"Teen Dating Violence": The Invented "Epidemic"
Updated August 28, 2008
American secondary schools are coming under intense pressure from corporations, politicians, and the news media to implement prescribed “teenage dating abuse” programs. A recent resolution by the National Association of Attorneys General urged “school districts to incorporate dating violence education into health education curriculums in middle and or high school.” “We are committed to addressing this issue through education,’ declared Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, the resolution’s chief sponsor. “A curriculum such as Liz Claiborne Inc.’s Love Is Not Abuse is an effective way to begin the process of education, prevent abuse and help to save lives.”
But is teen dating abuse “increasing” to “staggering” levels, as program advocates insist, justifying entire new school curriculums to combat it? Commonly cited numbers reported in the press and by program advocates, summarized by the American Bar Association’s Teen Dating Violence Initiative, indeed appear alarming. “A comparison of Intimate Partner Violence rates between teens and adults reveals that teens are at higher risk of intimate partner abuse…Approximately 1 in 5 female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner”…“Females ages 16-24 are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group–at a rate almost triple the national average.”
However, the most alarming numbers being cited reflect 1990s data. More recent numbers from larger surveys are considerably lower. In 2003, the Youth Behavior Risk Survey found 9% of students in grades 9-12 reported having a dating partner “hit, slap, or physically hurt you on purpose” at least once. In 2005, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Intimate Partner Violence report found that 2.1% of students ages 12-19 (including 0.9% of youths age 12-15, and 3.4% of those age 16-19) experienced any form of physical violence (murder, simple assault, aggravated assault, rape, robbery, or sexual assault) from an intimate partner (a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, same-sex partner). This report relied on the National Crime Victimization Survey, America’s largest, most consistent, and only long-term measure of such crime, with samples of more than 70,000 Americans every year since 1993.
A 2008 survey commissioned by Liz Claiborne, Inc., a fashion corporation that markets dating abuse programs, found similar levels for younger students. Its survey of 1,043 students age 11-14 found that 2% of 11-14 year-olds (14 males and 7 females) reported ever having had a partner “hit, slap, punch, choke, or kick” them and 1% reported having been pressured into sexual activity (five males and eight females; whether these duplicated some of those physically abused is not shown).
Recent surveys do not find teens uniquely at risk. The Intimate Partner Violence survey finds that in the most recent five years, 2001-05, teens age 16-19 had lower rates of intimate-partner violence (3.4%) than adults age 20-24 (6.5%) and 25-34 (4.7%) and somewhat above adults age 35-49 (2.8%), while 12-15-year-olds experienced the lowest levels of dating violence (0.9%) of any age except 65 and older (less than 0.1%). Given that intimate partner violence rises sharply as socioeconomic status falls and that teenagers and young adults suffer considerably higher rates of poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage than older adults, teens appear to experience fairly low rates of intimate partner violence for their demographics.
Nor is dating abuse rising. The long-term measures available such as FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Monitoring the Future, and the National Crime Victimization Survey variously agree that murder, rape, robbery, assault, sexual assault, and kidnapping involving both younger and older teens has dropped dramatically over the last 10 to 20 years, most to all time lows. Intimate partner violence has fallen the most dramatically. The NCVS found that from 1993 to 2005, the proportion of teenage females reporting intimate partner violence fell by 70%.
These seemingly calming trends and numbers have not moderated program advocates’ alarms, however. “One in three teens reports knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped or physically hurt by their dating partner,” a representative of Liz Claiborne stated. “The number of tweens [ages 11 to 12] in abusive relationships (is) staggering.” NAAG’s 2008 resolution agreed: “Teen dating violence has become a prevalent problem in high schools, junior high schools and middle schools throughout our country…Recent studies have shown that teen dating violence is starting” as young as ages “11 to 14.”
Investigation reveals that program advocates have used several questionable techniques with troubling implications for responsible programming to drastically exaggerate the prevalence of teen dating abuse. In particular, advocates have extended the definition of “teen dating violence” far beyond NAAG’s criterion of “a pattern of controlling and abusive behavior of one person over another within a romantic relationship including verbal, emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.”
Program advocates’ first exaggeration technique, aside from including figures for 20-24 year-olds (an age group with considerably higher violence rates) as “teenage dating violence” and continuing to repeat higher 1990s numbers, is to cite one-time behaviors rather than those documenting a “pattern of controlling and abusive behavior.” As will be seen, a girl saying something to make the boy sitting next to her in class feel bad about himself could constitute “dating abuse” by Liz Claiborne’s definition.
The second exaggeration technique is to emphasize not the small numbers of teens who report actually being abused, but secondhand guesses by teens in response to speculative questions as to whether “people your age” might suffer abuse by dating partners. Thus, while 2% of 11-14-year-olds reported being abused, 20% speculated that undefined peers might experience dating abuse. Of course, guesses about what others “your age” are experiencing can be inflated by one case known to many students, gossip, rumors, and media reports.
Program advocates’ third and most disturbing exaggeration technique is to expand the definitions of “relationship” and “abuse” substantially beyond behaviors normally associated with the terms. In Claiborne’s survey, a “relationship” includes not just regular dating, but “sitting next to each other in school,” “admitting that he/she likes the other person,” “flirting,” and “calling or texting each other regularly.” “Abuse” includes partners who “made you feel bad or embarrassed about yourself,” “made you feel nervous about doing something he/she doesn’t like,” “hurt you with words,” or “tried to tell you how to dress”—even once.
Finally, the most alarming dating abuse numbers come from tiny subsamples of teens, not the whole sample. For example, consider Claiborne’s statement, “69% of all teens who had sex by age 14 said they have gone through one or more types of abuse in a relationship.” Having “sex” referred to not just intercourse or oral sex, but ever “having gone further than kissing and making out.” “Abuse,” as noted, was defined to include just about any problem. Thus, the “69%” figure actually referred to around 30 of the 1,043 youths surveyed who had experienced even the mildest negative interaction with a partner with whom they had gone further than kissing or making out.
Claiborne’s survey found the percentages of teens suffering verbal and emotional abuse, violent threats, and extreme jealousy from a dating or “hookup” partner rare as well. Just 8% had a partner who ever (even once) “asked you to only spend time with him/her,” “called you names or put you down” (7%), “hurt you with words” (6%), or “threatened to spread rumors about you” (4%). For behaviors more commonly considered emotionally abusive and controlling, just 3% of teens had “been concerned about your safety (being hurt physically because of him/her)” and 2% reported that a dating or hookup partner actually had “threatened to hurt you or himself/herself if you were to break up.”
Nor does the survey confirm Claiborne’s and news media assertions that modern communications technology has opened up vast new theaters of meanness. Only 2% of 11-12-year-olds and 7% of 13-14-year-olds had ever had a partner say anything “really mean” about them using cellphones, text messages, instant messaging, social sites, blogs, or other Internet tools one or more times.
If program advocates’ own recent survey is credible, then, the large majority of teens have never experience the controlling behavior or physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional violence characteristic of dating abuse even once, let alone as a pattern of mistreatment. Abuses appear to be rare and dropping, not epidemic and rising. Around one in 50 younger teens and one in 30 older teens report intimate partner violence in a year’s time, levels similar to those among adults.
Should schools adopt prescribed dating abuse programs, then? Aside from the budget and time-on-task issues entailed in adding full-scale dating abuse programs to already overloaded high school curriculums amid funding cutbacks, the deceptions advocates have used to market these programs present troubling indicators of potentially harmful biases underlying these curriculums.
First, the extreme exaggerations marketers employ lend the impression that violence is normative to teen relationships. They stereotype even very young students as promiscuous, violent, and cruel. Such negative stereotypes toward young people do not connote the attitude of respect programs should seek to inculcate.
Second, program advocates’ overbroad definitions risk teaching students the unrealistic lesson that normal, occasional disagreements and unharmonious feelings constitute “abuse” and that healthy relationships must always be blissful. Even the soundest adult marriages would be rated as abusive according to Claiborne’s definitions.
Finally, by ignoring or downplaying uncomfortable precursors such as parental, household, and community violence in favor of more comfortable, superficial explanations, programs obscure important causes. For example, Claiborne representatives blame tweens’ “early sexual experimentation” as the cause of “increased levels of teen dating violence and abuse.” However, aside from strong evidence that both teenage and adult “intimate partner violence has been declining,” a solid body of research indicates that growing up in violent homes and suffering childhood violence and sexual abuse, usually inflicted by parents or caretakers, is the most reliable predictor both of early sexual activity, violence, and abuse. The latest Child Maltreatment report substantiated 200,000 violent and sexual abuses and 100,000 emotional abuses inflicted on children and youths by parents in 2006.
Dating violence is not increasing or “epidemic” among high school students but does affect a fraction. It does not appear to be a distinct form of violence, but part of a continuum that includes abusive parents and violent homes and communities. This indicates that for most schools, targeted referral and counseling training, services, and curriculums that include dating violence as one type of health risk, rather than full-scale programs dedicated solely to dating violence, represent the most viable educational approach. Whatever strategies are adopted in violence prevention education, the most accurate information rather than unwarranted exaggerations and a respectful approach toward young people rather than negative stereotypes are required.
 Liz Claiborne, Inc. New research indicates that significant numbers of children as young as 11 are engaging in sexual activity and that dating violence and abuse are part of their relationships. Press release, July 8, 2008. Washington, DC.
 American Bar Association. Teen dating violence initiative (2006). At http://www.abanet.org/unmet/teendating/facts.pdf
 Silverman JG, Raj A, Mucci L, Hathaway J. Dating violence against adolescent girls and associated substance use, unhealthy weight control, sexual risk behavior, pregnancy, and suicidality. JAMA, 2001; 286(5): 5729.
 Johnston LD, Bachman JG, O’Malley PM. Monitoring the future. Questionnaire responses from the nation’s high school seniors (annual). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, 2007.