Teenage dating can be very dangerous. I'm not talking about broken hearts -- I'm talking about physical and sexual abuse. A recent, disturbing study reported that approximately 20 percent of over 4,000 girls surveyed, age 14-18, had been shoved, hit, slapped, or forced into sexual acts by their dates.
The data collected was part of the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Study conducted in 1997 and 1999. These findings were analyzed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The survey, administered in randomly chosen ninth through twelfth grade classrooms, also included questions regarding sexual intercourse, prophylactic use, pregnancy, drinking, smoking, suicidal thinking and attempted suicide and the use of laxatives and self-induced vomiting related to eating-disordered behaviors.
This study was the first to correlate the incidence of dating violence among adolescent girls with other unhealthy and risky behaviors. The survey revealed an alarming direct link between dating violence and damaging, self-destructive behaviors. The 1999 statistics showed that girls who had been sexually abused by dates were more likely to: have unprotected sex, attempt suicide, become pregnant, abuse drugs and nicotine, have multiple sex partners, binge drink, and use laxatives or vomit to diet.
Although this study is the first to provide significant data on teenage dating violence, should we be surprised that one in five adolescent girls was the victim of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their dating partners? Not when national statistics cite that 1 out of 6 girls will be raped by the age of 18. Not when 25 percent of adult women are the victims of sexual and physical abuse by their romantic partners. No, unfortunately we should not be surprised.
Men don't suddenly become physically and sexually abusive to their dates, girlfriends, and wives when they reach their 20s. They learn while in their teens how to hurt and sexually punish women. And in far too many cases, adolescent girls learn to expect and to accept that some degree of physical and/or sexual abuse is normal -- that it's part of their young, passionate, romantic lives.
Who's teaching our young boys to rough up and sexually abuse their dates and girlfriends? Rap lyrics? Porn? Boys do have access to a glut of words and images that degrade and dehumanize girls and women, that encourage their physical and sexual abuse. But is the answer really that easy? Just keep them away from violent rap music, cable TV, the computer, the VCR, porn magazines... We may prohibit, but we can't prevent boys from seeing images of men abusing and degrading women, any more than you can stop them from listening to one of their peers telling them how to "keep your girl in line" by slapping her around if she disobeys or disrespects them.
What we can do is talk to our young adolescent boys and girls before they begin dating about why dating violence is despicable and morally wrong. Mothers and fathers -- all caretakers of children -- need to include this topic in their ongoing discussions with their kids about sex, sexuality, healthy relationships, and moral values. We must tell them and show them by example that violence of any kind is never part of an affectionate, caring, and respectful dating or romantic relationship.
Fourteen-year-old girls need to understand that it's not okay, healthy, or normal for their dates or boyfriends to show their jealousy or love for them by physically hurting them, intimidating them, or forcing them into sexual behavior. Young teenage boys must understand this as well. It's okay. We don't need another survey to confirm this study's results. Let's begin to stop this violence now!