Love. It seems to be all we talk about during February leading up to and following the intimate dinners, Valentine’s Day parties and as we exchange tokens of affection all month long. While the thought of love brings a smile to our lips and a flutter to our hearts, for millions of Americans – particularly women and girls – love is dangerous.
February is teen dating violence awareness month. The hope is that the more discussion and education that happens, the fewer young men and women will be subjected to abuse at the hands of a romantic partner.
What is dating or domestic abuse?
“Abuse does not always result in a visible injury or scar,“ says Dr. Kyle Martin, Medical Director of Emergency Services at St. Mary’s Hospital. “Any attempt to control the behavior or emotions of a romantic partner is abuse. Any attempt to diminish or prevent their free choice is abuse.”
Victims – be it a man or woman, young or old – do not cause the abuse. There is nothing a victim can say or do to excuse abuse. Abusers are solely responsible for their actions.
Dating and domestic violence take many forms:
• Physical abuse: slapping, hitting, punching, kicking, physical restraint, aggravated assault, forcing someone to take drugs and any other attempts to physically control a romantic partner are abuse.
• Sexual abuse: sexual activity following a physically abusive incident, threats of infidelity, coerced sexual acts, forcible intercourse and other attempts to control a romantic partner through sexual means are abuse.
• Emotional abuse: extreme displays of jealousy, possession, intimidation, blaming a victim for the abuser’s problems, degrading and/or disrespectful behavior and comments, withholding communication, social isolation from friends or family, threats of physical or sexual abuse and any attempt to emotionally control a romantic partner are abuse.
• Verbal abuse: name-calling, yelling, criticisms of appearance, actions or beliefs, public humiliations all constitute abuse.
• Economic abuse: any attempt to use money as a tool to control the behavior of a romantic partner or get what they want is abuse.
What are the health implications of dating violence?
Every year millions of women and girls are treated for health issues related to dating and domestic violence. Aside from acute medical needs like broken bones, cuts, bruises and other physical injuries, dating and domestic violence leaves victims with invisible wounds as well.
“Dating and domestic violence doesn’t always result in a physical assault,” says Dr. Martin. “Emotional abuse is very dangerous and will leave a victim feeling worthless. It takes a serious toll on a young girl’s emotional and mental well-being.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), teens who suffer dating violence are more likely to have problems with alcohol and drugs, develop eating disorders, engage in promiscuous behavior, have thoughts of suicide and display violent conduct. Additionally, anyone who suffers from emotional, physical or sexual abuse is more likely to develop mental health issues including depression, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The mental health implications of dating and domestic violence are significant,” says Dr. Martin. “Every year dating and domestic violence results in 18.5 million mental health care visits in the United States. These visits are in addition to the millions of visits victims make to emergency departments and urgent care centers for the physical damage of abuse.”
How young does the violence start?
For many parents, it’s hard to remember that with dating come very grown-up problems, including dating violence.
“The cycle of abuse can begin very early,” says Shannon Barry, Executive Director for Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS). “For some, they’ve witnessed or experienced violence at home and continue the cycle in their own relationships. For others, it begins slowly and builds with time. Abuse is a vicious cycle and can be difficult for a victim to identify the problem until it is too late.”
Barry says young women between ages 16 to 24 experience the highest rates of relationship violence, which is why it’s important to empower young men and women with the tools they need to build and nurture healthy, loving relationships free of violence and pain.
In 2014 the NO MORE project – a group dedicated to ending dating violence – surveyed high school boys and girls about their dating experiences. Nearly 1.5 million high school students admitted that a romantic partner had intentionally hit or physically harmed them in the past year. While the number is startling, it does not account for the teens who are too afraid to report their abuse.
Why is abuse underreported?
It’s well documented that most victims will not report the abuse. Studies show that more than 33 percent of women treated for violent injuries in emergency departments were hurt by an intimate partner. Of those women, fewer than five percent are identified or labeled as abuse victims.
“The tragic reality is that less than 20 percent of victims seek medical treatment for their injuries,” says Dr. Martin. “Victims are hesitant to answer questions and may feel that their injuries are their own fault. Even though nothing could be farther from the truth, it can prevent proper treatment and reporting of serious, sometimes life-threatening situations.”
The hesitation to report abuse and receive treatment is a sensitive issue. Many women view their abuse as a personal matter or believe it to be a “one time thing.” There is also a very real fear that reporting abuse or violence will result in more violence. Others don’t trust law enforcement agencies and fear becoming involved in a justice system they believe to be unfair. Fear of losing independence or status can also hinder reporting.
Who is at risk?
Dating and domestic violence knows no boundaries. Victims can be any age, gender, sexual preference or ethnicity. Victims come from all backgrounds – rich, poor, middle-income, educated or not. Domestic violence touches us all.
According to DAIS, national crime data shows African-American women are three times more likely to be murdered by a current or former romantic partner than members of any other racial background. Hispanic women are more likely than non-Hispanic women to be sexually assaulted by a current or former romantic partner, but are less likely to report this abuse. As many as 41 to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by a romantic partner during their lifetime.
How can adults help break the cycle of dating violence?
“Talk to your children,” says Dr. Martin.
It might sound simplistic, but by creating an open line of communication and talking about mundane, everyday life can help children and teens feel safe talking about sensitive subjects like dating, sex and potential abuse. By talking you can also pick up on their cues that something is bothering them.
Dr. Martin recommends other ways you can keep dating violence in check:
• Set and enforce curfews – including curfews or limitations on online communication and when texting should stop each night.
• Request that your teen introduce you to who they are dating and that you know details about the date like who is driving, if the date is a group activity, etc.
• Be open with your teen about what a healthy relationship looks and feels like. This includes making sure your own interactions with your partner and children model respect.
While victims may feel alone, it’s important to know help is available. In Dane County, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services – DAIS – offers many confidential services for abuse victims and friends or family members.
Last year, DAIS reached more than 1,500 teens through teen dating violence presentations in Dane County schools. Knowing that many teens are at risk of dating violence, DAIS partnered with Dean & St. Mary’s to roll out a new dating and domestic violence Texting Hotline.
By texting HOPE to 20121, teens can reach out to a trusted and safe source for support. The Texting Help Line is free and confidential and provides help in safety planning and information about additional services. “Even though the primary purpose of the texting help line is to increase access to services for those experiencing teen dating violence, accessibility will be available for anyone who needs support,” says Shannon Barry, DAIS Executive Director. “So many teens and adults have access to a cell phone and the texting help line provides an alternative access to life-saving services if the individual cannot or is not able to safely speak out loud to an advocate over the phone.”
For immediate help you can call DAIS to get in touch with a trained advocate at (608) 251- 4445 or (800) 747-4045.
The National Domestic Violence hotline can also offer assistance at (800) 799-7233.