News Sexual Health

Study: Nearly Half of Teens Who’ve Been in Relationships Have Experienced Dating Violence

Martha Kempner

The data suggest that 49 percent of adolescents who have been in a dating relationship have been victims of dating violence at least once in their lives and 46 percent have perpetrated it on a partner; emotional abuse seems to account for much of this.

A new study to be presented Wednesday at the American Psychological Association’s meeting in Honolulu finds an alarming number of teens have experienced dating violence. The study is being presented as part of a panel discussion on the topic.

Researchers used Wave 4 data from the national Growing Up With Media study, which included 878 teens who were surveyed in 2011 when they were between the ages of 14 and 19. According to the authors’ presentation abstract, the data suggest that almost half (49 percent) of adolescents who have been in a dating relationship have been victims of dating violence at least once in their lives and 46 percent have perpetrated it on a partner.

Emotional abuse seems to account for much of this, as the rates of physical and sexual abuse are much lower. The study found that 21 percent of those who had been in a relationship reported being the victim of physical abuse and 8 percent reported having been sexually abused. The proportion who said they had perpetrated these kinds of abuses was also smaller, with 19 percent saying they had physically abused a partner and 3 percent saying they had sexually abused a partner.

One of the study’s more surprising findings, however, is that the overall rates of teen dating violence are similar for boys and girls, though when it came to perpetrating violence girls were more likely to say they had physically abused a partner while boys were “much more likely” to say they had sexually abused someone. Carlos Cuevas, a researcher from Northeastern University who is presenting different research as part of the same panel talked to USA Today about these gender differences: “[When girls are the aggressors] it tends to be low-level behaviors, light hitting, name calling, things like that. When you look at serious sexual and severe physical assault, we tend to see a bit more from the boys than the girls.”

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Interestingly, the study also found that there was a lot of overlap in those who had been abused and suffered abuse. In fact, 29 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys said they had been both a victim and an abuser—some in the same relationship and some in different relationships. In their presentation abstract, the researchers suggest that we need to start looking at dating violence differently: “Categorically assuming distinct ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ may lead to ineffective prevention [efforts].”

Another study that is being presented during the same panel suggests that bullying and teen dating violence may be related behaviors. Researchers followed 625 young people during both middle school and high school. They found that those who admitted to verbally bullying peers in middle school were seven times more likely to report physically abusing their dates four years later.

Dorothy Espelage, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is presenting this study, explained the link to USA Today this way:

Both behaviors are often “about establishing dominance,” she says. The results suggest there is a “violence trajectory” and “if it’s not addressed, it will escalate.”

Analysis Human Rights

Unanswered Questions Abound in Gynnya McMillen’s In-Custody Death

Kanya D’Almeida

One of the most pressing questions among advocates and attorneys is whether or not there is a link between a scuffle that took place during her intake in the facility and her death several hours later.

It began with a 9-1-1 call and ended with the death of a 16-year-old Black girl in a youth facility in Kentucky.

Little has been written about the girl’s case, but advocates and organizers say it is illustrative of failures at multiple points in the state’s juvenile justice system.

Gynnya McMillen was found unresponsive in her room at the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Facility in Hardin County, Kentucky, on January 11, where she had been taken the previous morning following a domestic altercation with her mother.

In the three months since, there’s been a state investigation into her death, lawmakers have proposed legislation to investigate in-custody fatalities, and several staff members at the facility have quietly left their posts.

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And yet the teenager’s untimely death continues to be shrouded in mystery.

One of the most pressing questions among advocates, attorneys, and McMillen’s family is whether there is a link between a scuffle that took place during her intake at the facility and her death several hours later.

By Kentucky officials’ own admission, multiple adult staff members physically restrained McMillen using an “aikido” hold—a modified martial arts move—after the teen allegedly refused to remove her sweatshirt as part of a routine check-in procedure. As Graham Kates has reported for CBS News, surveillance camera footage shows staff bringing McMillen to the ground and holding her there for four minutes and 15 seconds. However, the footage fails to capture the full extent of the incident since the girl was brought down behind a counter and remains hidden from view for much of the incident, according to Kates.

In a February email to Rewire, a spokesperson for Kentucky’s Justice Cabinet (which oversees the state police, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Juvenile Justice, among others), described the martial arts hold as a “nationally-approved system called Aikido Control Training, which is utilized by various juvenile justice agencies and mental health facilities throughout the country [and] designed to prevent injury to the child and staff.”

“Since strength of the employee is not a factor, only balance, injury to the child and staff is almost nonexistent,” Lisa Lamb, a spokesperson for the state Justice Cabinet, explained. “This control method does not use any type of strike, punch, choke, wrist lock or throw.”

But experts with decades of experience working on inmates’ rights and conditions of confinement tell a different story.

One of them is Paul DeMuro, a senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the current federal court monitor for a juvenile justice settlement in Mississippi. He told Rewire in a phone interview that in all his 44 years of experience he has never once heard mention of this “aikido” hold or known of any facility that has employed it as a form of restraint.

“From what I know of the case, there was no reason to use this particular restraint on this young woman,” he said. “To use that kind of force to resolve an issue as simple as a teenager saying she didn’t want to take her sweatshirt off goes against both the letter and spirit of most policies regarding physical restraints,” he added.

According to DeMuro, employees at Lincoln Village appear to have dealt with a frightened young girl as though she were a violent offender, escalating her anxiety instead of talking her through it. “Add the race and class elements,” he said, “and you have a situation in which several adult staffers are taking down a 16-year-old kid. This never should have happened—she was essentially going through a simple booking process and she wound up dead.”

Kentucky officials have vehemently denied the allegation that the girl suffered some deadly trauma or injury as a result of being tackled to the ground by multiple adult males. On March 16, the state medical examiner announced at a press conference that McMillen had died of a rare genetic disorder, called inherited long QT syndrome, which can cause “life-threatening arrhythmias [irregular heartbeats] and sudden cardiac arrest,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But McMillen’s family rejects those findings. Shortly after Gynnya’s death, her sister created a Facebook page to gather and share information about the case. A series of posts, presumably written by a family member who manages the page, suggested that the “aikido” hold caused or contributed to her death.  The family has also consistently drawn attention to the fact that staff members at the facility failed to conduct mandatory 15-minute bed checks throughout the night, and were slow to perform CPR on the girl when at last she was found to be unconscious in her room.

State officials cannot refute this allegation. Investigators said at the press conference earlier this month that Lincoln Village employees acted unprofessionally by neglecting to provide adequate supervision and falsifying documents such as observation reports. After reviewing 60 hours of footage from the facility, Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said, “Some of the misconduct smacks of outright indifference,” pointing to one incident caught on video in which a staff member offers McMillen a sandwich and, receiving no reply, later eats the meal himself.

Tilley dismissed two employees in connection with McMillen’s death—Victor Holt and Reginald Windham, both of whom have previously been reprimanded for using excessive force on youth.

“Why Was She Arrested in the First Place?”

While much of the limited reporting around McMillen’s case has focused on events that transpired inside the detention center, juvenile justice advocates are equally concerned about why the girl was arrested in the first place.

“There is a much larger story here, about each of the points in the process where the system failed this child,” Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Youth First Initiative, told Rewire. “For instance, why was she detained and arrested in the first place?”

Ryan believes McMillen’s case is indicative of the impacts of mandatory arrest laws, and later pro-arrest laws, that were introduced under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in a bid to curb intimate partner violence, by instructing or encouraging police officers responding to domestic violence calls to remove a possible abuser from the household.

Though designed to protect women from spousal or partner abuse, the laws have had the perhaps unintended consequence of driving vast numbers of girls into the criminal justice system for altercations with their families.

According to Francine Sherman, clinical professor and director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at the Boston College Law School, girls comprise 40 percent of youth arrested for domestic assault, even though they account for just 29 percent of overall arrests nationally.

“Girls are disproportionately arrested for domestic assault, largely for altercations with their mothers,” Sherman told Rewire in a phone interview. “So the events that led up to McMillen’s arrest are not at all unusual nationally.”

Sherman, who co-authored a recent study on girls’ increasing share of the burden of youth incarceration, said that although Kentucky does not have mandatory arrest laws on the books, the state follows what are known as officer discretion laws, which have been susceptible to reliance on arrests as a means of resolving domestic disputes.

It is one of just many “pathways” that are still funneling girls into the juvenile justice system, despite an overall decrease in the national youth incarceration rate. Sherman’s research shows, for instance, that while the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act bars judges from jailing girls for simple status offenses (offenses that apply only to minors, such as violating a curfew), girls who fail to comply with a valid court order (VCO) regarding these offenses can still be detained. In 2014, Kentucky used the “VCO exception” 1,048 times—more than any other state.

And as multiple researchers have pointed out, Black girls are disproportionately represented in every stage of the justice system. By Sherman’s estimates, using justice department data, girls of color comprise 61 percent of incarcerated girls. “In 26 states and the District of Columbia, the placement rate for Black girls surpassed the rate for all other race and ethnic groups,” Sherman told Rewire.

Set against this backdrop, McMillen’s arrest and detention are hardly unusual; in fact, the circumstances surrounding her death are indicative of a long history of policing and punishing Black girls that advocates say has been largely sidelined.

“For decades society has placed huge pressure on Black girls: either by sexualizing their bodies, or portraying them as having ‘superhuman’ strength,” explained Chanelle Helm, a Kentucky-based organizer and researcher who has been mobilizing community support for Gynnya McMillen’s case.

“We’ve repeatedly seen Black girls being detained in violent and highly sexualized—we saw it with the officer in Texas using his entire body to restrain a Black teenager in a bathing suit; we saw the same thing with an officer assaulting a Black girl at the Spring Valley high school in South Carolina,” she added.

“If you listen to the 9-1-1 call that McMillen’s mother made right before her arrest, you see this same pattern—of the girl being called degenerate, sexualized names,” said Helm, who is a former board member of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and a member of Stand Up Sundays, part of Black Lives Matter-Louisville. “And then you see her being bodily detained by employees at the detention center.”

Helm added that Black girls going through the child welfare system often have health conditions that go undetected “due to an overall culture of negligence when it comes to [their] health.”

“Heart arrhythmias are hard to detect, especially for people who can’t afford that kind of medical care,” Helm said. “And if you’ve gone through as much as Gynnya was going through—being in the child welfare system, getting into a fight with her mother, sitting alone in that detention center—how are you going to know it’s something more than anxiety?”

Advocates Seek Far-Reaching Reforms

The question of who bears ultimate responsibility for McMillen’s death has not yet been answered. Once the Kentucky State Police wrap up their investigation, a prosecutor is expected to present the case to a grand jury to determine whether to bring criminal charges against possible defendants.

Advocates, taking their lead from McMillen’s family, say they want accountability. A Color of Change petition addressed to Gov. Matt Bevin (R) calls for the termination of superintendent Michelle Grady, who was responsible for the Lincoln Village facility, as well as any staff who were involved in the incident.

Local organizers, meanwhile, want further-reaching reforms.

“Our main goal is a complete overhaul of Kentucky’s juvenile justice system,” M.L. Butler, a member of a group called The Voices Unheard, which has been organizing around McMillen’s case, told Rewire. “We want to see the closure of the Lincoln Village facility and the decriminalization of Black youth.”

According to the state Juvenile Justice Department’s 2012 annual report, the 48-bed facility was slated for closure in 2013 in a bid to slash the department’s expenses by $2 million. It is unclear why these plans did not go through, and the state will likely have to answer this question under pressure from activists.

Butler told Rewire in a phone interview that grassroots groups are mobilizing for a protest outside the Hardin County Justice Center on April 8 to demand justice for McMillen. Many of these groups, including Helm’s Stand Up Sundays, were among the first to call attention to McMillen’s death, staging vigils outside the detention center from as far back as January and drawing a smattering of media to an otherwise completely overlooked case.

“We had 50 people at our first vigil and we’re hoping for as many, if not more, supporters on April 8,” said Butler, whose group works with the Oakland-based direct action training collection BlackOUT.

Those familiar with Kentucky’s Department of Corrections say activists are going up against a system that has shown little regard for inmates’ lives.

One of them is Greg Belzley, a Kentucky-based lawyer who has been inmates’ rights lawyer for more than two decades and sued state prisons and county jails “repeatedly” over detainee deaths and conditions of confinement, is not optimistic.

One of them is Greg Belzley, a Kentucky-based lawyer who has sued state prisons and county jails “repeatedly” over detainee deaths and conditions of confinement. He is not optimistic.

“Time and time again there is an inexcusable, horrifying, or grotesque inmate death in Kentucky. And time and time again no one is prosecuted and nothing happens,” he told Rewire in a phone interview, adding that in the two-year period from the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2013, there were more than 100 deaths in Kentucky jails and prisons.

He is particularly skeptical about a piece of legislation introduced in the house a month after McMillen’s death, which would create an independent panel of experts to review in-custody deaths across the state. Belzley’s biggest concern is that the panel would include 13 nonvoting members—almost double the number of voting members—who “represent organizations that have never shown the slightest interest in spending the time or money required to properly attend to inmates’ medical needs or seriously investigate or prosecute instances of inexcusable detainee deaths,” he said.

These include the Kentucky County Judge/Executive Association, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Association, and the state’s Jailers Association.

“Legislative efforts have made no difference—it’s been business as usual in this office,” Belzley told Rewire, adding that the root of the problem is the ingrained mindset among those directly responsible for detainees, whether jailers or medical personnel, that they do not warrant humane treatment.

“I’m working on cases right now that would turn your stomach,” he told Rewire, adding that he’s represented inmates who died of alcohol and drug withdrawal, covered in their own feces and urine, even though there was a hospital a few miles away.

“I’ve seen it happen so many times—a jailer will look in on an inmate who appears to be sleeping and unless there’s blood all over the floor or the inmate is hanging from a cord they will generally just make a note on their observation log that everything is okay,” he said.

While Belzley’s work has largely focused on adult jails and conditions of confinement, his analysis bears a striking resemblance to the kind of negligence that occurred in McMillen’s case.

“People need to start taking inmates’ lives seriously,” Belzley said. “Any responsible person who heard that a 16-year-old girl was put in a martial arts hold for over four minutes because she wouldn’t remove her sweatshirt and was found unresponsive the next morning, would say there was cause for a serious criminal investigation—and if there is probable cause to believe there was a violation of criminal laws in the treatment of this young woman, somebody needs to be prosecuted and if found guilty they need to go to jail.”

Commentary Sexuality

Is the ‘Panic’ Over Sexting Really Warranted?

Eleanor J. Bader

Amy Adele Hasinoff’s Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent is a reasoned, if academic, look at the ways teens use social media and the Internet to flirt, seduce, and tease, often transmitting sexual images that are intended for private viewing.

University of Colorado Denver professor Amy Adele Hasinoff’s Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, out last month from the University of Illinois Press, is a reasoned, if academic, look at the ways teens use social media and the Internet to flirt, seduce, and tease, often transmitting sexual images that are intended for private viewing. While occasionally glib, the book is nonetheless a thoughtful entry point for those interested in how new media technologies can be used and misused.

Hasinoff did not, herself, interview teens for the text. This is a disadvantage, since first-person narratives would have made the book more compelling. Instead, she distills numerous reports, studies, and news accounts about the phenomenon and the panic that ensues whenever adults get word that young people are swapping naked photos. Her starting argument addresses the fact that “teen sexting is often framed as a form of child pornography or as part of a cyberbullying epidemic … yet for many people, the practice is a form of interpersonal intimacy.” The truth, Hasinoff writes, is that people of all ages and persuasions sext, willingly and playfully—a reality that critics of the practice tend to ignore in favor of hyperbolically dire commentary.

That said, problems routinely arise when a photo recipient decides that she or he wants to share the images with others. When pictures that are meant to be private become public without the consent of the sender, Hasinoff notes, the person who spreads the images is violating implicit assumptions about privacy, trust, and the relationship itself. As Hasinoff sees it, just as medical records cannot be shared without the explicit consent of the patient, violators should face legal consequences for any infraction—no matter with whom they share the photos, or how innocent they believe their intent to be. Sexting is an issue of consent and privacy, Hasinoff writes: simultaneously a sex act and a speech act.

The unauthorized sharing of pictures can present tremendous problems for teens, she continues, because it can lead to law enforcement involvement; this is especially problematic since the law defines any and all explicit images of a person under the age of 18 as child pornography. In terms of practical implications, Hasinoff writes that “a number of teenagers the United States involved in sexting have been charged with producing, possessing, and distributing” illegal imagery—in other words, pictures of their friends in various states of undress. This leaves consensual sexters extremely vulnerable: Although the numbers are small, it’s worth noting that in 2009, 134 people younger than 18 were arrested for, Hasinoff writes, “consensually creating or sharing images in the context of romantic relationships or for sexual attention-seeking.” Yes, you read this correctly: 134 young people were arrested for texting images of themselves to someone else. Surprisingly, it did not apparently matter whether the recipient was their age or an adult.

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Although Hasinoff offers no hard facts about the who, what, when, or where of most of these arrests—which weakens her argument somewhat—she does offer a realistic assessment of the probable enforcement patterns. “Since texting is a relatively common behavior and decades of research have demonstrated systemic racism and homophobia in the justice system, both new sexting misdemeanors and existing child pornography laws are likely being disproportionately applied to queer youth, lower-income youth, and youth of color.”

Hasinoff illustrates the irrationality of current law-enforcement behavior with several anecdotes. One takes readers into Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania—recent census reports describe it as a middle-income borough of about 1,800 people—where in 2009, parents of nearly 20 kids attending the local high school received a letter from the Wyoming County district attorney’s office informing them that a random search of student cell phones found their children in possession of “child pornography.” At issue were photos of three then-13-year-old girls in white bras, standing outside a shower with towels covering their torsos. The photos of the girls were found on the phones of every child whose parents were contacted.

The DA offered the parents a deal: The charges would be dismissed if their kids spent six months on probation, submitted to random drug tests, and completed an unspecified “education program.” Most accepted the offer but the three bra-wearers did not. They contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania to contest the charges.

According to Hasinoff, the ACLU bungled the case by arguing that “forcing the girls to attend [the] education program would violate their parents’ right to control the upbringing of their children and the girl’s right to freedom from compelled speech.” Although Hasinoff concedes that the ACLU was sympathetic to the teens, the lawyers’ exclusive focus “on desexualization and innocence—that the girls took the photos for ‘fun’ and were topless only because of the summer heat—precludes a larger discussion about teenagers’ right to freedom of expression.”

Perhaps unwittingly, she writes, the ACLU reinforced the notion of teen girls as irresponsible, hormonally driven, and flighty, too young to be aware of their sexual prowess. Although the ACLU triumphed by avoiding criminal charges for the arrested teens, Hasinoff believes it was a hollow victory since it did not reinforce the idea that girls had a right to send photos in a deliberately flirtatious manner to whomever they pleased. What’s more, she is annoyed that schools, parents, and lawmakers typically “punish girls who sext consensually while ignoring boys who violate their privacy.” And of course, policymakers typically place far less emphasis on boys who send photos of themselves to friends or potential hook-ups.

Nonetheless, while Hasinoff is clearly right to acknowledge the blatant gender disparity, she is a bit off the mark in other ways. By not differentiating 13-year-olds from 17- or 18-year-olds, she sidesteps the enormous developmental differences between the two cohorts in terms of maturity levels and knowledge of legal and social systems. Still, she is correct that “the idea that innocent girls need to be protected from themselves—from their innately irrational brains and the overwhelming biological forces of their sexuality” is pure bunk. This notion of girls who send photos as suffering from low self-esteem and a need for attention—the mantra of many child advocates—needs to be turned asunder, since many girls know exactly why they are sexting potential hook-ups.

Additionally, the idea of “girls gone wild,” reinforced by the disproportionate punishment of female sexters, ignores the fact that many teenagers and young women responsibly manage their sexuality.

This is actually the crux of the matter, since far too many adults continue to believe that it’s normal for boys and young men—but not girls or young women—to seek sexual expression. Needless to say, victims of sexual assault have long been blamed for provoking attacks, and Hasinoff points a finger at a similar tendency when it comes to sexting. That is, “out of control” girls are blamed for photos going viral, whether by peers or by adult men who somehow gain access to them. The implication of this punishment framework, she writes, is that posting images online is always dangerous and should always be avoided. A better approach: Teaching young people that they should never share photos non-consensually, and creating a system of justice to reinforce that.

Sadly, she writes, this message is rarely promulgated since the bulk of youth programs “focus on changing girls’ attitudes and behaviors instead of trying to modify male behavior to reduce the incidence of sexual violence and harassment.”

In addition, Hasinoff notes that the mistaken assumption that all digital images are public is pervasive, which is why she argues for a legal crackdown on those who share images without the explicit consent of the person depicted. Unfortunately, she makes it sound simple, but it is not. Indeed, the issue of consent in this context is incredibly complicated and layered, at least for me. For example, what happens when a person receives a photo and then forwards it without first asking permission, and the second recipient then forwards it to his/her friends, with the cycle repeating? How might we enforce consent laws? Would every person who forwarded the image be considered complicit and at fault? What would an appropriate punishment look like? If such consequences were to be put in place, these and other questions need to be considered by policymakers, youth leaders, parents, and child advocates.

In the absence of much legal precedent, Hasinoff’s alarm about the way sexism is used to punish and police girls who sext, rather than cracking down on those—mostly, but not exclusively, men and boys—who violate privacy by sharing images without authorization, provides a cogent reminder about the magnitude of concerns governing digital etiquette. Many of Hasinoff’s insights are spot-on in this respect: “The idea that criminalizing sexting protects teens, especially girls, from their own ill-considered decisions,” lies at the core of contemporary responses to sexting, she writes. To date, the response has rested largely with girls: Telling them not to sext, as if this alone will protect them from being harassed, menaced, raped, stalked, or intimidated. Hasinoff further explains that “men and boys are rarely asked to do any work to resist the ill effects of sexualization; this task falls almost entirely to girls and women.”

Although I am certainly sympathetic to Hasinoff’s argument that telling kids not to sext is meaningless—they’ll clearly do it anyway—I’m simultaneously sympathetic to parents who want to caution their children about the behavior’s potential to wreak havoc. As Hasinoff herself says, there are presently few consequences for recipients who spread sexts nonconsensually.

To her credit, Hasinoff does offer a list of sexting tips and recommendations that zero in on present-day realities about rape, rape culture, and the prevalence of sexual assault. It shouldn’t be necessary to do these things, she writes, but it is nonetheless wise to crop or blur one’s face or other identifying marks out of suggestive photos; delete old photos often and ask partner(s) to do the same; and consider using an app that deletes pictures automatically after they’ve been viewed. She further urges state legislatures to decriminalize consensual sexting, repeal age-specific sexting misdemeanors, and add age-span exemptions so that if there are fewer than four years between partners exchanging photos no one can be prosecuted for distribution of child pornography. Likewise, she tells adults to learn the difference between consensual texting and privacy violations and suggests the development of a “harm-reduction approach to deal with privacy violations and harassment.” Finally, she prods us to demand that media companies build privacy protections into the design of their devices so that it becomes more difficult to forward photos from person to person.

Common sense? Absolutely.

Although Sexting Panic diminishes sexting’s downside by paying too little attention to the psychological and physical abuse that can result when images meant to be private go viral—whether post-break-up, as an act of revenge, or simply by accident—it is a solid counter to moralists who can’t fathom anything good coming from the practice. This makes it an important contribution to an important social issue. Indeed, as Hasinoff argues, sexting is not likely to go away, so we’d best figure out how to maximize the joy it can bring while minimizing the harm it can cause.