Teen Dating Violence and the Subtle (and Not So Subtle) Blaming of Victims

Holding handsFebruary is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month—an excellent opportunity to educate ourselves not only about violence against women and girls in all its forms, including sexual assault, but also about the ways in which its victims are perceived and treated. Violence against women and girls predominately occurs in the context of an intimate partner relationship for both teens and adults; thus, we need to focus on how teens build and maintain relationships.

Sexual assaults are known to occur generally before the victim is 18 years old, therefore, young women and girls are at the greatest risk of this form of violence. And teens face many challenges in reporting sexual assault, especially if they engaged in risky behavior such as drinking alcohol at the time of the assault, or if the perpetrator claims they gave consent. By strengthening awareness of the link between dating violence and sexual assault, we can better help survivors and make coming forward easier for them.

Dating violence is a real concern for high school students. In 2011 in Illinois:

Dating violence can also consist in behavior control, such as birth-control sabotage, which can result in unwanted pregnancies. Women or teens who are pregnant while in an abusive relationship are at greater risk of miscarriage or preterm birth. People who experience dating violence have a greater likelihood of contracting an STD (sexually transmitted disease), often because victims fear the possible consequences of negotiating condom use. And cases of sexual assault are often products of dating violence and abusive relationships. In 2009, of reported rapes and sexual assaults against women, 

These statistics underreport the true level of intimate partner violence since victims often find accusing someone close to them of sexual assault difficult, victims fear getting a loved one in trouble, or victims anticipate that their story will be less credible if they have a current or previous relationship with the perpetrator.

While teens are more at risk than adults of experiencing dating violence or sexual assault, teens often have an even more difficult time being believed than adults. Besides being at a disadvantage if they seem to have been even slightly involved with the perpetrator, the perceived legitimacy of their story is greatly affected if they were using alcohol or drugs at the time of the assault. Use of either goes against the cultural stereotype of “real rape” and alters judgments about the people involved, usually unfairly penalizing the female. Studies have found that victims are held more accountable if they were drinking alcohol, yet perpetrators are judged less harshly if they consumed alcohol.

As for the justice system, prosecutors are less likely to file charges if the victim engaged in risk-taking behavior. Survivors who were under the influence of alcohol or drugs often have impaired memory and might omit details or give inconsistent accounts, and this greatly affects their perceived credibility. However, just because a report is not perfect in every detail does not mean that the sexual assault did not occur. Many factors, such as confusion due to trauma or disorganization, mixing up details with those of previous assaults, or a desire to cover up illegal behavior, may skew a victim’s story. Of course, race also plays a role in the decision to prosecute, with perpetrators whose victims are white are more likely to be charged.

In individual cases as well as in those that gain national attention, such as the case in Steubenville, Ohio, the New Yorker points out, “the public still, overwhelmingly, believes the accused at the expense of accusers.” The tendency to doubt survivors is often taken a step further and becomes blame. While blatant forms of victim blaming have become socially unacceptable, attitudes that subtly hold individuals accountable for their personal safety are still pervasive. Even as experts on sexual violence tell us that no one is responsible for being assaulted or abused by an intimate partner, some also imply that women can take steps to avoid being assaulted or abused. They suggest that people can avoid being “targets” of sexual violence by dressing or acting conservatively, or by avoiding potentially dangerous situations, such as bars or “bad” neighborhoods. These ideas are just as demeaning as the notion that teens or adult women in abusive relationships choose to be victimized; violence in any form is always unsought and unacceptable.

While there have been great strides in improving responses to and support for survivors of domestic or sexual violence over the years, criminal prosecution of sexual assault is still incredibly difficult, and the ratio of reports to arrests has declined since the mid-1970s to almost half. Today just 26 percent of forcible rape reports lead to an arrest. By comparison, the ratio of arrests to reports for all types of violent crimes remained steady from 1971 to 2008. This is not a reflection of a decrease in sexual violence but rather proof of problems within the justice system, especially with police investigations, where reports can be deemed unfounded simply because of lack of follow-up and not necessarily because of lack of evidence.

Advocates are working on legislative responses at both the federal and state level. In the U.S. Congress, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), S. 47, provides funding for programs and services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including for teen dating violence victims. VAWA successfully passed in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, February 12. We thank both Illinois senators, Senator Richard Durbin and Senator Mark Kirk for cosponsoring the bill. VAWA must now be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. Readers are encouraged to contact their representatives to urge passage of a bipartisan VAWA. To find out more about VAWA and how you can support it, visit 4vawa.org.

In the Illinois General Assembly, the Shriver Center and a coalition of service providers, students and their parents, educators, and other advocates are working on solutions to keep victims of domestic and sexual violence in school. Too often survivors of teen dating violence suffer negative consequences in school because school policies toward student survivors of domestic or sexual violence are either nonexistent or inadequate. Elementary and high school students typically continue to come into contact with their student perpetrators on school grounds or on their way to or from school—their safety and physical and mental well-being remain at risk even after the violence has occurred. Moreover, they may fall behind academically or drop out altogether when their absences are not excused, they experience breaches of confidentiality or outright discrimination by school personnel, or they are bullied by fellow students.

The Ensuring Success in School legislation that has just been introduced in both the Senate and the House of the Illinois General Assembly will help elementary and secondary students who are struggling with domestic and sexual violence, including teen dating violence, as well as students who are already parents or expectant parents. The legislation would ensure that these students receive the support they need to stay in school, stay safe, perform well academically, and graduate. The chief sponsor of the senate bill, SB 1702, is Sen. Kimberly Lightford; the chief sponsor of the house bill, HB 2213, is Rep. LaShawn Ford. For more information, or if you are in Illinois and you or some students you know have had positive or negative school experiences because they are or were parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence and would be interested in sharing those experiences, please contact Wendy Pollack.

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