Dating violence has been defined as the use or threat of physical, sexual, verbal abuse, or stalking within a dating relationship. This term is meant to encompass any form of violence that occurs in a relationship from an initial date to cohabitation. Dating violence occurs in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Although perpetrators of dating violence are often men, women also participate in various forms of partner abuse.
Research has indicated that violence in dating relationships among university and college students is extremely common and, in fact, is on the rise. For example, in 2002, Leonard, Quigley, and Collins reported that approximately 30% to 40% of both male and female college students had experienced some form of abuse in their intimate relationships. Although some argue that violence in college dating relationships is often less sustained than in adult relationships, it is clear that violence in intimate relationships between college students is a widespread issue.
Rates of dating violence are difficult to determine with any precision. This difficulty stems from the extremely low numbers of incidents of dating violence that are reported to police. Many individuals who experience dating violence keep quiet about their experiences because of embarrassment, self-blame, and fear. It has also been suggested that the general lack of understanding of the nature of dating violence creates some confusion around the labeling of abuse. As a result of this ambiguity, many incidents of intimate-partner abuse go unreported because they are not recognized as dating violence, but rather are perceived as noncriminal acts.
In addition to these issues, some scholars have argued that because various forms of dating violence are often studied in isolation, it is difficult to formulate an overall estimate of the prevalence of dating violence. White and Koss estimated in 1991 that one in five to one in three college women experience physical violence in their dating relationships. In 2000, Fisher, Cullen, and Turner stated that one in three college women experience sexual assault by their male partners. These findings illustrate the prevalence of specific forms of partner abuse. Few researchers, other than those identified earlier in this article, have aggregated these results to estimate broader rates of dating violence on university and college campuses. Despite these many difficulties in calculating specific rates of dating violence, it is generally understood that dating violence on university and college campuses is extremely prevalent.
Forms of dating violence can be separated into two broader categories of abuse: physical violence and sexual violence. Physical violence encompasses any form of physical intimidation or harm, including emotional and psychological harm. Although both men and women are perpetrators of physical abuse, as much research has demonstrated, women are most commonly the victims of physical dating violence. While physical violence can exist in isolation, it is often accompanied by various forms of sexual violence.
Sexual violence can be defined as a nonconsensual violation of an individual’s sexual integrity. It can take the form of sexual harassment and/or sexual abuse. Other terms are often used in the place of “sexual violence,” such as “sexual assault” and “rape.” The term “sexual assault” is used within the legal system to define all attacks that are of a sexual nature, ranging from inappropriate touching to aggravated assault. Rape, a specific form of sexual assault, is defined as noncon-sensual sexual intercourse. Within the majority of academic literature, however, the term “sexual violence” is used, as it captures a range of experiences and levels of violence.
Historically, acts of sexual violence were not seen as forms of aggression. Instead, they were considered to be types of seduction. Rape from this perspective was seen as sex. The shift toward seeing nonconsensual sexual acts as violent was pivotal in sexual violence becoming a recognized concern within the criminal justice system and for academic research.
Despite the widespread misunderstanding that perpetrators of sexual violence are most often strangers to the victim, sexual violence has been shown to occur most commonly between acquaintances, friends, spouses, and family members. As a result of this knowledge, the term “date rape” has been coined to highlight rape that occurs between individuals who are dating.
Much academic debate persists regarding the proper language to refer to those who have experienced physical or sexual dating violence. Within the legal system, the term “victim” is always employed. However, within rape crisis and domestic violence centers, as well as in the majority of academic literature, the term “survivor” is most common. Among those who have experienced forms of dating violence, the use of “victim” versus “survivor” is often contingent on the way in which an individual understands his or her own experience. While some individuals who are targets of dating violence label themselves as victims or survivors, others struggle to see their experience as a form of abuse and choose not label themselves as either.
Researchers have found that college women and men who experience dating violence often suffer from various levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, increased substance abuse, lowered self-esteem, and forms of cognitive impairment. Dating violence has been shown to negatively affect the scholastic performance of university and college students who experience it. Abuse in dating relationships has also been illustrated to have harmful effects on other individuals besides the victim. In particular, friends and family members who are informed about the violence may experience severe distress.
Many scholars have studied the causes of dating violence. Much of this research has focused specifically on the roots of male-perpetrated dating violence. Several scholars have suggested that participation in aggressive sports, beliefs in male dominance, and hostility toward women are all connected to aggressive male behavior within college dating relationships. Male sexual aggression, more specifically, has been discussed by some researchers as being the result of traditional notions of gender roles and a belief in male authority and control. Some researchers have argued that, in addition to these factors, the predominance of media highlighting sexual and sometimes violent imagery of women as well as the prevalent media representations of male aggression and female sexuality contribute to sexual violence within dating relationships.
To date, little academic research has been directed toward female-perpetrated dating violence. However, within the work that does exist, scholars have suggested that substance abuse, childhood victimization, and relationship conflict all contribute to increased rates of female dating violence.
- Domitrz, M. (2003). May I kiss you: A candid look at dating, communication, respect and sexual assault awareness. Greenfield, WI: Awareness Publications.
- Harned, M. (2005). Understanding women’s labeling of unwanted sexual experiences with dating partners: A qualitative analysis. Violence Against Women, 11(3), 374-413.
- Katz, J. (2006). The macho paradox: Why some men hurt women and how all men can help. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
- Mahlstedt, D., & Welsh, L. (2005). Perceived causes of physical assault in heterosexual dating relationships. Violence Against Women, 11(4), 447-472.