The most remarkable news report appeared on Salon and a few other outlets this week. Reporting research by the school of public health at Columbia University, published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, the coverage recounted findings that were so shocking as to take the breath away.
Dr David Bell and colleagues had conducted qualitative research interviews into teenage boys aged 14-16 and found that… brace yourself… they’re actually kinda sweet. The sample of 33 boys came from an economically deprived, primarily African-American community, where there were known to be high STI transmission rates (in other words, this was a group of boys who would traditionally be expected to have some of the most problematic attitudes from a public health perspective). Among the findings were that the boys described a high degree of ‘relationally-oriented beliefs and behaviours’ such as a desire for intimacy and trust in relationships, as against pursuing sex as an end in itself or a status symbol. There was little in the way of sexual objectification, homophobia was rare.
Both sexually inexperienced and sexually experienced participants sought meaningful relationships with nice-looking romantic partners with “good personalities,” a sense of humour, and future goals. Respect was an important characteristic. They reported that in their experience it had usually been the girls, not themselves, who had initiated both romantic and sexual engagements. They described their own vulnerability – emotionally and with regard to their sexual inexperience.
Now of course we should be cautious of reading too much into one study. There may have been something about how these interviews were conducted, or how the interviewees were recruited, which produced these results. But I spent many years doing community media work with inner city young people, including some quite troubled and difficult teenagers who had been excluded from school or who were involved in the youth justice system. I also have many friends with teenage boys and know them and their pals, and this research rings a lot more true to me than most of the coverage we see of young people and their relationships.
Case in point. Last week shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper announced plans for a Violence Against Women Act if Labour wins the next election. (Just for the record, other than a few quibbles I don’t disagree with most of her proposals, but that’s for another day.)
In making her announcement, she wrote a long piece for the Independent with the provocative title “We must educate our sons to save our daughters” which set out her views on young people and abusive relationships. Amid several bold claims, Cooper stated that: “According to the Children’s Commissioner there is clear evidence that violence in young relationships is growing.”
I raised every available eyebrow at this. I follow the work of the Children’s Commissioner pretty closely. Over recent years her office has commissioned and published several reports: into young people and sexual consent; on gang-associated sexual exploitation and sexual violence; and into the extent of, and possible harm caused by, the widespread availability of pornography. Not a single one of these reports even attempted to map trends in relationship violence.
I contacted the office of the Children’s Commissioner and a spokesperson confirmed that these reports did not specifically look at whether young people are more violent now than in the past. When I asked if this meant that Cooper was wrong in attributing the claim about relationship violence “growing” to the Commissioner, she replied with a slightly dissembling “As you will have noted from our first statement to you, Yvette Cooper’s comment is a possible conclusion, although we did not feel able to make a similar statement given the other interpretations that would be equally valid.”
I take that to be a very diplomatic version of “Yes.”
Before I proceed let me stress that violence and abuse in young relationships really are a significant and serious problem. Young people are at the greatest risk of all types of violence, including partner abuse. You are more likely to be assaulted by a partner or sexually assaulted between the ages of 16 and 24 than all the rest of your adult life put together. When you shine a light into the darkest corners, into the experiences of vulnerable children in care or in gang-culture, you will reveal horrific instances of abuse and appalling risks of exploitation and harm.
However – and this is the key point – it was ever thus. Is there any actual evidence to tell us whether things are getting worse or better?
Actually yes, there is. It is not perfect or conclusive by any means, but the British Crime Survey (now the Crime Survey for England and Wales) collects detailed data on intimate partner violence, including breakdowns for age groups all the way down to 16-19 year-olds. This doesn’t help us with younger children, of course, nor can we assume that all 16-19 year olds have partners of the same age, but as a rough yardstick measure, it is as good a metric as there is available.
The data, unfortunately, is scattered through the chaotic shambles of the government data archives, and to my knowledge no one has previously assembled this data into one table or graph. You’ll notice some years are missing. I have, however, done my best to include every figure I could find for the three categories of crime most associated with relationship abuse: partner assault (non-sexual); sexual assault; and stalking. The results are here. [click to enlarge]
Notwithstanding gaps in the data, it is very difficult to make the case from here that young people’s relationships are becoming more violent. On a crude point to point comparison, between 2004 and 2011, young women aged 16-19 became about a third less likely to be subject to partner violence; about a third less likely to be subject to sexual assault, and about two thirds less likely to be stalked.
(If you are wondering, the trends are very similar for male victims, and for male and female victims aged 20-24. I don’t want to blind you with data.)
That’s not all. Those familiar with domestic violence trends might be aware that the big fall in prevalence of domestic abuse really happened earlier – beginning around 1995. Data from that time are even harder to track down and methods of defining and classifying have changed significantly, so direct comparisons are impossible. This analysis of the 1996 BCS classifies ‘domestic abuse’ approximately in the way we now classify ‘severe violence’ (hit, kicked, use of weapon or similar.) By current data, this accounts for less than 30% of all domestic abuse. Even using that older, strict definition, in 1996 10.1% of 16-19 year-old girls said they had been victims of partner violence. As a very rough sketch, that would suggest that a young woman’s risk of experiencing severe violence from a partner might have dropped by about 70% since 1996.
None of this should come as a surprise, although I do not doubt it will to many. It is entirely in keeping with a raft of other evidence that shows young people are vastly less violent than they were a few years ago. They commit fewer crimes and get arrested less often. They drink less and take fewer drugs. All of this is well-documented with reliable data for anyone who actually takes the trouble to find out.
Against this evidence, claims by Yvette Cooper, much like Diane Abbott’s characterisation of a porn-crazed, ‘Jack Daniels and Viagra’ generation, is tantamount to blunt defamation of a whole generation of young men. What’s worse, considering most of this is coming from the nominal left, is that the negative stereotyping and unjustified damage to reputations this causes will not be spread evenly through the population. The general assumption will never be that these teenage girl-beaters, abusers and rapists are the public school-educated, middle class sons of politicians and journalists – the fear and suspicion will land disproportionately instead upon the working class boys, the black and minority ethnic boys, precisely those who are already struggling hardest against stigma and stereotyping and who are already falling furthest behind in social, educational and economic attainment. As the research from Columbia suggests, this may well be an almighty calumny.
It is time to stop defaming our boys.