On the same day British glamour girl Jordan is first speaking publicly about being raped when she was younger, a new study's been published showing that 1 in 3 girls in the UK has suffered sexual abuse in a relationship.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and a team at the University of Bristol surveyed nearly 1400 teenagers, finding that 90% had been in intimate relationships and among those, "one in three said their boyfriends had tried to pressure them into unwanted sexual activity by using physical force or by bullying them." One in 16 said they'd been raped (it's hard not to wonder if some of the former group might actually belong in the latter) and one in four reported having been the victim of physical violence "including being slapped, punched or beaten." Additionally, one in 17 boys said they'd been raped, and one in five had suffered physical violence.
University of Bristol professor David Berridge calls the findings "appalling" and says, "It was shocking to find that exploitation and violence in relationships starts so young." But domestic violence experts aren't so surprised. Jo Sharpen of the Greater London Domestic Violence Project told BBC News, "Young people are confused about this and it isn't the first survey to show very worrying attitudes about violence being appropriate or people expecting sex. Teenagers are just as likely to be victims as adults."
A spokesperson for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said "relationship education" is set to become part of the health curriculum in schools by 2011, but also passes the buck a bit, noting: "Parents have a vital role to play in providing information and advice on sex and relationships. They should lead on instilling values in their children..." That's true enough, but it ignores the fact that many adults don't know the warning signs of dating violence or what a healthy relationship should look like — not to mention that all kids hear "Don't hit!" from their parents starting when they're toddlers, but that doesn't mean it sinks in.
And even if parents do recognize warning signs, they might not know how to help their children protect themselves. Ann Burke, whose 23-year-old daughter Lindsay was murdered by a boyfriend in 2005, recognized that the guy was trouble but found herself helpless to intervene. Eventually, Lindsay did leave him, more than once, but "she didn't change her phone number or have a plan for safely cutting off contact for good." More education about dating violence, Burke believes, might have helped Lindsay recognize the danger earlier and protect herself more thoroughly once she left him. So Ann Burke and her husband Chris pushed Rhode Island legislators to pass the Lindsay Ann Burke Act, requiring all public middle and high schools to include lessons on dating violence in their health curriculum. The law went into effect last fall.
"Schools have a clear role in giving young people accurate information and developing the skills they need to make safe and responsible choices," the DCSF spokesperson acknowledged, and it's heartening to know that within two years, those programs will be available throughout Britain. Here in the U.S., after the Lindsay Ann Burke Act was passed, the National Association of Attorneys General unanimously adopted a resolution that would encourage similar programs around the country, and Liz Claiborne, Inc., in partnership with the Education Development Center, has been pushing its "Love Is Not Abuse" curriculum to high schools in all 50 states. But the change is slow and incremental. In the meantime, as I said when I wrote about the Rhode Island law last year, I just wish every girl could get a copy of The Gift of Fear for her 13th birthday.