Written By: Margherita Massarenti
Edited By: Brenda Tan
Design By: Gabriella Tan
Trigger Warning: Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault
...Or, does it?
From a young age, we grow up with the romanticisation of pain in love.
Don’t get me wrong: pain isn’t bad in general. Just as any other negative emotion, it is important that we learn to accept and deal with it. However, dealing with it means setting healthy boundaries, recognising red flags, addressing them, and, eventually, leaving. All this is not easy. Especially, if we get a misleading idea of what love should look like – and how it should make us feel.
Because none of us knows for sure what love is. We – individually and socially – need to build definitions of it, assign it recognisable characteristics, and apply morals to them. Overall, set standards that allow us to navigate such a muddy part of our lives. Beliefs about love are deeply rooted in the culture we grow up in. They take different shapes according to the different cultures. However, it is safe to say that a big part of them can be fundamentally linked to a common underlying feature: patriarchy.
Romantic relationships are a very fertile terrain for sexist structures to unfold.
In fact, they are among the key playgrounds on which the oppression and violence of men over women were built in the first place. The specificity of the problem led to the creation of a distinct expression to indicate this type of abuse: Intimate Partner Violence. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is defined as a typology of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) occurring between partners and involving not only physical lethal and non-lethal behaviour but also less tangible forms of violence, such as emotional and psychological abuse. When observed in the interactions between teenagers, IPV is referred to as Teen Dating Violence. Here, we will focus on young heterosexual couples.
Teenagehood is a phase of experimentation. Hopefully, a fun period for teens. But, it is also tricky. When it comes to learning to love healthy and expect healthy love, we usually have problems recognising it. Particularly, when the unhealthy mainstream cultural discourse is still strong – to frame gender imbalances and toxicity in early relationships as collateral, normal, and almost romantic. In an alternative lens, it would be safer to read it as a potential or less self-evident form of abuse.
According to research, relevant rates of physical, psychological, and verbal victimisation can be traced among teenagers: the 2007-2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (US) reports 10% are victims of physical violence, 2 / 3 in 10 of psychological abuse. The latter was experienced by an average of 43% of women from the age of 15 in the European Union. Moreover, in a study about the role of gender and age in emotional abuse in intimate relationships, this is found to be more common among young participants.
Interestingly, the incidence is far from being absent among boys. Aggressivity often emerges mutually in young couples. This importantly reminds us that the experience of violence is not precluded to one gender. However, the way violence is experienced does unfold following gendered patterns. In terms of, numbers, motivations, and impacts.
Comparing the two genders, girls happen to be more often the victims. As well, they also feel a stronger responsibility and guilt for triggering or provoking such violence. In terms of intent, boys’ acts of aggression are to exercise control. While, girls more often do it for self-defense. When being addressed violently, boys frequently laugh, girls face deeper mental health consequences.
The lack of experience in romantic and sexual interactions can explain part of the conflict management happening through violence. Sometimes, first love is just messy. Because, when we are young, gendered power dynamics are less pronounced and still in-formation. Nevertheless, it is important to keep an eye on the thin line between messiness and toxicity. And, another eye on the risk of stepping into gender-based abuse.
Another key reason for ‘toxic young love’ is social influences. We know and internalise traditional ideologies – what’s masculine and what’s feminine that strongly determine the way intimate relational dynamics are privately constructed and publicly performed. This means that it’s not just the two of us in the couple. To some extent, our family, friends, society as a whole, play a role in the game. They are the “public” that is watching us. Hence, as teens spend time in their school and with friends, peer influence and learning are fundamental in teenagers’ lives. Just pick whatever teen drama movie and you will figure out how much.
Among other things, social influence shapes the social risks of labeling, telling, and reporting sexual assault too. For example, violence comes from those who wield power. In a high school context, the power comes from ‘being cool’ or desired. As such, regardless of the wrongdoings, the ‘cool’ ones will have “the public” on their side by default. As a logical consequence, reporting sexual abuse allegations against the ‘cool’ ones are likely to lead to a lot of backlashes. Humans are not willing to give up on their ideals of perfection that quickly. Victims will likely be blamed or not believed. Watch “Promising Young Woman” or Episode 5 of “Euphoria” for a great representation of this dynamic.
However, the case of cool guys is just a useful example to highlight how much peer influence and reputation count. And, how not being believed in the first place is a trauma that women go through. The scene from “Promising Young Woman” well illustrates how this is typically justified as “the benefit of the doubt”.
All this leads to difficulty in labeling, telling, and reporting an assault. In this respect, victims’ behaviour is technically explained with the concepts of “social risk” and “productive categorical ambiguity”. The latter indicates a coping mechanism for which victims of a traumatic event, like rape or sexual assault, choose not to label it for what it is. In the attempt, to limit its disruptive impact on their mental health, as well as social life. Labelling can be difficult already in the ‘early stages’ of abuse. Refusing to call a partner violently possessive, verbally and psychologically aggressive, or emotionally abusive is all part of the process of denial. Sadly, the victim simply wishes not to acknowledge the terrifying idea that a trusted person is, indeed, not trustable.
All these stories highlight the importance of prevention strategies – to build a culture of equality, safety, and consent from a young age. This reduces cases of Intimate Partner Violence among adolescents and, ultimately, helps foster better relationships. In the long run, it helps to reduce future rates of Gender-based Violence. To begin this fight against violence, our schools and universities are the places to start.
Refusing to call a partner violently possessive, verbally and psychologically aggressive, or emotionally abusive is all part of the process of denial.
Schools have a socialising role in their students’ lives. Meaning, they are the place where personal identities and social networks are established. Solutions put in place in schools have the advantage of involving all the different actors at play. For example, key figures in youngsters’ lives: teachers, students, and the school community, including families and other professional figures.
Prevention programs can follow universal or selected approaches. Universal, or primary, programs target knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour change. A complete scheme would combine theory and practice. And, provide background knowledge on the forms, causes, and consequences of abuse, together with guidelines on concrete strategies to cope with it. Two programs, the Fourth R and Safe Dates, originally developed in Ontario (Canada) by the Minister of Education. With much success, it was subsequently promoted in North America and internationally. Results have shown that this type of approach has a particularly positive impact on boys and students at higher risk of experiencing aggression. These two groups are then specifically targeted by so-called selected or secondary approaches. A selective prevention for boys gives them an education specific to their social group, as the one most often representing the perpetrators. Role-plays are found to be an impactful additional activity for this purpose, in that they favour empathy and understanding of the consequences of violence on girls.
To equip students with the capacity to help themselves and their friends, there are the bystander intervention programs. In practice, a “bystander plan” is modelled, to use in case of emergency. For example, check out the Bring in the Bystander Program. This is meant to increase participants’ capacity, willingness, and confidence in safely intervening against peer violence. In addition to this, it also fundamentally helps to lower the reputational risk and prevent the disruption of students’ social relations – by steering peer effect towards the promotion of positive influence and the construction of a healthy environment in friends groups. Bystander programs are also extendable and adaptable to the different components of the teen’s community. Including, family members who might benefit from advice on how to best support kids in their dating life.
These are just some of the existing initiatives to address toxicity and abuse in early relationships and prevent later gender-based violence. The repertoire is wider and widening as activists and feminists increasingly draw attention to the problem. However, more research and scientific work are needed to thoroughly understand the facets of the issue, its variability and further solutions.
Just as for gender-based violence itself, it always takes society – including politics and science – a good deal of time to acknowledge the legitimacy and existence of a problem of oppression. We’d like to close with a reminder that, for the victims to feel comfortable to tell their stories and for our youth to grow into healthy lovers, the conversation about ‘toxic young love’ needs to be framed differently – as a rooted, widespread and gendered issue.