Abuse in teenage relationships 'more prevalent' than thought

Published Thursday, 15 September 2011
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Young people from poorer backgrounds twice as likely to be abused by violent partners as better-off peers, study finds

Violence in teenage relationships is much more prevalent than previously thought, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds twice as likely to be abused by violent partners, according to a study.

The research carried out by Bristol University, in conjunction with the NSPCC, found those from poorer backgrounds are twice as likely to be abused as their better-off counterparts. And it is a problem that affects both young girls and boys.

Interviews with 44 boys and 38 girls aged 13-18, who were not in mainstream education, found physical, emotional and sexual abuse was commonplace.

More than half the girls said they had been in a sexually violent relationship before they were 18 and half had experienced physical violence. One in four boys said they had been in relationships with physically aggressive partners.

The report, Standing On My Own Two Feet, contacted the young people through a range of agencies across south-west England.

Emma, who was interviewed for the study, told researchers how she had been forced into having sex "quite a few times" when she was 13.

"I've never shouted rape or anything. I've never been able to say that I've been raped but it's not like I've given consent. In certain situations it has been pushed on me and it has been really horrible."

Another young woman, Brenda, who was involved in a violent relationship from the age of 16-18 but was not part of the study, says the experience changed her view of what was normal.

"It was my first proper relationship," she said. "I didn't have a template for what was normal. He started taking control of what I did when I wasn't with him and how I spent my money.

"He made excuses about my friends and made me feel bad if I wanted to spend time with them and said I loved them more than me, so I became isolated. He told me I was fat and worthless and he slapped me. I was raped a couple of times.

"The worst thing was having so little worth that I wouldn't find the strength to leave. At least I didn't live with him, so it made it easier when I did go."

Brenda is not particularly close to her parents and says they did not offer to intervene at the time. "In hindsight, if they had tried to help I probably wouldn't have listened," she added. Three years on, she is engaged to a partner who treats her with respect and is very different to her former boyfriend.

"The main difference is I can say what I think to him – even if he doesn't agree with it – without worrying that something bad is going to happen. My idea of what is normal has changed so drastically. When you are with someone abusive it is like they rewrite normality."

While half of all those taking part in the research had been assigned a social worker, most did not reveal their partner's violence. Many said welfare professionals were not interested in this aspect of their lives.

The study follows on from a survey in 2009 – also by Bristol University on behalf of the NSPCC – of 1,400 girls aged 13-17, who were not considered to be from vulnerable backgrounds.

It found a third suffered sexual abuse in a relationship and a quarter experienced violence at the hands of their boyfriends.

The publication of the report comes as the government launches the second phase of its advertising campaign to challenge teenagers' attitudes to violence and abuse in relationships.

On Wednesday, experts said that although the study does not claim to be representative of the UK population, it suggests levels of violence in teenage relationships may be much higher than previously assumed.

Home office minister Lynne Featherstone welcomed the report, and said £28m of central funding had been ringfenced for local domestic violence services.

But the NSPCC's chief executive Andrew Flanagan called for more services to help young people suffering violence at the hands of their partners.

In the young girls, the violence "could be being punched in the face, black eyes, broken teeth, pushed down stairs or dragged by their hair", he said.

"In the male children we did not find those levels, but still over 25% of boys suffered some form of physical violence."

He said it suggested that sexual violence for young people was now more likely to be perpetrated by a partner or peer than a parent or a relative.

"We have to recognise that campaigning, while it is very good, is not enough in itself. We need extra services," he said.

Flanagan wants to see specific programmes around partner violence and control in relationships.

He added: "We have to recognise that domestic abuse starts very early. It's not when people become adults, it's what they see and learn in their early years. We need to address this issue now."

Professor David Berridge from Bristol University, who was one of the report authors, said many teenagers who took part in the study accepted violence as "normal", and many blamed themselves.

He said many also suffered from "emotional violence" – being controlled or intimidated by their partner.

The study found many young women opted to stay with violent partners rather than risk the stigma of being a single mother.

Berridge said: "We would want teenage partner violence to be seen almost not dissimilar to adult domestic violence. It's not a million miles away from it."

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2011
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