Teenage girls and dating violence

The New York Times has a surprisingly thoughtful and complex article on teenage girls’ responses to dating violence — and of course, it’s in the Fashion & Style section. It’s worth a read, though, despite its unfortunate placement. The victim-blaming in high-profile intimate partner violence cases reads to me a lot like self-defensive victim-blaming in sexual assault cases: If you can pin the responsibility for the violence on something the woman did, you can live without the fear that someone might harm you in a similar way. If you convince yourself that women “get raped” because they go somewhere they shouldn’t, or because they dress in a particular way, or because they drink too much, or because they have a bad reputation, then it’s easy enough to convince yourself that if you just act right, you’ll be safe. If you convince yourself that women “get beaten” because they talk back, or because they instigate the violence with phyiscal aggression, or because they otherwise bring violence upon themselves, then it’s easy enough to convince yourself that you won’t ever end up looking like Rihanna.

There’s also the reflexive defense of men:

The girls’ willingness to minimize Mr. Brown’s alleged behavior also reflects a learned social signal, said Professor Morgan, who teaches African-American studies at Harvard. They’ve been taught, she said, “What really matters is that we don’t destroy boys.” Teenage girls think that if they speak out against an abuser, the boy’s future will be shattered, she said. “We have to appreciate that this is not simple for them.”

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21 comments for “Teenage girls and dating violence

  1. March 20, 2009 at 10:18 am

    I never thought of the “it will never happen to me” element of sexual assault/abuse. Unfortunately, most people would rather stick their head in the sand then actually solve a problem.

  2. Caro
    March 20, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Great post. As it also says in the article:

    “His posters are on the bedroom wall, the last face they see before they sleep,” she said. “They’re feeling, ‘Why is he with her, not with me?’… Acknowledging his attack would make them feel vulnerable: How could they have a crush on someone who could do that? It was less terrifying to blame Rihanna.”

    One of the reason that “teen idol” guys are so popular with young women is that the image they (/their publicists) project is one of a safe, nice guy who would never hurt you and who therefore isn’t scary to a girl just starting to have relationships. The uncomfortable truth that these girls are coming up against is the fact that that in real life there are often guys who seem like the nice, safe ones but can turn out to be abusers, or at least hurtful jerks. I can understand how fear of this reality could make a girl not want to believe that their fantasy boyfriend would do such a thing.

  3. Lucy Gillam
    March 20, 2009 at 10:41 am

    You see a lot of the same phenomenon in parneting discussions, with the tendency to assign blame (particularly to the mothers) whenever a tragedy occurs. And I suspect it all comes down to that fear: if no one’s to blame, we have to live with the possibility that it could happen to us.

  4. The Opoponax
    March 20, 2009 at 10:50 am

    One of the reason that “teen idol” guys are so popular with young women is that the image they (/their publicists) project is one of a safe, nice guy who would never hurt you and who therefore isn’t scary to a girl just starting to have relationships.

    Then again, there’s also the flip side, the “bad boy” who isn’t really a bad boy because it’s all playacting and you can imagine that in “real life”, he’d always be nice to you.

    Which of course is the #1 refrain in early stage abusive situations. Your friends/family object to your partner’s behavior, and you respond, “but he’s always nice to me!” It’s pretty easy to believe that the asshole image is just a mask for other people, or just something they need to act out to rebel against The Grownups/The Man/Society/Whatever, and you’re the exception, because you’re in it together. Or that, while their treatment of you in public might fit with the badass image, in private they’re a teddy bear.

  5. March 20, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Building on what The Opo, Caro, and Jill have already pointed out, there’s also the belief that the Celebrity Bad Boy is just being that way because the woman he’s with currently isn’t his True Love… if he was only with *me,* it would be True Love and he’d never hurt me.

    Sort of a Beauty and the Beast scenario. It’s that first crucial step for apologizing for abusive behavior and blaming the victim.

  6. Caro
    March 20, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Good point, The Opo… there are two different kinds of teen idols, the nice guys and the bad boys, but they are both ultimately portrayed (and interpreted by girls) as non-threatening, uncomplicated fantasies. And it’s also so true that many women are able to dismiss a guy’s early signs of jackass-ness as long as they are loving towards them in private (at least most of the time).

  7. March 20, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I get so enraged when I encounter the lies, fantasies and headtrips that this culture puts out and that girls buy into. I want to counter this in a very direct way. I’ve been thinking about doing an online, regularly occuring kind of program that will speak to these issues, and speak directly to the girls who are at risk of buying into patriarchy without even realizing what they’re giving up.

    I’ve done this in person with teenage girls, but right now I’m thinking about how to reach a larger population. I’ve been working with an online video platform, but it’s proving to be unreliable. Some friends who participated in the Fem2.0 Twittercast I hosted a few days ago thought I should do blogtalkradio, so I’m thinking about that. I’m also interested in drafting a proposal to Obama to ask that his administration create and fund a media/communications infrastructure populated by women, content created by women.

    Pls email me if you are interested in participating. madama ambi at g mail dot com

  8. Kyra
    March 20, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Teenage girls think that if they speak out against an abuser, the boy’s future will be shattered.

    HE needs to consider the effect on his future before he has any business expecting anyone else to do so. I don’t have any obligation to protect anything on behalf of someone who has already thrown it away, and neither does anyone else, especially someone that person has hurt. This concept of where responsibility actually lies ought to be mandatory material in sex-education classes or whatever else might pass for “Dealing with the World 101.”

    Also, every time a boy or man does this sort of thing and isn’t called on it, that sends a message to other men and boys that it is fine—not only are they passing the eventual consequence (when somebody finally bothers to issue it) to other men, they are putting more men at risk for said consequences, said “life-shattering,” by encouraging this kind of behavior and presenting it as acceptable to men who are merely thoughtless/selfish/careless, rather than truly cruel and sadistic.

    Acceptance/blowing off of domestic violence changes the dynamic of accepted morality and encourages blindness to the devastating effects it has on its victims, and there start to be more cases of abuse where there is the same cruel and vicious effects with much less cruel intent behind producing them. Carelessness/thoughtlessness and culturally-learned misogyny are just as damaging as deliberate malice and self-chosen misogyny, and there are more thoughtless, careless, selfish men than than sadistic ones, especially when society is conducive to producing them.

    The result of tacit cultural acceptance and effective decriminalization of domestic violence results, thus, in a much bigger pool of abusers, and, for those people who continue to cry “but what about the men?!” it makes it ever more likely that the few who actually face charges for their actions will include “good men who make bad decisions”—to say nothing of those “good men” who destroy their relationships and torture their loved ones without ever realizing it. Anyone who values so highly the welfare of “good men” must have some interest in their not being tempted/herded/misguided into being bad men via trick reprogramming/blinding of their consciences.

  9. Emily
    March 20, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    You can’t just tell women, be they adult women or young women, not to have any sympathy or sense of compassion for the men and boys that they love. You can tell them they are not RESPONSIBLE for their boyfriend’s behavior, and that they should not take on that responsibility, because it’s not within their ability to control, but you have to leave room for and validate their feelings of compassion for these men.

    The answer is not hate and scorn alone. I think this is part of the problem. If a woman’s choices are presented as 1) hate/scorn the person you love because of what they did on this one occassion or 2) blame yourself, a lot of women will choose 2 (many may eventually come around to 1, but it takes a lot longer to build up that level of hate/scorn for someone you love; I think it’s unusual to feel it after any one incident).

    There has to be an option that includes understanding the partner’s insecurities/weaknesses that lead to his violent reactions AND understanding the need to protect oneself (by setting safe boundaries which will often include some separation/distancing until the loved one has worked through his issues enough to be trusted again). I personally feel like it’s similar to families that have to deal with addicts. You love them, you want to help them despite their destructive behaviors, and even when they hurt you (be it physically, by stealing from you, etc.). But at a certain point the only way you can help them is by not enabling them but by stepping back, protecting yourself, and waiting for them to seek the help that will make them trustworthy and not a danger to their loved ones.

    I think an interesting question is why so many women seem to feel that they themselves are not deserving of their own protection. “Of course you care about him, and he’s not a monster, and you’re not crazy for caring about him, but you have a duty to yourself to protect yourself first and foremost” seems to me to make the most sense as a message for young women.

  10. Vicky
    March 20, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Emily has some very good points. A man who will eventually abuse may be sensitive, intelligent, funny and *appear* very loving.

    These characteristics will still be there even when he begins to abuse, as there is not in fact a line between ‘monsters’ and ‘ordinary men.’

    This artifical line society aims to maintain ensures that women will not be able to square an abusive episode with any loving behaviour their partner has displayed, and hence will dismiss or forgive these episodes as anomalies, because their partner does not fit the image of an abuser. Abusers are incredibly insecure; women may feel they have to look after them.

    Abuse begins with a romantic relationship which the insecure future-abuser aims to render more and more exclusive and subtle emotional manipulation (such as inducing guilt) always precedes physical abuse. If you feel your partner is in any way dependent on you (or if he tells you that he is), or if he makes you feel guilty for disagreeing with him, seeing family or pursuing a career, this is dangerous.

    A few factors blind women to the danger:

    1. Women in particular are very susceptible to guilt trips due to their socialisation and are quick to feel duty towards someone.

    2. Women are still styled as ministering angels in popular (and high) culture. They are to save men from themselves, even if this involves self-sacrifice.

    3. The romantic relationship is so over-emphasised in our culture that women are continually being told from one quarter or another to lower their standards for the sake of finding and keeping “the One.” Women and men are encouraged to invest all their hopes, dreams and needs in one significant other. What if the other (inevitably) can’t fulfil these?

    4. The fairy-tale (promulgated in romantic comedies and TV shows) leads us to believe that once we have fallen in love, this is it. Women have the whole wining/dining/flattery/flowers thing rammed down their throats and are conditioned to believe they should fall at men’s feet at this oh-so-condescending valorization.

    5. Men, let’s face it, are portrayed as pretty pathetic in our culture. Have you read Cosmo recently? Men are apparently beer-swilling oafs who can’t control their sexual urges, rise above an infantile sense of humour or find a can-opener in the drawer. Women feel so lucky if they find someone who seems considerate and intelligent that if said bloke is also dangerously insecure to the point of flying off the handle at the slightest criticism, women believe this is just an opportunity to work at the relationship and engage their compassion.

    6. Women are not encouraged to trust their instincts.

    7. Young women do not receive the message clearly enough that they can say ‘no’ to any sexual activity at any point in the proceedings for any or no reason.

    8. Women are not encouraged to be active, but to take the passive role in relationships. This means they are not making their own decisions but always waiting for someone else to take the lead.

    9. Society presents male aggression and female nurturing as the norm.

    10. Misogyny is so pervasive in society that a sexist (or racist) comment may be dismissed as a joke rather than noted as an indicator of a man with an unhealthy and offensive attitude towards women.

  11. The Opoponax
    March 20, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    but you have to leave room for and validate their feelings of compassion for these men.

    I disagree. After going through my own abusive situation, my biggest regret is that the people around me weren’t frank enough about how dangerous my boyfriend was, or what they saw in his treatment of me. Their desire to validate my feelings was what allowed me to see my boyfriend as “just a little rough around the edges”.

    n fact, the reluctance of outside observers to be honest about what they saw fed right into the things I wrote upthread, the meme of “he’s a rebel, but he’s good to me, and that’s what counts”. He wasn’t good to me. He was abusive. It was all a lie. But the people in my life who wanted to respect my feelings by saying, “X is kind of obnoxious” rather than “X is an abusive fuckwit,” allowed me to keep telling that lie.

    I still wrestle a lot with my feelings for my ex. Especially how to view our relationship in hindsight, and what that means for my worth as a person now. It sometimes gets all tied into the way that, as women, we are taught to judge our self worth on romantic success.

    I would also be wary of using the metric of “one incident” in talking about abuse. Because it’s never really about any one thing the person did. You’re right – nobody’s ever going to do a complete 180 in their feelings about someone because they got shoved or yelled at or even hit once. But that’s not really what abuse is about, so…?

  12. Emily
    March 20, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Well, maybe different people need different types of support and/or it depends on the degree and nature of abuse.

    I was in a relationship which was never physically abusive, but which I think had a lot in common with how I have seen people describe abusive relationships and which I think was, to a degree, verbally/emotionally abusive. I stayed because I loved him and thought he needed me. And anyone who didn’t recognize or acknowledge the good qualities I saw in him, I wouldn’t listen to. Actually, it wasn’t until my friends and family more or less accepted him and stopped criticizing him that I left him. I got to a point where I knew that I had to protect me, and that I couldn’t save him from his demons. But also, I knew that my reservations about the relationship were my own, and not being imposed on me by my family/friends. I think as a young person, I was very wary of my mother’s opinions interfering in my decisions. Once she, specifically, backed off I knew that any problems I had with his behavior were mine and not hers.

  13. March 20, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I was frustrated that the article didn’t find room for a single quote from a young woman who had a feminist, non-victim-blaming take on the situation.

    As strong as certain elements of the piece were, taken as a whole it had more of a whiff of “kids today!” about it.

  14. March 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    That should have been “more than a whiff,” not “more of a whiff.”

  15. The Opoponax
    March 21, 2009 at 8:11 am

    But also, I knew that my reservations about the relationship were my own, and not being imposed on me by my family/friends.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think that people should “impose” their reservations on someone they think is being abused. I don’t think it’s the job of an abused woman’s friends and family to force her to change her opinion of her abuser. But I think beating around the bush is stupid and fucked up. If you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, you might as well just be honest.

    Of course, there’s a fine line between someone being honest about what they see and people really just not approving of your partner for whatever dumb reason. Which is another reason I think people who genuinely think someone in their life is being abused need to be as brutally honest as possible, and use the most frank language possible. My friends/family talked about my boyfriend in ways that I was allowed to let myself believe that they just didn’t like him, not that they were worried for my safety.

  16. The Opoponax
    March 21, 2009 at 8:12 am

    Shit. Sorry.

  17. Titanis walleri
    March 21, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    “For what it’s worth, I don’t think that people should “impose” their reservations on someone they think is being abused. I don’t think it’s the job of an abused woman’s friends and family to force her to change her opinion of her abuser. But I think beating around the bush is stupid and fucked up. If you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, you might as well just be honest.”
    On the other hand, I’ve heard of more than a few accounts where family/friends attempting to show a woman her abuser’s true nature just lead to her flatly ignoring them and even distancing herself from them (and/or being manipulated into doing so)…

  18. Porsche
    March 30, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    i just dont believe some “teen idols” can really be labeled that. I can relate to the rihanna situation because ive been in a crazy abusive relationship for years now. kept going back to him time after time…thinking he would change. That I would make him change and be nice and respecting. Well yesterday found out he has a kid he never mentioned. Abusers always say they will change and bring you down as long as you let them. Celebrities may be glamourous but they still have their skeletons in the closet just waiting for paparazzi to get a hold of them.

  19. antawona
    April 3, 2009 at 10:02 am

    that was good….i hope other girls will learn from this..

  20. antawona
    April 3, 2009 at 10:06 am

    i went though tuff times myslef…..but we all got learn or going to learn some how right……..if you ask me they should love girls as them and girls love them as them you know……….

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