A Call for Action: Changing the Culture of Teen Dating Violence

Empowering young people with the tools and the language to decipher healthy relationships from abusive ones is imperative in order to quell the epidemic of teen dating violence. We often forget that dating violence, which encompasses physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse between two people in a close relationship, can occur at any age, and can be most detrimental for young people whose ideas about what is normal are still being formed. Among adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.  Absolutely paramount in the attempt to end a widespread issue like this is prevention through early education. We must make communication about this issue accessible to teens and introduce intervention before patterns of abuse are cemented. Studies demonstrate that parents and peers are the most effective avenues to reach adolescents and because parents, unfortunately, continuously prove too squeamish, too detached, or too ignorant, the greatest prospect of social change will be through popular opinion leaders and peers.

What does teen dating violence look like?
Dating abuse is a pattern of destructive behaviors used to exert power and control over a partner. When does a relationship cross the line between tumultuous and downright abusive? Loveisrespect.org offers some warning signs: if your partner is checking your cell phone or email without permission, constantly putting you down, extremely jealous or insecure, exhibiting an explosive temper, isolating you from family or friends, making false accusations, demonstrating constant mood swings, physically hurting you in any way, possessive of you, controlling, repeatedly pressuring you to have sex, you are in a violent relationship. Technology and social media are an especially effective way that power and control manifest themselves in teenage relationships. In a generation that garners equal sustenance from smartphones and oxygen, how much texting is too much? Is he checking in or checking up? Does she get frustrated if you take too long to answer? It can be very hard for teens to distinguish dysfunctional behaviors from healthy ones, especially when this may very well be the first relationship they have ever been in.

Why does it happen?
While both young women and young men can be victims of dating violence, the majority of cases deal with abusive boyfriends. Why? Dating violence continues across generations in large part because of prevailing gender stereotypes or what Tony Porter in his Ted Talk calls the collective socialization of men. He posits that until we deconstruct and redefine the view of men as the superior, domineering, emotionless sex we will have problems of inequity in society that lead to accepted relationship dynamics of aggression and control. Young men are taught, explicitly and implicitly, that women have less value, are to be viewed as property, and objectified. These perceptions breed violence. Porter suggests that “my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
More recently, the Always commercial by Award-winning director Lauren Greenfield communicates a sobering message about the destructive nature of gender stereotypes around the idiomatic insult “you [throw, run, hit, etc.] like a girl.” At what point does run like a girl go from meaning run as fast as you can to run like a frolicking fool? The commercial demonstrates that the phrase “like a girl” becomes insulting as women get older and negative gender roles are deeply inculcated in their perception of self. As long as this inequity stands it will lead to power imbalances in relationships and contribute to the objectification and abuse of women.

How can we stop it?
Early education is key. Just as campaigns have successfully led to the vast diminishing of cigarette smokers and the almost ubiquitous use of seat belts, if we can spread awareness through middle and high schools with the hope of fostering the spirit of activism, perhaps the demeaning and controlling relationships will be stopped before they become lifelong habits. Currently, there are several state bills pending that will mandate education regarding dating violence in schools. If we educate the population, we will create an environment where a victim of an abusive relationship will have friends who know how to address them and additionally, someone demonstrating abusive behaviors will be reproached by peers. This can stop a young man from becoming a lifelong batterer.  We cannot underestimate the power of getting teens to simply tell someone “that’s not cool.”

Mary Byron Scholars Program
The Mary Byron Scholars Program selects exceptional and dedicated young women in high school to undergo training to become community liaisons in the effort to prevent dating violence. They raise awareness at Assumption High School and throughout the community. Specifically, they conduct training sessions at male high schools geared towards getting young men involved in the cause and creating valiant bystanders. In April they spearheaded a Teen Dating Violence Awareness Week with three male high schools. Following the awareness campaign, the scholars led a fundraiser in which three boy’s high schools competed in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® donning high heels and carrying purses in the international men’s march to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence. By educating young men on healthy relationships, these young scholars are helping to promote vast social change. Eloquently put in his piece in the New York Times, Charles Blow writes, “Fighting female objectification and discrimination and violence against women isn’t simply the job of women; it must also be the pursuit of men…Only when men learn to recognize misogyny will we be able to rid the world of it. Not all men are part of the problem, but, yes, all men must be part of the solution.”  And not only are these young women doing fantastic work in their communities now, they will also be activists throughout their lives, communicating the message of gender equality and healthy relationships wherever their journeys take them.

Celebrating Solutions Programs
The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program awards exceptional programs honing in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful.
In 2004 the Mentors in Violence Prevention program won the Celebrating Solutions award for utilizing the coveted status of athletes as role models to address the problem of men’s violence against women. Every MVP session is co-facilitated by a mixed-gender, racially diverse group of former athletes. Their approach to prevention includes interactive playbooks to spark discussion about the ways that young men and women are taught how they can interrupt, confront and prevent violence by their peers.
2009 Celebrating Solutions Winner SafePlace’s Expect Respect program pioneered legislation mandating that Texas schools address teen dating violence through policies, training, counseling for affected students, and education for students and parents. Their broad range of services for students throughout grade school and high school acknowledges that youth leadership is key to changing social norms related to intimate partner violence and ultimately breaking multi-generational cycles of violence. Research and experience demonstrate that youth need to see their peers as leaders and positive role models in order to adopt new, healthy attitudes and behaviors.

Taking Action
Breaking the cycle of teen dating violence depends on our youth. It depends on our ability to teach them to recognize and put an end to abusive relationships before they start. Dating violence will persist until prevention is made a priority throughout the nation. We must educate both young men and young women of all backgrounds and empower them with the strategies to recognize and react to teen dating violence. Through tried and true methods of peer education and support from popular opinion leaders, we can live in a world where being an activist is what all the cool kids are doing.