Research Watch readers know that college campuses are not the safe havens that many adults envision, at least, not if you’re a woman (see Research Watch, July 2001). A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that even in high school, many girls have been physically and sexually abused on dates.
The findings may surprise many youth workers: One in five high school girls has been physically or sexually abused on a date.
The study is based on the Massachusetts findings of the Youth Behavior Survey, a national survey designed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. States can add questions to the survey, and Massachusetts added one asking if the respondents had “ever been hurt physically or sexually” by someone they were going out with. “This would include being shoved, slapped, hit, or forced into any sexual activity.”
The survey was conducted in more than 60 public high schools in 1997 and 1999. The results varied a bit for the two years, but generally, 10 percent of girls reported being physically abused but not sexually abused by a date, 4 percent reported being sexually abused but never physically abused, and 6 percent reported both.
Girls who reported either physical or sexual abuse or both tended to also report other problems, including: heavy smoking, binge drinking, driving after drinking, using cocaine, binge eating/purging or use of diet pills, having three or more sexual partners in the last three months, sexual intercourse before the age of 15, no condom use at last intercourse, having been pregnant, or having considered or attempting suicide. Girls who had been physically or sexually abused while dating were much more likely to report these other experiences even when social class and other potential influences were statistically controlled.
Some of these links are very strong. For example, girls who were both physically and sexually abused were almost 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than were other girls. However, heavy smoking was the strongest predictor: Girls who were heavy smokers were almost 11 times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence in 1997, and more than seven times more likely in 1999.
The researchers point out that they can’t determine whether the abuse caused the other behaviors, or the other behaviors (such as drug use or multiple sexual partners in the last three months) tend to precipitate the abuse. Whatever the exact reasons for these findings, they are chilling reminders that high school can be full of land mines for some girls. Youth workers can help by providing information and support that can help girls avoid or escape violence in their relationships, and by teaching boys that violence is unacceptable.
In a coincidence of fateful timing, the Independent Women’s Forum, an anti-feminist think tank, recently ran ads in campus newspapers against the “Feminist Myths” that they claim are brainwashing college students. One of these “myths” is that one in four college women have been raped, which the Independent Women’s Forum claims is an exaggeration. Using police reports from college campuses, the forum suggests that 1 percent is more likely. This new study indicates that the one in four estimate is probably accurate, but that most of the college women who report having been sexually abused were abused for the first time while they were still in high school.