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Teaching Teens to Put a Stop to Dating Violence

1 in 8 young relationships is abusive. Adult mentors are saying 'enough is enough' and helping teens to do the same

Standing on a makeshift stage, a teenage boy and girl are discussing a party. The girl wants to attend, but her jealous boyfriend tells her she can't. "You're my girl," he says angrily. Then he grabs her, slaps her, and knocks her to the floor, saying, "Look what you made me do. It's your fault."

For Reneca Logan and Jonathan Camillo, middle-school students in Boston, this troubling scene is only acting, part of a play called "Enough is Enough" to show teens the perils of abusive relationships. But for other teens in all economic and social classes, such treatment mirrors some real-life dates, a secret at odds with their images of young love.

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At least 1 in 8 teenage relationships involves abuse, according to the Dating Violence Intervention Project in Cambridge, Mass. And in a poll by Children Now, 15 percent of girls between 14 and 17 said a boyfriend had tried to force them to have sex.

To counter such trends, counselors, teachers, ministers, and coaches across the country are mounting dating-violence prevention campaigns. On the premise that battered girlfriends can grow up to be battered wives and bullying boys can turn into battering men, they are using classrooms and theaters to help teens establish healthy relationships and leave abusive ones.

"Because teenagers don't know what the rules of dating relationships are yet and don't know what their own boundaries are, it's very easy for girls to get into relationships like that and very difficult to extricate themselves," says Rosalind Wiseman, executive director of the Empower Program in Bethesda, Md.

Confusion about relationships can grow out of gender stereotypes and media images. "Men are supposed to be in control, macho, tough," says Nancy Isaac, a research associate at Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Mass. "Women are supposed to be beautiful, submissive, and basically there to please men. Those stereotypes essentially support the notion that men are entitled to control women."

Compounding the problem, counselors say, are teen magazines that emphasize the importance of boyfriends, as well as sexually degrading rap lyrics that objectify women's bodies.

"In high school particularly, the message is that you're nobody if you don't have a boyfriend," says Fannie Gilarde, a community coordinator for Dove, a battered women's shelter in Quincy, Mass.

Students also "do a lot of minimizing" about abuse, Ms. Gilarde says. "They'll say, 'He doesn't beat me, he just slaps me.' They think if they're not bruised and they don't fit the myth of what a battered person looks like - black eye, split lip - they're not being abused. Rarely do they identify with emotional, verbal, and control issues." Control includes telling a girlfriend what she can and cannot wear, who her friends can be, and where she can go.

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"Verbal abuse always starts first," Ms. Wiseman says. "He starts to totally belittle you: 'You're so stupid. Shut up.' It gradually builds up. He thinks he can take out all his frustrations on you." As tension grows, a boy may become physically violent, as Mr. Camillo does in "Enough Is Enough." Then comes the "honeymoon" phase, when he apologizes, gives his girlfriend flowers, and promises not to hit her again. That vow is often short-lived.

Sometimes abuse becomes so aggravated that teens take out restraining orders. In one 10-month period in Massachusetts during 1992 and 1993, 753 restraining orders involved a defendant who was 17 or younger. "When teens feel the need to get a restraining order, you're talking about pretty serious fear," Dr. Isaac says.

Most efforts to prevent this kind of abuse take place in health classes or physical-education programs, with adults as instructors. Although most programs are privately funded, the Massachusetts Department of Education has allocated $250,000 for dating-violence prevention programs in 31 communities. It is the only state to offer such funding, says Carol Sousa, director of the Dating Violence Intervention Project.

Other programs feature plays with teen actors. In "Enough Is Enough," sponsored by a Boston youth-development group called Weatoc, the battered girlfriend, played by Ms. Logan, leaves her abusive boyfriend. The skit, Logan says, "lets young women know that if their boyfriend hits them, they don't have to stay with him, no matter what."

In Denver this spring, a teen drama group called Project PAVE will reach a thousand middle-school students with a half-hour "talk show" dealing with dating relationships. Another program in North Carolina, called Safe Dates, features a 45-minute play as part of a 10-session curriculum.

"We're seeing changes in knowing what behavior is acceptable and what's not, changes in gender stereotyping, and a greater awareness of community resources that can help," says Vangee Foshee, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She adds, "With eighth- and ninth-graders, we have just as many examples of girls being violent to boyfriends."

Schools are not the only institutions seeking solutions. In Circle Pines, Minn., the Rev. Dale Peterson, pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church, holds an annual retreat for his confirmation classes of seventh, eighth, and ninth graders. He uses "dating-rights" lists as one way of helping students distinguish between healthy and abusive relationships.

Reverend Peterson encourages girls to be more assertive and to understand that their bodies are their own. He talks to boys about the sports terms men use to reduce relationships to a game or a win-lose proposition. He also involves parents in another retreat dealing with teen issues, including dating violence.

Companies too can play a part in heightening parents' awareness. In January, the Illusion Theater, a Minneapolis theater group that addresses social issues, presented its latest play, "Talk It Out," to 250 employees of a suburban electronics firm. In one scene, a football quarterback admits he beat his girlfriend because she wanted to break up.

Afterward, says Bill Venne, managing director of group, "parents asked, 'How do I get my kids to start talking to me before they start beating up their girlfriends?"

Wiseman encounters similar questions. "Parents desperately ask me, 'How do we get kids out of abusive relationships?' I tell them, just be there for your kids and say, 'I don't know what's going on, but you can always come to me and talk about it.' It's very important for parents to say, 'We can get through this.'"

A Nike TV ad promoting athletics for girls includes the lines, "If you let me play sports, I will know what it means to be strong.... I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me."

Yet ignorance still exists. Sheila Wellstone of St. Paul, Minn., a domestic-violence prevention advocate, held a town meeting in an affluent suburb of the Twin Cities. Four high school girls explained how they were regularly beaten by their very popular boyfriends. "Adults in the audience were shocked," says Mrs. Wellstone. "They did not want to believe this was happening in their community."

Increasingly, reaching out to young men ranks as an important part of prevention efforts. Robert Gallup, executive director of Amend in Denver, notes that 30 percent of adult domestic violence behavior started in adolescence. "We have more success with men who have shorter histories of abuse toward women. The earlier we get in there, the better."

Jackson Katz, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, urges young men to speak out when they see other men abusing girlfriends. He also encourages young women to "confront boyfriends and any forms of abuse by men. It works."

Helping young men, Wiseman adds, "will provide the other half of this puzzle. I think the two parts will make the solution."

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