- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Seventeen-year-old Liz says she doesn't remember exactly why she and her former boyfriend, Chuck, had their first brawl. She does remember that she was about 15, and he was 18.

"He thought I had cheated on him," she says from an office at Fauquier County's Southeastern Alternative School, where she is a student. "He always needed to know what I was doing and who I was with. You could tell he didn't care about me, but he didn't want anyone else to be with me."

Liz, who doesn't want her last name used, says the abuse steadily grew more frequent, more violent.

"I would come to school with black eyes and split lips," she says. "I have scars. And even though I knew it was wrong, I still let it happen."

She says she doesn't know why the relationship took such a bad turn. It certainly didn't start out that way.

"No girl comes home from a first date with a broken arm," says Jill Murray, an author and psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in dating violence. "An abusive relationship starts off sweet and romantic, the girl thinks, just like any other."

A boy might say "I love you" right off the bat, a move that is "a giant hook in the mouth to a teen-age girl," Ms. Murray says. "He'll say, 'I'll kill any guy that looks at you.' She thinks that is just fabulous. He starts taking her to the mall, buying her clothes. He's interested in her hair and makeup. 'Wow, a guy who shops,' she thinks."

Those behaviors actually are controlling, possessive and jealous, says Ms. Murray, author of "But I Love Him: Protecting Your Teen Daughter From Controlling, Abusive Dating Relationships." They form the backbone of dangerous and demoralizing dating liaisons playing out in schools across the country.

Teen-agers, the majority of them girls, are getting mired in a cycle of disrespect and abuse known collectively as dating violence. At its roots, say therapists, educators and law-enforcement personnel, are the omnipresent peer pressure, the inexperience of youth, the bombardment of coarse media messages and an endemic lack of respect for people and property.

A dirty little secret

Dating violence is the perpetration or threat of an act of violence within the context of dating or courtship. It encompasses "any form of sexual assault, physical violence, and verbal or emotional abuse," according to a joint National Institutes of Justice/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study called "Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women," released in November.

Examples of verbal or emotional abuse range widely, Ms. Murray explains from her office in Laguna Niguel, Calif. They usually include behaviors such as name-calling and insults, monopolizing a partner's time, using a pager or cellular telephone as a form of control, making threats, humiliating and interrogating the other person.

Researchers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in May 2000 that data from a 1993-98 study of 1,000 subjects ages 16 to 19 show a non-lethal intimate-abuse rate of 17.4 percent for females and 1.7 percent for males. However, the researchers also reported that the number of female victims of intimate violence declined from 1993 to 1998. In 1998, they said, women experienced about 900,000 violent offenses at the hands of an intimate, down from 1.1 million in 1993.

Statistics don't impress Ms. Murray. "If anything, [dating violence is] underreported," she says.

Within the first three days after her 1999 appearance on Oprah Winfrey's television show to discuss dating violence, she received more than 2,000 telephone calls and 800 pieces of mail, Ms. Murray says.

"It's happening everywhere," she says. "I get calls from North Dakota and from Amish country."

It also happens in Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the United States.

"We get quite a few calls from young people who are experiencing if not physical, then at least emotional, problems in a dating relationship," says Anne Van Ryzin, coordinator of the Fairfax Victim Assistance Network, a program of the Fairfax County Community Services Board.

Ms. Van Ryzin says she doesn't believe date violence is increasing: "I think it's been there all along, and parents need to attend to it."

Marie Michaud, a counselor with the violence-prevention program for Arlington County Child and Family Services, agrees.

"It's pervasive," she says, "and people tend to think of dating violence as happening in certain economic groups, but different kids experience it, because it's about power and control."

Ms. Michaud relates one incidence of violence that occurred last year in Arlington.

"Someone made a joke about a guy's girlfriend … so the guy went to his girlfriend's house, beat her up and raped her," she says. Both were 17 years old.

Pressures of society

Each year, Ms. Murray speaks to thousands of high school students on an average of 25 campuses public, private and parochial. What she sees dismays her, she says.

"You can't walk onto any high school campus that I've been on so far without hearing [profanity] thrown around as if it were 'sweetheart.' You can't not see boys pushing girls around, gripping girls by the shoulder or girls being really inappropriate with boys sexually."

Profanity seems to be a favorite form of expression of the rapper Eminem, occurring repeatedly in his lyrics. The star's newest offering, "The Marshall Mathers LP," contains the following words: "Don't you get it …, no one can hear you? Now shut the … up and get what's comin' to you." The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards Grammys to top recordings, has nominated "The Marshall Mathers LP" for album of the year.

Even if teen-agers were able to dodge the media blitzkrieg of mixed messages, peer pressure seems nearly impenetrable.

"Guys can not have a girlfriend and no one thinks anything about it," Ms. Murray says, "but girls will not be in with the in crowd."

These days, she says, intense dating relationships frequently begin at age 12 or 13.

"It starts off really early that girls have to have a boyfriend to achieve status, and she'd better hang on to him," Ms. Murray says.

Keeping a boyfriend can become a full-time job to many girls, taking precedence over schoolwork, friends, family and self-esteem.

Modeling behavior

Ms. Murray says there is a clear path to most abusive relationships.

"If the girl is in a home where she or other people, like the mom, are emotionally or physically demeaned, that is what she learns," she says. "Has she witnessed a man calling people names? Are men considered superior to women? In some households, Dad storms out and slams the door, and everybody becomes a mess."

She continues: "Does the daughter frequently see her mom crying over a difficulty with a man? The moms give daughters certain messages: It's her job to fix whatever is wrong in a relationship. Forgive and forget. Take care of his every need. Treat men like children. Laugh at all his jokes."

Southeastern Alternative School student Liz says her childhood was filled with difficult events linked to her mother's dependence on men as well as her inability to control her anger.

"My mom and dad broke up because they used to beat each other up," she says. "And there were so many boyfriends … she was always chasing after guys, and they'd always fight."

Liz adds: "I'm worried that I'll turn out like my mom."

Girls aren't the only ones who learn by example, says psychologist Aaron Kipnis, author of "Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers and Counselors Can Help 'Bad Boys' Become Good Men."

"If a boy sees behaviors of dominance and control, that's how he's going to learn to relate," Mr. Kipnis says.

Blowing the whistle

Thomas Harrington is an officer with the Fairfax County Police Department. He serves as a school resource officer for the 1,200 students at John Marshall High School near Falls Church and is on campus every school day.

"Do I think dating abuse is running rampant? No. Is it out there? Yes. And if one student comes to me and tells me he or she was abused on a date, that is one too many," he says.

One of the responsibilities of the school resource officer is to set parameters for appropriate behavior.

"For example, we stress that any kind of comment about a kid's physical attributes or religion is unacceptable," Mr. Harrington says.

"If I were to say which is more prevalent, I would say it's verbal abuse as opposed to physical … [vulgarity] is their terminology," he says.

Once people cross the line from verbal to physical abuse, they come within reach of the long arm of the law. Teens caught in bad relationships can be protected in several ways, says Jerry Rich, domestic-violence coordinator and assistant director for domestic relations for Fairfax County Juvenile Court.

One option for a victim is to file charges of assault and battery against a perpetrator, which could result in fines or time behind bars for the offender. Some sentences may stipulate that an offender refrain from any contact with his or her victim.

Victims also may be shielded by a protective order against stalking.

"Say she breaks it off, but he keeps showing up, and his behavior causes her concern for her safety. That is stalking behavior," Mr. Rich explains. "If a guy is following you around and you're fearful of him, you need to tell the police."

From the word 'go'

Family therapists say parents must begin early to teach their children basic negotiation skills and strategies for resolving conflict with others.

"If parents focus on promoting positive, proactive skills for working out differences with others, they will have established a formidable defense against future relationships fraught with emotional abuse and violence," says Mark Melton, a licensed social worker in private practice in Falls Church.

"Instead of working harder to contain and channel emotional reactivity, we tend toward trying to evaluate it, which doesn't help kids to handle it," says Mr. Melton, who also is an assistant principal at Southeastern Alternative School.

He counsels that parents need to impose themselves on the lives of their children especially during adolescence "not to be ogreish, but to stay involved, to demonstrate that you care."

Once children reach dating age, Mr. Kipnis says, parents best can protect their daughters from abuse by ensuring that a male presence "communicates to boys that a girl is under the care of an adult male to whom the boy will be held accountable if he acts badly."

He stresses, and Mr. Melton concurs, that parents must do everything they can to get to know the boy their daughter is dating.

"That means inviting him to go to movies, sporting events in other words, being in a web of kinship so the boy … knows the girl is not going off with some stranger to do who knows what," Mr. Kipnis says.

To ensure that boys stay on the straight and narrow, Mr. Kipnis says, show them unions in which "fathers and mothers are modeling a relationship that is free from abuse. Learn about the influence of your son's peers and their values. If parents don't approve of their son's actions, they should learn how to offer support and guidance in productive and respectful ways to help him get his needs for intimacy met that do not invoke coercion and intimidation."


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