This February marks the tenth anniversary of Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month (TDVAM). In addition to being Black History Month, this month has also served as an opportunity for individuals and organizations to educate youth on the risk factors for dating violence and prevent youth from experiencing relationship abuse. Still, dating abuse among young people remains an issue that doesn’t often see the spotlight. Most cases of dating abuse go unreported, especially among young people. Dating abuse is also often a topic that many don’t even feel comfortable talking about, whether they experience it or not. So why is dating abuse such a hidden figure in our society? And what can we do, as youth serving professionals, to support people who experience it?
Why Don’t People Report It?
There are many reasons why someone may decide not to share or report their experiences with dating violence. Some studies suggest that people don’t report out of fear of retaliation from an abusive partner. Similarly, people experiencing dating abuse might believe that a report to authorities would not actually bring about any solutions that would keep them safe.
Other studies suggest that lack of education and recognition is part of the problem. Young people might not recognize their partners’ behavior as abusive. It’s common for young people to only think of physical violence as “real abuse,” but in reality, physical abuse is just one type of dating abuse. There are many forms of dating abuse, including emotional abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, digital abuse, isolation, and stalking. All this to say that there is not one way that abusive relationships can look. An unhealthy or abusive relationship can include one, some, or all of these types of abuse.
Furthermore, many of these types of dating abuse are hard to recognize because they are often normalized in our current culture. Stalking behavior, for example, is frequently portrayed as romantic or played for laughs (i.e. There’s Something About Mary, or the guy holding the signs from Love Actually). TV shows dismiss characters’ abusive behavior when it is convenient for the story (see Chuck and Blair from Gossip Girl). Media coverage of dating abuse in celebrity relationships often shows little to no consequence for the abuser (see Chris Brown and his still successful music career after his domestic violence conviction). All of these send the same message: that we don’t need to take abusive behaviors seriously because it’s a normal part of relationships. While dating abuse may be more common than many people realize (1 in 3 high schoolers experience physical and sexual violence by someone they are dating), it is never “normal” or “okay.”
Even if someone does recognize their relationship as abusive, they may not want to report because they don’t want to be labeled as a victim of abuse. Societal attitudes about “victim-blaming” and shaming survivors adds to the stigma around coming forward as a survivor. Understandably, this can make someone less inclined to report.
Why Don’t People Talk About It?
The stigma of dating abuse is such that survivors may see their situations as something they need to hide. They may have been manipulated into believing that it is their fault for being abused or that they are weak or overdramatic for speaking up. It’s common for this manipulation to happen within a relationship, but it can also happen through more subtle societal messaging. Wherever the manipulation occurred, these harmful ideas are reaffirmed through the existing culture of victim-blaming. Research has managed to show us just how prevalent this culture is through studies on commonly held dating abuse myths. These myths include the beliefs that survivors of dating abuse have the “unconscious desire to be abused” or that they can “swiftly and successfully end a violent relationship by simply leaving their abuser.” While these are indeed falsehoods, they are also commonly held beliefs, as demonstrated by a 2005 survey which found that 23% of those surveyed believe the former and 63% believe the latter.
And so it becomes a cycle. Stigma discourages people from speaking up about dating abuse, and lack of awareness about dating abuse leads to harmful falsehoods that support stigma. If someone does decide to speak up, they are more likely to seek help and information from peers or informal sources. While it is important to have that support network, it doesn’t always mean that person has access to a safer environment away from their abuser.
What Can We Do?
So, what can we do to educate our youth about relationship violence and help them stay safe?
Call it out: Part of advocating for youth means fighting against the toxic culture of victim blaming. One way to do this is to call out unhealthy messaging whenever you see it. When youth make jokes in the classroom, talk about why a joke is hurtful or inappropriate. Teach youth to be critical of the messages we get from the media. Point out how love isn’t always like what we see in the movies. Speak up when someone casually mentions unhealthy or abusive behavior. Be vocal and change the narrative of victim blaming – people don’t want to be abused, they want healthy and loving relationships. You could even use any of these moments as an opportunity for education about abusive behaviors. Don’t’ let abusive behaviors be normalized. Every time we don’t let abusive behaviors fly under the radar, we fight back against the normalization of dating violence.
Make yourself known as a trusted person to talk to: Youth serving professionals are in the unique position of being readily available resources to youth. Encouraging youth to reach out to a trusted adult is a good way to help them take steps towards being safe. You could even help youth develop a safety plan with strategies to keep them safe while they are still in an abusive relationship, while they are trying to leave a relationship, and even after a relationship ends. Sharing that you are a mandated reporter is also a way to let youth know you are a safe person to talk to. Know the resources available in your community and make those resources available if youth aren’t able to talk to you personally. All of these strategies can help to remove the isolation that is often times a part of abusive relationships – let youth know they are not alone!
Be trauma informed: Youth might be experiencing violence that we don’t know about, so it’s a good idea to use trauma-informed language. Don’t force youth to talk. Let them know you’re there if they ever want/need something from you, but also know your own limits and boundaries. Don’t assume to know what people have and have not experienced. Going into a conversation ready to actively listen lets youth know you are there for them.
Talk about healthy relationships: *not just dating relationships, but ALL relationships* It is important to distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy relationships and abusive relationships so that we can reinforce the idea that abusive and unhealthy relationships are not the norm. Healthy relationships are rooted in respect, trust, and honest communication. Unhealthy relationships are rooted in attempts to control another person. When those unhealthy behaviors become a pattern of one person wielding power and control over another, it becomes an abusive relationship. While distinguishing these types of relationships is important, relationships can exist on a spectrum. For example, maybe two people in a relationship feel like they can trust each other, but one partner is always pressuring the other about sex. Just because that trust is present, doesn’t mean the relationship is completely healthy. It can be helpful to talk with youth about what healthy relationships look like as well as about warning signs of unhealthy or abusive relationships. The combination of encouraging healthy relationships and calling out unhealthy behaviors steers us towards a new normal in which victim-blaming is not the default.
Abuse isn’t always easy to talk about (or read about or write about for that matter), so let yourself take a deep breath or take a quick moment of rest because you read all the way to the end of this article. While this article is by no means a comprehensive guide to dating abuse awareness and prevention, even just starting the conversation can be helpful. In fact, one campaign for this year’s TDVAM is “One Thing” (#1Thing), the idea being to encourage people to learn or do one thing to help end dating abuse. Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month was created with the ultimate goal of protecting young people. Everyone has a place in helping those affected by abuse. Hopefully, this February and beyond we can all do what we can to contribute to a world of safer, healthier relationships.