February is Teen Dating Violence Prevention Month, and with the marketing for this awareness campaign, we often hear about girls and women as the victims of violence. However, it’s also important to remember that the number of young women AND men exposed to childhood maltreatment, interpersonal violence, and family violence in the United States is staggering—and we only see the tip of the iceberg. The significant and long-lasting impact on young people’s sexual, reproductive, and parenting behaviors, for BOTH women and men, is irrefutable.
As many as two thirds of young women who become pregnant as adolescents are sexually and/or physically abused at some point in their lives—either as children, in their current relationships, or both, according to several studies. A substantial number of adolescent mothers are in violence, abusive, or coercive relationships just before, during, and/or after their pregnancy.
Some young women become pregnant directly because of interpersonal violence, through incest, sexual abuse, or through violence that includes contraceptive sabotage. Others become pregnant indirectly through circumstances or conditions associated with prior sexual or physical abuse. For example, abused children may remain in an unsafe living situation where they are likely to be exposed to additional sexual advances. They may experience emotional or psychological damage that makes them especially vulnerable to coercive or violent partners when they leave home. As adolescents, they may be depressed and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, putting them at higher risk of early pregnancy, compared to adolescents not abused as children.
Similarly, men have reported their experiences of maltreatment before the age of 18 at alarming rates. A troubling aspect of the male experience of child maltreatment and family violence is that male survivors tend to report their victimization less frequently than females. Male survivors may interpret their experiences of maltreatment as a failure to protect themselves and reporting it as a public admission of this failure. As well, in many places in the world, such victimization holds the social stigma of being associated with homosexual behavior.
“Boys will be boys”—it is a common refrain, one often heard when boys engage in aggressive play, resort to violence to settle conflicts, use drugs or alcohol, or display sexually aggressive or inappropriate behavior. For some young boys, these negative and risky behaviors develop into bigger problems in adolescence and adulthood. While we may hypothesize many reasons for boys’ behavior, one that is often not given enough consideration is the effect of exposure to child maltreatment and family violence. Exposure to child maltreatment and family violence is linked with certain behavioral outcomes in males, including higher rates of adverse and/or health compromising sexual behaviors among adolescent and adult males, such as sexual violence perpetration, having multiple partners, condom non-use, contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) including HIV/AIDS, involvement in a teen pregnancy, and abusive parenting behaviors.
It is time to expand our thinking with regard to males and violence, to let go of outdated and harmful stereotypes and misperceptions about masculinity and male gender identity and to begin to work toward a society that recognizes young men’s real potential as agents of sexual, reproductive, and public health.
Healthy Teen Network developed three publications addressing the issue of childhood maltreatment, interpersonal, and family violence among young men and women:
- Interpersonal Violence and Adolescent Pregnancy: Prevalence and Implications for Practice and Policy
- Boys Will Be Boys: Understanding the Impact of Child Maltreatment and Family Violence on the Sexual, Reproductive, and Parenting Behaviors of Young Men
- Widening Our Lens: A Comprehensive Strategy to Address the Impact of Child Maltreatment, Interpersonal, and Family Violence on Youth
To move forward, we must address the components laid out in the first two research reports, and in the comprehensive strategy, Widening Our Lens, in order to:
- Reframe the issue of violence against young men and women using a public health approach;
- Reduce the adverse impact of exposure to child maltreatment, interpersonal and family violence on the sexual, reproductive, and parenting behaviors of young men and women; and
- Ultimately, help ensure the development of healthy relationships among all youth.
There is much to be done to change the way society views and deals with young survivors of violence. Professionals and volunteers in the field must be sensitive to this change in thinking about child maltreatment, interpersonal, and family violence as they diagnose, treat, and manage the consequences of such violence among youth. It is only with such a comprehensive public health approach that we can begin to break the cycle of child maltreatment, interpersonal, and family violence and the damage to society that accompanies these tragedies.
Let us heed this call to action and strive to ensure that every young person has the opportunity to feel accepted and supported, to reach his or her potential, and to live a full, healthy, and rewarding life—for we are all affected.
How do you work to reduce the adverse effects of exposure to violence on the sexual, reproductive, and parenting behaviors of young men and women, to help ensure the development of healthy relationships among all youth?
Gina Desiderio is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Healthy Teen Network.