhealthy weight control behaviors (obesity or anorexia), sexual risk behaviors, pregnancy, and suicide. (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2001). Adolescents who have been in abusive relationships often continue that pattern into adulthood. They are also at a higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors, and suicide.
Why don’t parents intervene or warn their daughters about dating violence? In 2004, 81% of parents surveyed did not believe dating violence was an issue. It is often difficult to discuss dating relationships with a teenager, but it is never too soon to begin. As small children, our sons and daughters are taught about good touch and bad touch, to never talk to or go anywhere with strangers, to tell a parent or teacher if someone acts inappropriately with them. As they move into their adolescence, parents can reinforce their concerns, their support, and their love. Teens need to know that if they don’t feel comfortable talking to parents about a subject like dating violence, they can talk to a school counselor, a doctor, another family member, or even a religious leader. Not only do we need to focus on teaching our daughters the importance of self-respect, but our sons need to be taught that it is not acceptable to tease, push, slap, intimidate, or in any way threaten a dating partner – or to accept that behavior from someone else.
With 56% of teens knowing someone who has been physically, verbally, or sexually abused in a dating relationship, there is little doubt this is a serious issue. Being observant and aware of a teen’s behavior can often tip a parent off that there is a problem. Sudden changes in behavior can be signals: dressing differently or not wearing make-up; unexplained bruises, cuts, or other physical injuries; avoiding friends or dropping out of other activities; changes in mood or personality, such as becoming withdrawn or secretive; spending excessive amounts of time with the dating partner, or constantly being in contact through phone, text, e-mail, or Skype; or changes in eating or sleeping habits. Be ready to listen and not pass judgment. Don’t put down the abusive partner; focus on your teen.
To escape my abusive situation, I had to learn that jealousy is not love, control is not love, and possessiveness is not love. Being insulted, degraded, humiliated, pushed, slapped, or punched is not love. It was not my fault that I was abused, and that is something I have worked very hard to teach my sons and daughters.