A different approach is needed to discuss the very important issue of teen dating violence. When data show that nearly 1 in 5 Chicago youth is experiencing violence in a dating relationship – and that the numbers are rising - it’s time for us to recognize that our efforts have not worked. If we are going to begin to turn those numbers around, we will need a new approach – one that derives from the experiences and needs of young people.
Throughout the year of our surveys and roundtables, we heard from advocates and organizers that domestic violence language and approaches are not resonating with young people. There are a few things to consider.
The discourse on adolescent relationships privileges risk, violence and even death. The discussion of romance and/or desire is virtually non-existent — excised from all consideration. In fact, girls’ relationships involve both pleasure and danger, and young people want to talk about their relationships with these complexities. Yet as adults, we tend to focus almost exclusively on the dangers. As teen dating violence preventionists, we often lack a clear articulation of desire and a “discourse of female pleasure without penalties.” Lynn Phillips (2000) offers the following warning in discussing how girls experience violence by young men: “Young women appear unable to name their own victimization precisely because their cultural contexts make it so difficult to insist on male accountability and to envision and experience hetero-relational pleasure without penalties (p.191).”
What’s more, young people’s relationships may not look at all like the ones adults imagine when we develop our curricula. What does it mean for a teenage girl to be in a relationship with a 30 year old man, and how does this affect her understanding of abuse? What if she is with someone who is gang-affiliated, or in and out of jail? What does it mean if the relationship is secret because of religious pressures? Or because the young person is not out as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming? If we don’t ask these questions, we will develop approaches and curricula that youth will rightly shrug off as irrelevant to their lives.
Technology also plays an increasingly important role in our society. Cell phones, ipads, Facebook and Twitter are providing new ways for perpetrators to control, harass and stalk young women. Our efforts to prevent teen dating violence must take this fact into account.
The main drawback of many teen dating violence prevention programs is that too little time is spent discussing actual relationships (with all of their intricacies). Teen girls, those we know and work with, want to talk about the complexities of relationships — all types of relationships with partners, friends, and family. However, often programs are relegated to one class session in many schools (if we are lucky). With this time limitation, preventionists are forced to get right down to the business of talking about the unhealthy or dangerous aspects of dating relationships, using an essentially cookie-cutter approach.
If we are going to develop curricula that resonate with young people, it will therefore require both a change in our approach and a systems change to allow for our programs to be more comprehensive.