By Megy Karydes
“They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s OK, I mean… I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.” This is how Patricia, 13, refers to boys in her school. During an interview for a study on sexual assaults, she describes these unwelcomed touchings and grabbings as normal, commonplace behaviors.
Normalizing this type of behavior at such a young age has become worrisome to many in the field of teen dating violence and domestic violence because it also has long-term health consequences. For many victims, these types of assaults are not being reported because the victims are not recognizing them as assaults but, instead, are perceiving them as part of normal cultural mores.
According to two sources, LoveIsRespect.org, a website specifically geared toward teens and young adults and a program of the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), one in three adolescents in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence. Long-term health effects for those in violent relationships include substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and further domestic violence.
Heather R. Hlavka, assistant professor of criminology and law studies at Marquette University, led the study that included Patricia’s experience. Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuseanalyzed 100 forensic interviews conducted by a Midwest children’s advocacy center of youths between the ages of 3 and 17 who may have been sexually assaulted. It was designed to move the discussion from the question of why young women do not report harassment and abuse to the topic of how violence is produced, maintained and normalized among youths.
Hlavka says she felt that the results of the study, which will be published in the June issue of Gender & Society, were disturbing yet also not altogether surprising.
“The young women in the study experienced acts of harassment and abuse as a daily, common occurrence,” says Hlavka. “Heterosexual sex is often portrayed as ‘working a yes out’ of a girl (in other words, coercion until she acquiesces) through actions that often resemble harassment and stalking. That this is seen as normal heterosexual relating should shock us into action.”
Educating teens on what constitutes teen dating violence is half the battle, says Nabilah Talib, director of Wellness Services, which manages the Sexual Violence and Support Services (SVSS) program for YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. The organization goes into classrooms, meets the students where they are and provides them with information about dating violence along with scenarios that mirror some teen’s experiences. The YWCA also offers professional trainings to healthcare professionals to help them recognize and respond appropriately to abusive behaviors and the aftermath of sexual violence.
“Teen dating violence can start as [simply] as one person changing the other person’s no to a yes” Talib says, “It’s coercion. Our scenarios are designed to teach student to ask for consent and recognize its importance.”
Talib notes that teen dating violence can start in small ways and then escalate, while violence in its many forms can occur at any time, it does seem to become more pronounced during the holiday seasons, including prom time, and once the weather gets warmer in Chicago.
“We have to realize that sexual violence, which includes dating violence, is a premeditated crime and can be planned up to two weeks in advance,” says Talib. “For example, it can be something like a prom date saying ‘I’m going to have sex with her/him on prom night,’ as opposed to ‘We [are going to have sex on prom night].’ It is all about power and control.”
When Christiane Stahl, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System (UI Health), sees patients who may be involved in a violent relationship, she tries to engage in anticipatory guidance with boys and girls to talk about how healthy relationships do not involve coercion or violence.
“This is particularly important when there has been household violence or single parenting without modeling of partnership,” she explains. “In the event of dating violence, I review their goals in the relationship, who else they have disclosed to (especially whether parents know), how peers and parents have responded, the pros and cons of police reports, and how to be safe.” Stahl notes that at UI Health, social workers are available to help the teen and parents access resources and provide further immediate counseling.
For those seeking help, she recommends, as the first step, calling the City of Chicago’s Rape Crisis Hotline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
“During a call, the person will receive crisis intervention services, and information and referrals on where to seek additional services based [on need] and location,” Talib says.
Katie Ray-Jones, president of the NDVH, agrees that there are a lot of normalizing and rationalizing behaviors that make it much harder for victims of dating violence to seek help. LoveIsRespect is one of the ways in which her organization has been successful in reaching out to teens and young adults because it offers, in language that resonates with them, information about what constitutes a healthy relationship. Even the program name was created by youths, she adds.
Ray-Jones considers medical professionals, specifically nurses, to be strong partners and is quick to point out how crucial it is for those in the healthcare community to be aware of teen dating violence clues.
“Nurses often have the most contact with the patient,” she says. “They are the ones who call us when a victim needs help.”
A key part of the LoveIsRespect.org website, and available on each page, is the Live Online Chat function, adds Ray-Jones.
“It’s been especially helpful for those experiencing sexual violence,” she notes. “The digital platform seems to be helpful in that it adds another level of anonymity and, unlike a phone call to a hotline, you [wouldn’t be heard] crying or feel like you’re being judged.”
And that’s a good thing, because a victim needs help, not judgment.
RAPE CRISIS HOTLINE
The Rape Crisis Hotline operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and provides survivors of sexual assault/abuse and their significant others immediate support, crisis intervention and referrals for the city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs.
888-293-2080 in Chicago Metropolitan Area
708-748-5672 in the South Suburbs
630-971-3927 in DuPage County