Recently I attended a White House seminar on teen dating violence that featured a number of heartfelt speakers, including parents of teen dating violence victims and even Vice President Joe Biden. I left the event feeling excited that U.S. leaders were taking action on an issue that I cared about. But sadly, it seems as if their commitment to action has yet to impact my school and community.
Shortly after the conference, I returned to school and heard a student make a joke about rape. I walked down the hall and saw that my school’s counseling office had hung one flimsy sign explaining the dangers of abusive relationships. These things make me wonder what all of the White House talk is really accomplishing.
While I applaud the administration for recognizing that teen dating violence is an issue, I have yet to witness effects of the White House initiative, 1 is 2 Many, in my day-to-day life. I haven’t seen the administration’s public service announcement (PSA) on respect in relationships, nor do I know the teen dating violence hotline number that Biden promoted at the event. If a friend or I was in an abusive relationship, I wouldn’t know where to go for help. Yes, a PSA can help. Yes, a hotline can help. But if no one realizes that these resources exist, the efforts will accomplish very little.
It’s not clear to me if the causes, signs, and dangers of teen dating violence are widely recognized. Unless teens understand what constitutes teen dating violence, I worry that we will see little decline in the rates of teen relationship abuse. This cannot be an issue that only students who are specially selected to attend a White House event have the privilege to learn about. Abuse is an issue that can affect any teen, and therefore everyone needs to be aware of teen dating violence if we want to make any progress.
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As many of the organizations at the White House explained, we need to see a change in cultural attitudes surrounding teen dating violence in order for young women to be safe. At the event, we were led through a brief workshop by the organization Men Can Stop Rape in which we had to identify whether certain actions, such as stalking a partner on Facebook or rudely asking a girl for her number, were harmful. I was shocked to hear other teens justify acts that I considered inexcusably controlling, such as a teen asking a partner to change his or her clothes. I suddenly realized that not everyone I will date might know what counts as controlling or abusive. Not every partner I have might give me the respect and freedom that I expect. And this could happen to anyone I know.
We cannot focus only on educating young women. Teenage boys need to be a part of the conversation and need to help create a more common vocabulary about abusive relationships. We can’t just hope that young men recognize what constitutes as abuse; we must take steps to ensure it. Both partners need to know what makes a relationship consensual and respectful.
Once this common ground is established, young men must step up. We need young men to reproach friends who abuse their partners. Demeaning or hitting a partner cannot be met with a laugh or a shrug. These actions need to be condemned by everyone. Obviously women can also be perpetrators of teen dating violence—both in heterosexual and homosexual couples—and so ultimately it is up to everyone to demand respectful relationships.
But even if we all take these concrete steps, will abuse end? The White House has demonstrated a commitment to addressing teen dating violence. But I worry that without a more serious financial commitment, little will actually change. At the event I attended, the Department of Justice announced $12.6 million in grants, which will be split among 20 communities to address dating violence. The problem is, there are a lot more than 20 communities that need these services.
While the federal government pushes forward initiatives, there are a number of incredible anti-teen dating violence organizations in my area that are trying to fill in the gaps. The problem? Many teens in my school have never heard of these organizations. Likewise, I am sure few students at my school knew that the White House was hosting a conference on teen dating violence. The power of these organizations’ messages is only as great as their ability to reach out to a wide audience.
I am left wondering, how does awareness spread? The government has allied with some groups, such as Break the Cycle, to boost their signals, but still, few people I know realize these organizations exist as resources for them.
I almost feel guilty chiding Biden’s initiative to end teen dating violence. I am so used to expecting little government attention on these sorts of issues that I feel like I should be willing to accept almost any effort from the government. I don’t want to seem like I am asking for too much when I complain that not enough has been done. However, when it comes to the safety of young people in relationships, we can never demand too much attention and effort from our leaders.