A Hidden Fact of Life For Teens: Dating Violence

LIKE countless other infatuated teenagers, 15-year-old Kaia was initially flattered by her boyfriend's possessiveness and jealousy. She interpreted them as love. But when his desire for control turned violent, she realized she could be in danger.

``He didn't like the clothes I would wear, he didn't want me to go to parties, and he didn't want me to be around certain friends,'' explains Kaia, a soft-spoken student who asks to be identified only by her first name. ``I thought I had rights, and I would fight back. But a guy does have the upper hand because he's stronger. After a while I got out.''

Kaia's experience illustrates the dark side of teenage dating, a hidden world of physical and sexual violence that, by some estimates, affects at least a quarter of teenage dating relationships. Experts say the problem cuts across all social, economic, and racial lines and affects students at all levels of achievement.

Richard Tolman, an associate professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, still finds ``a sense of disbelief overall'' when adults hear about the problem. But he and other experts hope the current focus on domestic violence tied to the O.J. Simpson case will prompt teenagers to examine their own relationships.

Two years ago, when Dr. Tolman conducted a study at a high school outside Chicago, he found that 30 percent of dating relationships included some physical or sexual violence. Although boys are sometimes verbally and emotionally abused by girlfriends, the overwhelming majority of cases involve a male abuser and a female victim.

``The scary thing to me was that the girls who were 14 were as likely to experience dating violence as girls who were 18,'' Tolman says. ``Only a handful of girls told an adult - a parent or teacher. If they told anyone it was their peers.''

Part of the problem stems from sex-role stereotypes that can be particularly pronounced in adolescence. ``Having a boyfriend is seen as one of the ways you are successful as a girl,'' says Barbara Bennett, executive director of the Women's Self Help Center in St. Louis. ``Some girls will think it is worth an occasional violent incident in order to keep the boyfriend. Like their adult fellow victims of violence, they think he'll change.''

Belinda Lafferty, coordinator of the teen domestic-violence program at Youth East Side Services in Bellevue, Wash., also sees gender stereotypes reinforced in such youth-oriented sitcoms as ``Melrose Place'' and ``Beverly Hills 90210.'' On these programs, she says, ``The man believes he needs to be in charge and strong and macho and have many partners. The girl thinks she needs to be beautiful and compliant and have a boyfriend in order to have status.''

Ms. Lafferty also finds ``a general acceptance of interpersonal violence'' among teenagers. When this happens in a dating relationship, she says, ``not only does the teen think it's normal, but her peer group does too.''

To help change these youthful attitudes, Lafferty conducts coeducational violence-prevention workshops in Seattle-area schools. She also works one-on-one with teenagers in abusive relationships. Her clients range in age from 14 to 21.

One client, a high school senior, had a 4.0 grade point average and had been accepted at several colleges, including Stanford University. Then she became involved with an abusive boyfriend. Within six months her grade point average plunged to 1.4. She turned down her college acceptances so she could go to a community college and be near her boyfriend.

After a month of counseling, the girl attended her graduation and ``realized there were other options available to her, that she had a future,'' Lafferty says. ``She broke off the relationship that night and spent the summer in another state with her grandparents.'' In September she entered one of the colleges that had previously accepted her.

To increase the number of cases with similarly happy endings, counselors emphasize the need to educate students.

``We must start very early to teach kids about resolving conflicts, about their right to be assertive, to say no to things they don't want to happen to their bodies,'' says Tolman. ``We especially have to target boys. Girls get better at verbal resolution to problems. Boys are more likely to be socialized to use aggression. But we can't expect schools to do it on their own. We need broad-based parent and community input.''

Barrie Levy of Santa Monica, Calif., author of ``In Love & In Danger: A Teen's Guide to Breaking Free of Abusive Relationships'' (Seal Press, 1992), emphasizes the need for effective ways of intervening so that when violence starts, the victim's safety is a primary concern.

Second, Ms. Levy says, ``We need to convey a strong message that this is not acceptable. The girls think there's something wrong with them, or they think this is just the way sex is.''

Kaia, the Boston student who eventually broke up with her abusive boyfriend, offers this advice. ``A girl has to set the rules down,'' she says. ``If he's not the kind of person who can agree with her rules, just let that person go, because it just gets worse.''

Ms. Bennett, whose program, Project HART (Healthy Alternatives for Relationships among Teens) takes counselors into St. Louis schools to talk to students about dating violence, sums up the larger task ahead: ``It will take men standing up all over this country and saying, `Real men don't hurt women.' There are millions of men who believe this. They've just got to start saying it.''

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