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2 September 2002
50% Of Students Suffer Date Violence
by George Atkinson

In a new study on the occurrence of dating violence among teenagers, University of Arkansas researchers found that 50 percent of high schoolers have experienced some form of physically violent behavior in their relationships. More surprising, the research revealed that male and female students perpetrate violence at an equal rate and that, of the two, females may be inflicting more serious forms of abuse on their partners.

Megan Mooney, a Ph.D. student in the UA department of psychology, and her advisor Patricia Petretic-Jackson, associate professor, collected survey data from 175 high school students, assessing their dating histories, attitudes toward violence and experiences with violence in relationships. Mooney reported the findings at "Victimization of Children and Youth: an International Research Conference" in Portsmouth, N.H.

"One of the reasons we should be concerned about dating violence in high schools is the fact that it could be the beginning of a developmental trend, where young people become accustomed to experiencing and perpetrating violence with their partners, and they carry it into their subsequent relationships," Mooney said. "Intimate partner violence has wide-ranging detrimental effects - physical, psychological, sociological, economic - and this could be where it starts."

According to Mooney, much of the research on intimate partner violence over the past three decades has focused on college populations and married couples. The few studies that have targeted high school students often have asked participants to report on violence only in their current relationships. Mooney's research collects information pertaining to the entire dating history of each teen.

In addition, the study assessed numerous factors such as coping skills, drug and alcohol use and perception of violence, to determine if they related to violence among teens. But, the most important factor in Mooney's study - the factor she expected to make the biggest difference in the way students perceived and experienced violence - was gender. And after analyzing her statistics time and again, Mooney found that gender made no difference in the way teenagers thought about violence, in the types of violence they typically experienced and used, or in predicting their role as perpetrators or victims.

In other words, males were just as likely to be victims of violence in a relationship as females. And females were just as likely to inflict violence as males - a finding that contradicts decades of clinical assumptions.

Further, 28.1 percent, or 49 students, reported that they had been both a victim and a perpetrator of relationship violence. That percentage represents more than half of the students who had experienced violence at all, Mooney said. And of those who had been both victims and perpetrators, almost 48 percent indicated that they had played that dual role with a single dating partner - indicating that many high school students may be involved in mutually violent relationships.

Mooney isn't the only researcher to find evidence of women acting equally, or even more violent than men, but the findings from her high school-age sample add credence to a startling new picture of mutual violence between the sexes. Women's advocacy groups have attempted to explain this research trend by pointing out that what seems like female violence may actually be self-defense. But preliminary data from Mooney's study suggest that females were just as likely to initiate violence as males, making self-defense an unlikely explanation.

"One possible explanation is that women are becoming more assertive and therefore more comfortable with becoming physically aggressive when they feel threatened," Mooney said. "This may not be what people want to hear, but we have to get an accurate picture of how violence is actually happening so that we can determine the best way to prevent it. Maybe we shouldn't automatically assume that women are always victims."

Mooney notes that gender differences do emerge in married populations, with men more often acting as perpetrators. Another difference between Mooney's findings and those among older populations is the fact that high school students showed elevated rates of relationship violence compared to college students and married couples.

"We hope the decline in violence from high school to college is an effect of maturation - that if you get involved in an abusive relationship in high school, you become wiser and choose not to get into those relationships later in life," Mooney said. "But that's a very optimistic explanation."

It may be the case that rates of violence actually fail to decline between high school and college, Mooney suggested. But since most research on college-age individuals is conducted on college students - a higher-functioning subset of the population - results may be skewed.

Though unexpectedly frequent, instances of violence among high school students were of a mild or moderate nature. Mooney found that throwing, kicking or smashing an object was the most common aggressive tactic. And students who had experienced direct physical violence reported pushing, grabbing and shoving as the most prevalent behaviors.

Such activity may seem like roughhousing, but each act took place within the context of a disagreement or fight - a distinction that marks the behaviors as anger responses rather than play. Tolerating or disregarding such behavior can set a dangerous precedent, Mooney said: "Those sorts of mild acts can escalate into more serious forms of violence. If you feel like you can get away with doing that to your partner, what's to keep you from taking it further?"

Mooney also noted that, although the majority of her sample had experienced only mild or moderate abuse, four individuals reported extreme acts of violence that resulted in severe injury.

"This is happening in the high schools - people experiencing startling violence at a really young age," Mooney said. "It's important that we don't explain these results away. We need to know what's going on in this age group, and we need to intervene."

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