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IN THE EARLY 1980s, as a prevention specialist in the movement to end violence against women and children, Barrie Levy spent a great deal of time in California classrooms defining rape, sexual abuse, and battering as crimes against women -as experiences that girls might encounter when they grew up. To her astonishment, Levy learned that many girls as young as twelve and thirteen were already encountering those crimes with their teenage boyfriends.
Yet two decades later, there is still some of the same lack of awareness in the general public. Reviewing twenty contemporaneous studies, Lynn Phillips, professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City, authored The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female. The findings show that violence against women is still considered an adult problem, although many young girls have been experiencing sexual violence, battering, and harassment earlier and earlier in teen relationships.
As psychologist Karen Harker of the Nebraska Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Coalitionpoints out: "Our society does not show healthy relationships. One in three adult relationships are violent. These are the models that the teenagers are viewing - as well as those in the media." How did American relationships become so violent?
Violence toward women dates back centuries. "Throughout Euro-American history, wife beating enjoyed legal status as an accepted institution in western society," writes psychotherapist Susan Weitzman in "Not to People Like Us": Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages.
When John Adams was attending the Continental Congress in 1776, his wife, Abigail, wrote to her husband, whom she addressed as "Dearest Friend," a letter that would become famous: "In the new code of laws, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more favorable than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands."
But John Adams and other well-meaning men were no more able to free the women than they were the slaves. When the founders of our country signed the Declaration of Independence, their own wives were still, in every legal sense, their property. Upon marriage, a woman forfeited the few rights she had, and her husband owned her just as he owned his horse.
Laws have changed since colonial times, but marriage has continued to trigger territorial notions, a sense of immediate ownership and entitlement. To some men, the marriage license is a "hitting license," in the words of Murray Strauss of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.
"Any sense of spousal abuse as a criminal and immoral act only came into awareness in the late-nineteenth century, spurred primarily by the advent of the women's movement," writes Dr. Weitzman. The first wave of the women's movement, however, was focused more on a woman's right to vote than on her right to live her life free from violence.
American culture continued to reinforce the notion of male authority; men were supposed to be dominating and controlling. Even in nonmarital relationships, men within Western culture were socialized to conceive of their partners as their property. A man's home was his castle, and he was master of his wife - or his "woman." It was only recently that the criminal justice system
stopped supporting that notion.
Why doesn't she just leave? was the question asked in the 1920s, when women did get the vote and the subject of battered wives arose once more. Back then, experts believed that a battered woman stayed in an abusive relationship because she didn't know any better; her intelligence was too low; she was always kept "barefoot and pregnant." And besides, she must be doing something to make him so upset.
At midcentury, psychologists theorized that women stayed with violent men because they were masochistic and enjoyed being beaten. In addition, the "makeup sex" afterward had to be great! The name that became famously associated with this type of neurotic, but earthy, female was "Stella-a-a-ah," brayed out every night as a mating call by the hunky abusive husband, Stanley Kowalski, in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.
The second wave of the feminist movement came in the early 1970s. This time, women identified domestic violence for what it was: a significant social and health problem in America and a crime that they had to fight -with education and lobbying. In the 1990s, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, and many states have gradually started enforcing strict legal sanctions against the perpetrators.
Swept away in the cultural backlash against feminism that gathered momentum in the 1980s was the ideal of the sensitive male, in touch with his feminine side, and the strong, independent woman dressed for success. These ideals were replaced by the ultramacho guy, "in touch with his inner swine," as one magazine editor put it, and the supersexy girly-girl in her tiny skirts and stiletto heels. These retro images have been revived and dressed up in new, evertighter clothing and are gaining wider and wider acceptance, with many teen girls and boys eager to try them on.
Barrie Levy finds that the teen gender roles are often defined in extreme and stereotypical ways, the male totally dominant, the woman unnaturally passive. "Young men and women - afraid of being labeled 'different' - may not have the flexibility to be themselves. For example, fearing the stigma of homosexuality, adolescents may behave in ways that seem exaggerated to prove their heterosexuality."
"The message to boys in high school is: 'You're so strong, she's hot.... Why haven't you had sex with her yet?'" says Emiliano de Leon, a children's advocate. "When boys are sexually active with their girlfriends ... they have more control and a sense of ownership."
"Not only are boys learning that they must be in control, but girls are learning that boys are supposed to be in control. So girls are looking for controlling boys," observes therapist Barri Rosenbluth. To add to the confusion, evolutionary biologists are popularizing the "scientific basis" for male aggression.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
During the past decade, teen dating abuse has become even more of an equal opportunity evil - almost. It cuts across race, class, age, ethnic roots, educational background, and income. The only area of discrimination is sex. Ninety-five percent of victims of violence are girls.
On August 1, 2001, the New York Times noted on its front page a report that 20 percent of high school girls have been physically or sexually assaulted by someone they were dating. This survey, cited as the "most comprehensive to examine dating violence among adolescents, ages 14 to 18," was done by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
What was completely left out of the "most comprehensive survey" was the most pervasive - and what some girls find the most devastating - aspect of violence: emotional abuse. Most experts define dating violence or battering as a "repeated pattern of actual or threatened acts that emotionally, verbally, physically, or sexually hurt another person."
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out, when threats and emotional or verbal aggression are included in the definition of dating abuse, the figures rise to 65 percent - a number confirmed by the most recent National Teen Relationship Violence Survey conducted by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For a majority of teens, abuse has become a "dating fact of life."
Other researchers working in the field of domestic violence estimate that one girl in three, of junior high, high school, and college age, has had a physically violent dating or relationship experience - being pushed, kicked, stalked, thrown from a car, or even choked - an experience she is less likely to reveal to her parents than sex.
It is difficult for many of us who have never experienced violence in our marriages or when we were dating to realize the power of today's "junk culture," as psychologist Mary Pipher calls it, a culture that stresses supermacho, aggressive role models for young men and weak, submissive ones for young women. In our postfeminist society, many of us, strong women ourselves, are often astonished to discover that once our accomplished daughters reach their teens, they can find their self-esteem only through the eyes of a boyfriend empowered to destroy it. And they never know it's happening until it's too late.
Excerpted from Saving Beauty from the Beast by Vicki Crompton and Ellen Zelda Kessner Copyright © 2003 by Vicki Crompton and Ellen Zelda Kessner
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted June 27, 2013
Posted May 13, 2003
This book is very true to life. I totally agree with it that our society has a major issue at hand and is being overlooked. I personaly coming from an abusive relationship, wish that my parents, friends and I had of read this book. It would of saved me from a lot of pain. It gives wonderful examples, rules, and stories to help anyone in these stuations. Dating is full of so many different challenges this is a big challenge that can be hopefully avoided with people reading this book and believing in it. I'm so sorry in some cases things have to end so tragic. I'm so thankful i have an awesome God and a family that finally stepped in and did save me from a tragic ending. The public NEEDS to educated about these relationships and this book is a great tool.
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Posted November 20, 2006
This book is one of the best books i have ever read . I have heard Mrs. Compton give her story to high school students at its amazing . i too was in a relationship just like her daughter was in but a got out in time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 4, 2011
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