A new study in the Pediatrics journal finds that an estimated 30 percent of U.S. adolescents are the victims of an “aggressive heterosexual dating relationship,” a particularly troubling statistic given the significant public health risks that can result from intimate partner violence in teenage relationships. The authors of the study note that their work represents one more addition to a growing body of research that suggests teen dating violence “is a substantial public health problem” in the United States.
Researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample of more than 5,000 U.S. adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 to determine whether or not they were engaging in healthy romantic relationships. About 20 percent of respondents of both genders said they had experienced some type of psychological violence within a dating relationship, and ten percent of girls and eight percent of boys cited both psychological and physical violence. And when researchers followed up with the same participants five years later, they found that those who had experienced dating violence as teens were two to three times more likely to be in violent relationships later in their lives.
And the consequences of teen dating violence appeared to impact young women and men slightly differently. The teen girls who were victimized by a boyfriend were more likely to engage in risky behaviors like smoking and heavy drinking five years down the line, and they also had an increased chance of experiencing symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide. The teen boys who were victimized by a girlfriend were likely to exhibit increased anti-social and delinquent behaviors and have suicidal thoughts. The lead author of the study, Deinera Exner-Cortens, told USA Today that more research is necessary to determine how aggression functions in teen relationships and why intimate partner violence impacts teen girls and boys differently.
Exner-Cortens did suggest that the power imbalance in abusive heterosexual relationships often tips toward men. “We know that girls are more likely to experience more severe physical violence, sexual violence and injury, and they report more fear around their aggressive dating experiences,” she explained.
Since researchers found such a high risk for re-victimization among young adults who had experienced dating violence earlier in their lives, the study’s authors recommend investing in screening and prevention programs to adequately address issues of intimate partner violence in our society. But the issue doesn’t seem to be a current priority for legislators in Washington. The Violence Against Women Act — which has helped protect countless survivors of domestic assault since its introduction in 1994 — is currently languishing in Congress because Republican leaders aren’t convinced it should ensure protections for Native American women.