- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sixth graders with boyfriends or girlfriends. Middle schoolers going on dates.

Not uncommon, says a new national survey released today.

Roughly half of 1,043 “tweens,” aged 11 to 14, who participated in the study are now or have been in dating relationships, says the Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) and Liz Claiborne Inc.

Perhaps more surprisingly, almost 30 percent of these young teens think oral sex and sexual intercourse are expected in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. And hundreds of tweens report that their dating partners have harassed them, bossed them around or tried to monopolize their time.

A few even report physical abuse, such as hitting, slapping or kicking, or being pressured into having oral sex or intercourse.

“We’re talking about a whole new cycle of abuse,” said Sheryl Cates, chief executive of the NDVH. This new generation needs more education and services about healthy relationships, she said.

Relationships can turn sour quickly, said a 13-year-old California girl identified only as Kylie.

“This past summer I started going out with a boy from school, who was my age. We dated for a few months but when it ended, he became verbally abusive,” Kylie said through a spokeswoman.

“At first he’d call me names and tell me to shut up in a joking way. I didn’t realize how bad the abuse was until we broke up. He would send me horrible text messages and even used MySpace to humiliate me.”

After Kylie told her parents, they helped her end the relationship and brought her to a mental health professional for counseling.

“I’m glad I got out of that relationship before it got too serious,” Kylie said. “I now know that [a] boyfriend should never call me names or disrespect me, even if it is a joking way. It’s not right.”

The new survey was inspired by discussions with teens who contacted the NDVH’s National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline and www.loveisrespect.org.

The teens’ phone calls and chats showed that dating, sex and abuse were occurring far earlier than high school years, said Ms. Cates.

Conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, the survey found that 47 percent of 1,043 tweens are in or have been a dating relationship.

The vast majority think having a boyfriend or girlfriend means saying “I like you” to each other, talking regularly and holding hands. But 27 percent think the relationship includes oral sex and 28 percent think it means “going all the way.”

Many young-love relationships turn sour, the tweens said, with 62 percent reporting that they know same-age friends who have been called names like stupid, worthless or ugly by their partners. More than a third of tweens said they know friends who have been pressured by a dating partner to “do things they didn’t want to do.”

Survey data showed that out of 505 tweens with dating experiences, hundreds reported “controlling” abuse, such as trying to “tell you what to do a lot,” and wanting to know “where you were all the time” or “who you were with all the time.”

Far fewer — 21 tweens — reported being slapped or hit, and 42 said they had personally gone “further than kissing and making out.”

Still, there’s evidence that engaging in sexual activity before age 14 heightens the risk for dating violence abuse later in adolescence, said Ms. Cates, who urged parents, teachers and teens to look at a free curriculum on dating violence at www.loveisrespect.org.

In Rhode Island, lawmakers took a big step to combat the problem last year when they passed a law requiring all schools to develop anti-dating violence policies and include the issue in health classes, starting in the seventh grade.

The Lindsay Ann Burke Act is named for a 23-year-old woman who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Miss Burke’s parents, Ann and Christopher Burke, worked to pass the law so other families could avoid similar tragedies. The Burkes, who created a memorial to their daughter at www.labmf.org, now give workshops on dating violence.

“As a mom, I tell other moms to educate yourself,” said Mrs. Burke. “Be absolutely sure you talk to your children from a young age about what a healthy relationship is and what an unhealthy relationship is. And not assume that they know that.”

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