Though they made for grim reading, I was not especially surprised to see press reports this week about the European Commission-funded research into relationship violence among 13 to 17-year-olds. It is well-established that teenagers and young people are, by some distance, at greatest risk. A study in 2009 found that one in three teenage girls had experienced sexual abuse by a boyfriend and one in four had suffered physical violence. So the latest headlines that four in ten English girls had been coerced into sexual activity are depressing but far from revelatory.
Nor was I particularly surprised by the gender-focus of the news coverage. It is a plain fact that a lot of research into partner violence is under the auspices of a ‘violence against women and girls’ agenda. The only reference to boys in the Guardian’s report, to take only one example out of many, was this: “a high proportion of teenage boys regularly viewed pornography, and one in five harboured extremely negative attitudes towards women.”
The surprise finally came when I read the research briefing concerned. It details the latest findings of the STIR research programme, a major survey of 4,500 young people from five different European countries. The teenagers had been asked about their experiences of five different types of relationship violence. Let me quote from the headline summaries of each
Online emotional violence: The overall rate for experiencing some form of online violence was around 40% for both young women and young men in each country.
Face to face emotional violence: Rates for experiencing face-to face violence were more wide-ranging than rates for online violence. Across the five countries, between 31% and 59% of young women and 19% and 41% of young men reported experiencing this form of behaviour from a partner.
Physical violence: In each country between 9% and 22% of young women and 8% to 15% of young men reported some form of physical violence.
Sexual coercion/violence: Rates for sexual violence ranged from 17% to 41% for young women and 9% to 25% for young men.
Overall incidence: Between 53% and 66% of young women and 32% and 69% of young men reported experiencing at least one form of violence.
The study did indeed find the largest gender differences amongst the English and Norwegian samples, but prominently includes the following caveat:
As European research on adult domestic violence (DV) has shown, the willingness of participants to report their experiences is often heavily influenced by how DV is viewed in different countries (FRA ). Countries with higher gender equality and greater DV awareness also often report the highest levels of DV.
So, what this research is showing is an intricate web of physical, sexual and emotional abuse happening within young relationships, with significant numbers of both girls and boys being victimised. This is not to say the experiences of girls and boys are identical. Notably, the research did find that girls were much more likely than boys to report negative impacts (eg being shocked, frightened or hurt) as a result of the abuse, although the authors do not appear to have considered the possibility that boys may be more inclined to put on a brave, macho face when asked that question.
A few quibbles aside, this research is good and important. The reporting of it, on the other hand, is absolutely woeful. As always, I must stress that I have no issue whatsoever with researching, acknowledging and addressing the scale and nature of violence against women and girls. We should be shocked by the numbers of young girls who are beaten, abused, exploited and raped. At the same time, we should realise that this is not the whole story and that girls are not the only victims. The boys participated in this research. Their experiences were reported in the briefing paper. Then when it came to publicising the findings in the media, those boys simply vanished.
When talking about adult survivors of relationship or sexual violence, I and others have often talked about the cruelty of sidelining, marginalising and erasing male victims – not just from services and support, but from the political and media narrative. There is a marked and harmful impact when a victim picks up on the message that society really doesn’t care. To send that message to grown adults is hurtful and unnecessary. To send the same message to children as young as 13 is downright abhorrent.