Content Note: this piece includes discussions of intimate partner violence among teens, as well as descriptions of personal experiences with intimate partner violence, which may be troubling for those who have survived similar experiences. If you are currently experiencing intimate partner violence—first and foremost, know that you are not alone, I believe you, and you do not deserve it—I will be including resources at the end.
I was thirteen when I first experienced intimate partner violence. We were between class periods and our block was heading to the gym for PE. I dropped something as we were walking and stopped to pick it up while my boyfriend was kind of swept away by the pressing mass of adolescents excited to get out of the building and into the Florida sunshine. Having retrieved whatever it was that had slipped from my grasp, I looked up to find my boyfriend several yards ahead of me; I weaved through the crowd in an attempt to catch up and, finally, when he was within arm’s reach, I grabbed the loop on his backpack and gently tugged. It was just a small gesture to try to get his attention and get him to slow down a little. Or, at least, that’s what it was to me. To him, apparently, it something altogether different, something that completely set him off. Before I knew it, I was being flung into the lockers as my boyfriend, red-faced and raging, screamed at me. I remember the way his bowl-cut blonde hair swung around his face as he whipped around to face me. I remember the sharp jab of a padlock in my back while bits of spittle flew from his mouth as he screamed. I also remember the sheer, indignant, righteous rage as I fought back: I grabbed his arm, pinned it behind his back, and told him that, if he ever touched me again, I would get the school and his parents involved. He listened.
My experience is far from rare. According to the youth.gov webpage on teen dating violence, “Studies show that approximately 10% of adolescents report being the victim of physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner during the previous year.” That number is likely quite low as intimate partner violence, in any age range, is underreported and teens—particularly those whose gender and/or sexual identities, race, and socioeconomic statuses are marginalized—often don’t feel equipped to disclose their experiences or to deal with instances of dating violence they’ve witnessed. Other data seems to corroborate this, indicating that 1 in 3 teenagers experience dating violence and only 33% of those teenagers ever tell anyone about the abuse.
As I went on through my teenage years, I found myself in other abusive relationships, though I would not have categorized them as such at the time. My first experience having been a violent one, it was easy to write off subsequent experiences that “merely” involved verbal abuse, psychological abuse, and coercion, particularly in a school culture that largely looks the other way where many of these behaviors are concerned. It became normalized. I didn’t see it as abuse. I stopped fighting back and started expecting it. I started justifying it. My inner monologue took my partners’ sides: “he calls me a sl*t when I talk to my guy friend but I can be unintentionally flirty, so I probably deserve that,” “it has only been one month, maybe I am a wh*re for wanting him to kiss me this soon,” “he gets so jealous; I need to be careful about what I wear.” This wore down my boundaries such that, when I found myself coerced into the back of a van on my sixteenth birthday, being felt up by a boyfriend who I really didn’t want to be with, I just took it… because that’s what relationships are supposed to be like, right? It is only in hindsight—and with the benefit of therapy—that I am able to point to those experiences as abuse.
That is exactly why Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month is so important. Break the Cycle, founded in 1996, is an organization whose mission is to empower teenagers and young adults experiencing dating violence and to help create a culture free of abuse. A significant part of empowering teenagers is education—you don’t know something is a problem until you know it is a problem—and Break the Cycle offers resources and programming that can help teenagers identify red flags, understand their legal rights, learn how to support friends who have experienced or are experiencing dating violence, and create spaces to talk about relationships. While all of these resources are invaluable, I have to say, as someone who experiences the “mom friend override,” I would have loved having additional resources to help my friends who were experiencing violence in their relationships. I’m not unaware of the irony of someone in an abusive relationship putting their emotional energy into helping friends who are also in abusive relationships—but it is, in fact, a thing.
This year is the tenth anniversary of Congress’ declaration of Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month and Break the Cycle is organizing their observances around the theme “Outrage into Action.” Rallying around the idea that ten years of awareness is enough and now it is time for real change, Break the Cycle has a toolkit for teen organizers listing specific actions to take, including evaluating school policies with regard to dating violence, abuse, stalking, and harassment. Such evaluations are critical and, in an alarming number of schools, grossly overdue. Changing the cultural climate and updating school policies aren’t only a matter of making dating and relationships safer—a salient and necessary goal unto itself—but also gravely important in light of the increasingly apparent link between teen dating violence and school shootings which echoes the link between intimate partner violence and mass shootings more broadly.
It is time to change things. It’s been time to change things. My heart breaks at how many other people have experienced what I have. I hate how it’s gone overlooked and unchallenged for so long. Everyone has the right to feel safe, respected, and loved in their relationships. While I know that this is not an issue that can be fixed overnight, we can—each of us—start right now. And it starts with three words: I believe you.
RapidSOS Haven App:
https://www.breakthecycle.org/rapidsos-haven-app – get a free two-year subscription through RapidSOS’s partnership with Break the Cycle
National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline:
Website with live chat: www.loveisrespect.org
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Phone: 800‐799‐SAFE (7233)
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
Phone: 800‐656‐HOPE (4673)
Website with live chat: www.rainn.org
That’s Not Cool: www.thatsnotcool.com
Break the Cycle: www.breakthecycle.org
National Center for Victims of Crime ‐ Dating Violence Resource Center: www.ncvc.org