Eric Henney is horrified to learn that dating violence – against both boys and girls – begins as young as age 11, and hopes anti-violence education will soon catch up to the younger trend.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that about 10% of high school students claim to have been victims of dating violence.
That statistic is appalling, but it is not news. We’ve known for years that most physical and sexual assaults happen to women between 16 and 24 years of age. (Our onetime ignorance of sexual violence toward men is eroding, but good data is still hard to find.) And programs directed at teenage sexual violence have been around about as long.
What is news, however, is that some organizations, including the CDC and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have started aiming their programs at middle-schoolers. On Sunday, the New York Times reported on some of these programs, which you can read about here.
Programs like these are supposed to be preventative: they intend to educate children about dating abuse before the start seriously dating. But despite what I’m sure are the best intentions, they aren’t completely preventative, because another recent study found that 15% of children ages 11-14 have already been victimized by physical dating violence. Besides being plainly awful, that fact is also galling. Because I just don’t know what to do with it.
There’s just no historical context for this figure. I have no idea if 15% represents an upward or a downward trend, or if there has been little generational change. I don’t know if middle school dating violence moves parallel to domestic violence, but even if I did, I would only be in a marginally better place. Statistics on spousal abuse before the 1990s are virtually nonexistent.
This study is therefore politically malleable. It could indicate that children have become culturally hypersexualized just as easily as it could indicate that decades of sexual liberation have just left them behind, exposed them to sex without properly educating them about it. If you were a fair bit more conservative, it may also indicate that the dissolution of the traditional family model is interfering with child development. Or, if you’ve got something to lose, it may indicate that we’re actually doing better. That social movements and programs of the last few decades are actually curbing behavior that for generations ran unchecked.
There is a right answer out there somewhere, but whatever you think it is, my guess is that your decision will be suspiciously in line with whatever preexisting ideas you have about sexuality. That kind of bias isn’t unique, but it is particularly bald here. And that’s maddening not only because it means that violence against children will probably become something to be batted around by well-lit dilettantes, but also because without good historical understanding, its cause remains unknown.
These initiatives, which are still nascent and experimental, may therefore seem awkward or too broadly focused. But they benefit from solid and urgent philosophical moorings. Victims, male or female, of abuse from their loved ones need to know that what’s happening to them isn’t okay, that it doesn’t happen to everyone (but that they aren’t alone), and that there are programs and people who want to help them. It would be good if children knew all this before they hit adolescence. People are now taking that idea seriously.
And that’s important, because given the persistence of sexual and domestic abuse against the young, I don’t find any alternatives compelling. To ignore preventative options would be negligent; to try to discourage serious teen relationships in general would be at once cynical and naive. In fact, the person who adopts such views strikes me as the type of person who also supports abstinence-only sex education. And that person is probably too busy dealing with the surfeit of problematic evidence against that cause to be chiming in here.
Maybe eventually, as we endeavor to learn more about the sexuality of pre- and newly pubescent children, we’ll get a better idea of what’s causing this violence. And maybe that will give us a better direction to go in, although I suspect whatever is behind teen dating violence will be complex and institutional and will therefore represent a tremendous struggle. Quixotic, even. But it’s nice to know all the same that there are people out there who keep on tilting.
Photo of kids with books courtesy of Shutterstock