By Brittney Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Almost half of undergraduates say they have experienced emotional, physical or sexual violence stemming from personal relationships before or during college, according to a new study.
Although students said most incidents of emotional and physical abuse were committed by partners, some acts of sexual violence involved friends, acquaintances and strangers. The study did not look at violence by family members. Most relationship violence occurs before students step on campus, the study found.
The research, published in the July issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was based on a survey of 910 students (390 male, 520 female) ages 17 to 22 from three campuses: a nonresidential community college, a mid-size Catholic university and a large Ivy League university.
Students at each school reported similar experience with relationship violence despite the schools' differing racial and socioeconomic mixes.
Although violence in general may be more prevalent among lower-income groups, relationship violence "crosses socioeconomic levels, race and gender, and is prevalent across ages," said lead researcher Christine Forke, a registered nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Students participating in the survey were asked if they had experienced physical violence, defined as pushing, grabbing, hitting, choking or slapping; emotional violence, defined as being made to feel bad about oneself or isolated from family and friends, or having a partner act in a possessive manner; or sexual violence, defined as being coerced, pressured or forced into having sexual contact.
Amir Afkhami, an instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, called the findings fascinating, but he questioned whether the self-reporting understated the problem.
Overall, 44 percent of students reported experiencing at least one type of relationship violence, 42 percent as a victim and 17 percent as a perpetrator. Fifteen percent of females in the study reported being victims of sexual violence.
Afkhami said he thought that figure was low. Based on his clinical experience, he said, "at least one-third to one-fourth of women students have experienced some type of forced sexual contact."
Although most students who said they had been the victims of violence were female (more than 50 percent), 22 percent of male students also said they had been victimized. Charles Wibbelsman, director of Kaiser Permanente's teen clinic in San Francisco, said he was surprised the male response was so large. He said the lack of male-friendly support services reinforces the culture of silence among male victims.
"As pediatricians, we ask our female patients, 'Are you dating someone? Has there been any violence? Have you been a victim of date rate or physical harm on a date?' But how often do we ask a guy? A lot of that information just isn't sought out," said Wibbelsman, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence.
Afkhami also expressed surprise at the percentage of men identifying themselves as victims of violence.
During college, male students reported committing a higher rate (2.6 percent) of sexual violence than women (1 percent); female students reported committing a higher rate (7.3 percent) of physical violence than men (1.8 percent).
Forke acknowledged that perpetrators and victims may have under-reported incidents because of denial, fear of reprisal or shame.
Perpetrators mostly identified their sexual victims as partners; victims were more likely to identify their attackers as acquaintances. Forke said the difference reflects various coping mechanisms. Victims, she said, want to distance themselves from the people who hurt them, thinking, "How could someone who loves me do this to me?," while perpetrators want to excuse themselves of wrongdoing, reasoning, "This is my partner; we do this all the time."
Wibbelsman said people let their guards down as they get closer, and this vulnerability can open the door to abuse.
Transitioning into college life, away from family and established support systems, can also increase a student's dependence on unhealthy relationships, Forke said. Based on their finding that most violence occurs before college, Forke and Wibbelsman recommend that counseling on healthy relationships and domestic violence begin in middle school, so young people can learn to distinguish positive from negative behaviors just as they are starting to experience them.
"The earlier you are in the cycle [of violence], the longer it's likely to continue," Forke said.
Many of those who experience such violence also report such health problems as low self-esteem, suicidality, substance abuse or further physical or sexual abuse later in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"If your child doesn't know what a healthy relationship is when they go out into the world, it can be detrimental to them," Forke said.
Wibbelsman, who described the results as eye-opening, said that most research has been done on youths up to age 18 and that pediatricians are beginning to realize that more should be done to understand "the forgotten population" of young adults.
"We need to look at young adults as an at-risk population," he said.