For my senior honors thesis in Women's Studies, I chose to study abusive dating relationships among undergraduate students at Tulane University. The study employed quantitative as well as qualitative methods to: 1) determine the prevalence of abuse in dating relationships on Tulane campus, 2) determine whether or not persons who have experienced abuse talked about it with others, and 3) figure out how to promote talk about abuse and in turn raise awareness of this problem. The study was inspired in part by the anecdotally-based assertions of Katie Roiphe (The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, 1993) that the prevalence of sexual and other sorts of abuse on American campuses has been highly overblown by "feminists." I undertook this study to begin to understand how and why college students communicate with peers and others about their experiences with abuse in dating relationships.
Of the 523 surveys distributed to Newcomb and Tulane students during 11:00-11:50 a.m. MWF classes, 492 students (266 female and 226 male) returned completed questionnaires, yielding a response rate of 94%. On the last page of the survey, I asked the participants if they would discuss their experiences with abuse in a confidential interview for the qualitative part of this study. After all the surveys were returned, I conducted six semi-structured interviews with the 5 female and 1 male volunteers. The questions asked in the interview focused on how the respondent spoke with others about their abusive experiences. In particular, I asked about factors which encouraged and discouraged open talk about abuse.
The survey results show that the rates of psychological, physical and sexual abuse in dating relationships at Tulane are as high or higher than in previous studies conducted on college campuses. Of the 445 students who have been in dating relationships at Tulane and Newcomb, 409 or 92% of them report that they have either perpetrated and/or sustained some form of psychological abuse, most commonly in the form of insults, swearing, yelling, refusing to talk, sulking, controlling behavior and humiliating acts or words. In Raymond and Bruschi's 1989 study on psychological abuse, 95% of their respondents had experienced some form of psychological abuse. Forty percent or 177 of the respondents in my study indicated that they have experienced physically abusive behavior (e.g. throwing objects, pushing, kicking, beating, threatening with a knife or gun or using a knife or gun). Furthermore, 31% of the students who have dated or were dating at the time of the study said they have experienced non-consensual sexual encounters (e.g. non-consensual petting or fondling; attempted or completed oral, anal or vaginal intercourse) with their dating partner. The rate of physical and sexual abuse is a bit higher than Lane and Gwartney-Gibbs' (1985) study. Of their respondents, 33% said they have experienced physical abuse and 25% say they have experienced coerced sexual encounters within a dating relationship. Clearly, one can see that abusive dating relationships on college campuses are prevalent and that the situation on Tulane's campus is no different.
Although some of the people who are involved in abusive relationships are talking about their experiences, we need to encourage those who have not spoken to speak and to begin to take responsibility for creating healthier relationships with current or future partners. Of the respondents who have experienced abuse, 18% of the women and 32% of the men indicate that they have not spoken to anyone about their experiences. How can we as individuals promote talk about abuse, and how does one most helpfully respond to talk of abusive experiences?
If someone tells you of an experience with dating abuse, the most important idea to keep in mind is that your response really does matter if the goal is to encourage talk about abuse. Respectful and engaged response to the speaker's discussion of an abusive experience can be very important in helping her or him deal with the reality of the abuse and deciding how to handle the situation. As one of the study participants pointed out in our interview, she did not initially discuss with others her experience of being abused because she was in denial about the whole situation. It is also very important to directly communicate support to victims of abuse. The only interviewee to speak about other people's negative responses to her experiences identified a lack of response as the most hurtful one.
If you suspect someone is involved in an abusive relationship, keep in mind that we each can serve as a catalyst in generating talk about abuse. First, establish a line of communication. Reaching out to someone may be a necessary first step in promoting talk about abuse because research (Walker, 1979; Bowker, 1986) has shown that involvement in abusive relationships tends to socially and emotionally isolate the abused. Second, you need to reassure whomever you are addressing that it is acceptable not to be "fine" or "okay." Letting someone know that you are genuinely interested in her/his well-being may prompt her/him to speak about what is going on. Third, the most significant result of the interviews shows that sharing experiences of abuse with others opens up a discussion of abuse. In several of the interviews, the interviewees remarked how someone else's story prompted them to tell theirs. These three steps encouraged the interviewees in this study to speak about their experiences with others, and I believe that they will promote talk about abuse among others who follow the guidelines as well.
Bowker, Lee (1986). Ending the Violence. Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publications.
Lane, Katherine E. and Patricia A. Gwartney-Gibbs. (1985). "Violence in the Context of Dating and Sex." Journal of Family Issues. 6: 45-59.
Raymond, Beth and Irene Gillman Bruschi. (1989). "Psychological Abuse Among College Women in Dating Relationships." Perceptual and Motor Skills. 69: 1283-1297.
Walker, L. (1979). The Battered Woman. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Te-yu Ruth Chang N ''96 is currently working towards a Master's in Public Health in the Health Behavior/Health Education Program at the University of Michigan. She plans to continue her study on violence against women and to learn to develop intervention programs from a public health perspective. Her honors thesis project was supported in part by a Vera M. Pinski Memorial Research Grant awarded annually through the Center for Research on Women.
For more information, check out the SafetyNet Domestic Violence Resource pages on the World Wide Web: http://www.cybergrrl.com/dv.html.
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