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The Evolution of Teen Dating Violence Research: Understanding the Complexity of Gender Roles
February 29, 2016

Moderator Note: February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Research in Action is proud to present a two-part blog post from Violence Prevention Initiative Fellow Christine Forke Young on this important youth violence prevention topic. The first blog discussed how teen dating violence research, advocacy and policy have interacted to promote change.

In recent years, Teen Dating Violence (TDV) research has expanded and diversified, particularly around gender differences. Partner violence first gained recognition as a women’s issue, and many of our resources and messages were developed to address the impact on women – because young women aged 16-24 years consistently have the highest rates of victimization.

As research has progressed, our ability to compare victimization and perpetration rates across genders for various forms of violence has been enhanced. While it is now clear that TDV is common among female and male adolescents, intricacies around male and female involvement with TDV continue to be studied.

Progression of Research

At the outset of this work, males and females were often studied separately, where female-focused studies explored victimization and male-focused studies examined perpetration. This made it difficult to conduct gender comparisons. 

When males and females were studied together, it often was to explore the dynamics within relationships where “traditional dating violence roles” of male perpetration and female victimization existed. It was rare to find studies exploring male victims or female perpetrators.  

During the past decade or so, the scientific community has made significant progress.  Now, it is common for investigators to explore both victimization and perpetration of various forms of violence simultaneously for men and women within the same study sample.  As a result, gender comparisons are possible, and there are now a host of studies demonstrating male victimization and female perpetration among adolescents.

In a prior study, my colleagues and I surveyed male and female undergraduates enrolled at three Philadelphia-area colleges. Among these students:

  • 53% of females previously experienced victimization, compared to 27% of males
  • 19% of females previously experienced perpetration, compared to 14% of males

Although rates vary depending on the timeframe measured, gender differences are consistent in the types of victimization and perpetration experienced. Females typically report higher rates of sexual victimization than males, but similar rates of physical and emotional victimization. Males often report higher rates of sexual perpetration than females, whereas females report higher rates of physical and emotional perpetration. In addition, it is common for perpetration to be mutually-occurring in adolescent relationships.   

Challenges to Studying Gender Differences in TDV

Although adolescent males and females perpetrate physical violence at similar rates, some studies have found that female victims have a higher level of fearfulness. Other studies find that females may have higher severity of injury, presumably related to physical differences in size and strength. Some studies find that males and females report “perpetrating” in self-defense. Interestingly, it is easy to identify studies with contrasting findings. One of the classic issues with comparing results across studies in this field has been that each explores different timeframes, uses different definitions, or measures different types of violence. 

Another challenge is that much of the progress on TDV has grown out of the work on adult intimate partner violence (IPV). However, there are contextual factors that are unique to adolescent relationships that are complex and not yet fully understood, but that can affect our interpretation of the findings:

  • Teenagers are still developing decision-making, negotiation and communication skills – all which play a key role in handling conflict in relationships. Teens’ inability to relay feelings and emotions can lead to frustration that surfaces as aggressive behavior. 
  • Adult IPV and TDV occur in different settings. Adult IPV often happens behind closed doors. In contrast, likely due to the importance of peer pressure during adolescence, some studies have found that TDV, particularly mutually perpetrated TDV, may occur openly in social settings as a way to “save face” or show dominance. 

To assist with identifying some of these underlying nuances that differ between IPV and TDV, using qualitative or mixed-methods approaches has become increasingly more common. 

Moving Forward

A current movement is underway to better understand how measurement techniques impact reported rates of TDV. As our thinking about contextual factors and methodological approaches to TDV continue to evolve, it is only a matter of time until we begin to gain more clarity. Just as our thinking has moved away from stereotypical analyses of female victims and male perpetrators, our future path should be equally open-minded as we design our studies in order to disentangle the intricacies connecting gender and TDV in a meaningful way. 

For information on how to prevent Teen Dating Violence, click here.