The University Record, April 1, 1997

Dating violence differs for teen-age girls, boys

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

While teen-age boys are just as likely as girls to be victims of physical abuse by a date, girls report more severe violence and greater physical and emotional effects, say U-M researchers.

In their study of 635 students from a large Midwestern high school, social work Prof. Richard M. Tolman and Christian Molidor of the University of Texas, Arlington, found that about 37 percent of boys and 36 percent of girls say that they have experienced physical violence in a dating relationship.

However, more than 90 percent of the boys say that their worst incident of dating violence "hurt very little" or "not at all," while nearly half of the girls report serious harm ("hurt a lot") and physical injury (caused bruises, needed medical attention), Tolman says.

"Girls were much more likely to be punched and to be forced to engage in sexual activity against their will," he says. "Boys, on the other hand, were significantly more likely to be pinched, slapped, scratched and kicked."

The study results show that more than half of the boys say they laughed at receiving the abuse, while a third ignored it. Girls more often fought back, obeyed or tried to talk to their partner after experiencing violence. Furthermore, about 36 percent of the girls say that they defended themselves when abused by their date.

"This is one way of accounting for some of the incidents of violence that boys report occurring toward them," Tolman says. "The boys' reports of violence toward them may, in fact, be their partners' acts of self-defense in reaction to violence that they are experiencing."

The girls in the sample say that their dating partners started the abuse 70 percent of the time, while boys report that their dates initiated the violence 27 percent of the time.

According to the study, unwanted sexual advances, jealousy and drunkenness are primary reasons for teen dating violence.

About 37 percent of the abused girls report that their partners had made sexual advances toward them, while nearly half of the boys and one-fourth of the girls who were victims of violence say that their dates' jealousy was the reason they were subjected to physical violence, Tolman says.

He adds that 55 percent of the girls who were physically abused say that their partners were drunk at the time, and nearly 37 percent of the abused boys say that they, themselves, were intoxicated when inflicted with violence.

"As in other forms of domestic violence, the relationship between alcohol and drug use and incidents of violence is undoubtedly complex and warrants further exploration in the adolescent context," Tolman says.

The study also found that female victims remained in abusive relationships 44 percent of the time after experiencing moderate violence (kicked, pinched, scratched, slapped, hair pulled) and 36 percent of the time after enduring severe violence (choked, punched, object thrown, threatened with weapon).

Moreover, Tolman says, fewer than 3 percent of the teen-age victims reported the violent incident to an authority figure (police, social worker, teacher, counselor), 6 percent told a family member and less than a third told anyone at all. Nearly two-thirds, however, confided in a friend.

Tolman suggests that schools should help prepare teens to respond effectively to abuse reported by friends, and to develop intervention plans and encourage student input to help prevent dating violence, much of which happens on school grounds.

"While popular depictions might give the impression that school violence is largely a problem of violence between boys, these results demonstrate that the school is also a dangerous place for young women," he says. "By creating an ecology of dating violence prevention, schools will send a message to the students that authority figures are willing to listen and intervene, if needed."