Teen Love as a Four Letter Word

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Special section of Child Maltreatment, November 2000, Vol. 5, No. 4

Guest editors: Candice Feiring and Wyndol Furman

Available for $25 from sagepub.com or (805) 499-9774

Why are some teen romances so violent? Seven of the 10 articles of this journal, published by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, attempt to answer that question.

In their introductory article, "When Love is Just a Four Letter Word," the editors point out that researchers who study romantic relationships and those that study victimization have little contact with each other. Unfortunately, there is so much overlap that the two need to be studied together. This special section is intended to begin bridging that gap.

In "Dating Experiences of Bullies in Early Adolescence," Jennifer Connolly and her colleagues found that bullies in grades five through eight tended to start puberty earlier, start dating earlier, and reported less emotionally supportive relationships with friends. They were also more likely to report being the perpetrator and the victim of physical and social aggression, such as slapping, kicking, choking, beating up, punching, threatening with a knife, spreading rumors, and "getting even." The almost 200 self-identified bullies and 200 non-bullies were mostly middle-class Canadians.

In a study of adolescent girls who had been abused at some time from ages six to 15, Jennie Noll and her colleagues evaluated the girls' relationships when they were ages 12 to 25. In their article, "Social Network Constellation and Sexuality of Sexually Abused and Comparison Girls in Childhood and Adolescence," Noll reports that girls who had been abused grew up to be more preoccupied with sex and more likely to have their first voluntary sexual intercourse at an earlier age (although their attitudes about sex were not different from girls who had not been abused). In a finding that may surprise many youth workers, girls who had more friendships with males, whether or not they had been abused, tended to have sex earlier, have more sexual partners, and were less likely to use birth control. Early sexual dating experiences also predicted the likelihood of at least one abortion in later years.

Adults were found to be important influences in the lives of these girls, whether they were abused or not. For example, girls who have high-quality relationships with female adults (whether mothers, teachers, or other relatives or role models) are less likely to engage in casual sex. Sexually abused girls who report happier relationships with adult men (relatives, teachers, etc.) are less likely to grow up to be preoccupied with sex. In contrast, the quality of relationships with girls their own age did not influence girls' later sexual attitudes or activities.

Anna Smalley Flanagan and Wyndol Furman studied high school seniors and college undergraduates, finding that coerced sexual activity was common. In "Sexual Victimization and Perceptions of Close Relationships in Adolescence," more than half the college girls reported some form of sexual victimization; for example, unwanted kissing or fondling resulting from a man's continual arguments (47 percent) or physical force (16 percent), or unwanted sexual intercourse resulting from a man's continual arguments (28 percent), drug or alcohol use (10 percent), or physical force (13 percent). Most of the offenders were boyfriends or lovers (41 percent), casual dates (23 percent), or nonromantic acquaintances (37 percent). Those who had been victimized tended to have more dating partners than those who had not.

When the same authors studied high school seniors, they found that almost half reported some kind of sexual victimization, including unwanted kissing or fondling resulting from a man's continual arguments (35 percent) or physical force (6 percent), or unwanted sexual intercourse subsequent to continual arguments (27 percent), alcohol or drug use (8 percent), or physical force (4 percent). The proportion of perpetrators that were boyfriends, casual dates, or nonromantic acquaintances was almost identical to the college women.

In both age groups, more than two-thirds of the women reported more than one experience of being sexually victimized, sometimes by the same person. The authors were especially disturbed to see that the first victimization usually occurred in high school. In fact, the percentage of high school seniors who reported unwanted sexual intercourse was similar to the percentage among college women.

These compelling findings have important implications for youth workers. Coercion, whether verbal or physical, is clearly a common element of teen "romances," and adults who work with youth could help prevent these incidents and support the victims through their advice, support and information for high school students. What's still lacking, unfortunately, is good research to guide youth workers on the most effective way to do this.