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- Historical Perspective
- Scope of Dating Violence
- Definitions of Dating Violence
- What Are the Similarities and Differences between Dating and Domestic Violence?
‘‘Dating’’ is a conventional term describing the process of forming and maintaining intimate relationships. This romantic process typically begins during adolescence and extends throughout the adult life span. Society generally views dating as carefree, romantic, and trouble free, yet this is far from the truth. The U.S. Department of Justice noted that women aged sixteen to twenty-four were most vulnerable to intimate partner violence. In addition, females who were physically abused by a date during adolescence were more likely to experience dating violence during their freshman year in college.
When considered within the context of initial intimate relationship formation, the adolescent years become the focus of the rituals and practices associated with initial courtship and dating. Dating also sets the stage for formation of social and interpersonal skills such as exploring intimate social interactions, male/female roles, communication styles, and problem-solving skills. However, coupled with immaturity and inexperience, adolescents are also more apt to use less than prosocial strategies for dealing with relational conflict such as verbal put-downs or physical aggression. Furthermore, such early unhealthy dating relationships have far-reaching consequences. Adolescent girls who disclosed being physically or sexually abused by a boyfriend were twice as likely to smoke, drink, use illegal drugs, and engage in behavior indicative of an eating disorder (e.g., binging and purging). Consequently, how dating partners are viewed and treated forms the backdrop to developmental, social, and cultural forces associated with the incidence and patterns of dating violence. Clearly, violence during dating represents a significant contemporary issue with historical overtones and a social problem that warrants study separate from domestic violence.
During colonial times, courtship was infused with economic motivations for marriage, since marriage was viewed as essential to sustaining communities and social institutions, which were in turn clearly linked to expectations that older family members would be cared for. Over time, the roles of men and women during courtship came to reflect ‘‘traditional’’ definitions of male and female behavior, with men assuming authority over women. How violence within such relationships was addressed was often clouded with secrecy, shame, and embarrassment and reflected prevailing social and cultural conventions.
Prior to the twentieth century, courtship was a chaperoned activity among adolescents and young adults or took place as part of supervised social or religious events. Emotional or romantic interactions were explored carefully, often requiring various forms of deception to evade the watchful eyes of elders or parents. As Americans entered the 1900s, public dating became more acceptable, with males and females going on ‘‘dates’’ without chaperones yet with expectations that the male would protect the weaker female, who was in his care. Today, by the age of fourteen or fifteen, the majority of adolescents have had some experience with dating. Unlike in earlier times when courtship was facilitated by parents through matchmaking, today’s adolescents meet and form romantic relationships with significantly greater degrees of freedom. While there is variation across ethnic and cultural populations within the United States, adolescents as well as adults now form intimate relationships with the help of friends who serve as matchmakers, through dating services advertised on television, radio, and the Internet, and through computer-mediated technologies. Alongside the changes in perspectives regarding the definition of dating and courtship that have evolved through the start of the twenty-first century, adolescents and young adults have become the most vulnerable population subject to dating violence.
The social problem of domestic violence became highly publicized in the early 1970s in the United States when the women’s movement was at its height. The domestic violence agenda, however, did not focus on intimate violence among adolescents. As early as the late 1950s, a researcher examined male aggression dating relationships and found that 30 percent of the women had experienced attempted or completed forced sexual intercourse while on a high school date. However, it was not until the early 1980s when a study by James Makepeace found that 20 percent of college students experienced dating violence. This study was considered a landmark, and ‘‘dating violence’’ was publicly acknowledged as a serious social problem and launched many empirical studies in this area. Around the same time, Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, launched the term ‘‘date rape.’’ All of this was set against the backdrop of activism and feminism during the 1970s.
Scope of Dating Violence
It is estimated that one-third of the violence that occurs among youth takes place within a dating relationship. Within the span of a year’s time, such violence will repeat at least once. In the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, 61 percent of fifteen-year-old males and 66 percent of fifteen-year-old females stated that they had been in a romantic relationship during the previous eighteen months. What is disturbing about these statistics is that by age fifteen, some of these adolescents will have had an experience of violence perpetrated by a dating partner.
In one study of eighth- and ninth-grade students, a quarter of the sample disclosed having experienced nonsexual dating violence, and 8 percent revealed that they had experienced sexual dating violence. In a national study on violence in adolescent romantic relationships, 32 percent of the adolescents disclosed some type of violence in the eighteen months preceding the interview. Twelve percent of the respondents reported being the victims of physical violence, usually accompanied by psychological violence.
Among university studies, the prevalence of dating violence is also high, and both males and females are victims. In one study, 20–40 percent reported one or more assaults in the last twelve months. In another study, examining Chinese American and white college students’ victimization experiences, student subjects were recruited in psychology and ethnic studies courses. Surveys asked students if they had ever experienced any physical violence in a dating relationship since they’d started dating. The Chinese American students were a bit older when they’d started dating (around sixteen), while the white students had started dating at fifteen years of age. Slightly more than 20 percent of the Chinese American students disclosed experiences of physical dating violence compared with 31 percent of the white students. Given that the average ages of the Chinese American and white students were twenty and twenty-two, respectively, and given that the dating violence occurred within a five- to seven-year dating span, these incidences of violence are high.
Psychological abuse in the context of dating relationships is equally as damaging to the victim as is physical or sexual abuse. While consensus about a single definition of psychological abuse within dating relationships is elusive, there is no controversy about its impact on the person who is the target of such behavior. Lasting emotional scarring, while invisible, can result in lifelong distress and suffering.
Psychological abuse perpetrated within dating relationships is common. One study found that over three-quarters of college women experienced psychological abuse during a six-month period, and 91 percent experienced this form of emotional violence over their dating lifetime. Sexual assault in the context of dating is also common. A national study of college females found that 54 percent had experienced some form of sexual aggression by a dating partner at least once since the age of fourteen. Oftentimes, these incidences go unreported, given the shame that surrounds dating violence. In addition, victims often blame themselves for somehow instigating the violence. Unfortunately, the prevalence of societal myths about rape (i.e., blaming victims’ alleged provocative attire and promiscuity) continues. These myths prevent many dating violence victims from reporting sexual assault and battery to appropriate authorities.
Definitions of Dating Violence
Definitions of dating violence are influenced by a complex array of factors that reflect social, cultural/ racial, political, familial, legal, geographic/ regional, and personal perspectives. Currently, the term ‘‘dating’’ is used to describe a romantic dyadic relationship formed for the purpose of interacting and engaging in social activities. ‘‘Dating’’ is used with heterosexual and homosexual dyadic romantic relationships and applies to individuals of all ages. Dating continues until one or both partners end the relationship or until the relationship progresses to a more involved state such as cohabitation, engagement, or marriage. Depending on the prevailing social mores and expectations, the dating relationship may be exclusive and monogamous or only one of several dating relationships that a person maintains. Other terms used to describe the dyadic romantic relationship include ‘‘hooking up,’’ ‘‘hanging out,’’ or more formally, ‘‘courtship.’’ Central to the dating relationship is mutuality or reciprocity; i.e., the capacity of both partners to invest emotionally in the relationship.
Violence that occurs in a dating relationship can consist of various forms of physical, verbal, and/or psychological victimization. When sexual assault is excluded, dating violence can be defined as any harmful action taken against a dating partner, including: physical violence such as pushing and shoving; slapping, hitting, or kicking; beatings ranging from a single episode with minimal injury to severe battery associated with life-threatening risk to the victim. Verbal and psychological abuse can entail verbal threats to harm and threats using weapons such as knives, guns, objects, or other forms of potential injury to intimidate and control the targeted person.
Dating violence may be associated with a single conflict occurring within a romantic relationship or may characterize a pattern of addressing conflict in the relationship. When violence occurs, it often is a reflection of the power and control dynamic between partners and can be directly influenced by a history of, or exposure to, violence between intimate partners; e.g., witnessing parental domestic violence. Research exploring dating violence may focus on heterosexual male-on-female dating violence as the definition of the problem or use other definitions that broaden the scope of violence in dating relationships, e.g., violence in gay or lesbian relationships.
What Are the Similarities and Differences between Dating and Domestic Violence?
Dating violence shares a number of common features with domestic violence. In both dating and marital relationships, couples invest a tremendous amount of time with each other. Personal information is shared, and each party becomes familiar with the other’s strengths and limitations. It has been argued that these characteristics of intimate relationships make it fertile for violence.
The dynamics of power and control exist in both dating and domestic violence. Batterers employ threats, verbal manipulation and put-downs, and physical and sexual violence to control their partners. Just as the dynamics of the abuse are similar, victims in both dating and domestic violence situations face the same obstacles in terminating the abusive relationship. In both cases, the victim may still love the perpetrator, hoping that he/she will change. Victims are also fearful of retaliation, as victims of both dating and domestic violence are most at risk of physical injury and homicide when they make deliberate attempts to end the relationship. For example, 1,247 women during the year 2000 were killed by an intimate partner.
Despite the similarities, there are unique, distinct differences between dating and domestic violence. In dating violence, both males and females are equally at risk for physical and psychological violence, as prevalence estimates for both genders are similar. This speaks to the mutuality of violence among youths and at times among adults as well. In addition, in a dating relationship, the adolescent victim is not necessarily cohabitating under the same roof with their dating partner, and typically, there is no economic relationship that binds the couple. For adults in violent dating relationships, however, financial dependence often becomes a factor, particularly as this is often a similar barrier for domestic violence victims in terminating the relationship. In the majority of dating violence cases in adolescence, the requirement of providing for the well-being of offspring is not present. However, in adult dating relationships in which violence emerges as a central problem, children of one or both partners are placed at risk through exposure to adult acts of violence, and violence can be perpetrated against the children. Furthermore, legal options are a bit more limited for dating violence victims, as only thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia offer the option of protective orders for dating violence victims.
Experts in the field of dating violence argue that understanding its unique characteristics can be beneficial in developing prevention efforts and can form the foundation for adolescent education and early intervention efforts during these crucial developmental years. Due to the nature of adolescent development and the co-occurring increase in risk for violence during early dating experiences, it is imperative that public awareness be increased regarding the impact of this often hidden, yet devastating and potentially lethal problem. Furthermore, since there appears to be a trend toward lowering the initial dating age to the pre-teen years, education and prevention efforts need to target youths at younger ages. Partnering with parents, schools, and civic organizations as well as religious, health, and educational services and institutions will be vital in this endeavor.
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