The following is an interview with Arlene Weisz and Beverly Black, co-authors of Programs to Reduce Teen Dating Violence and Sexual Assault.
Question: Teen dating violence and sexual assault have been prominently featured in the news recently with the case of Rihanna and Chris Brown. Because of their fame, they have attracted a lot of attention. How prevalent is this phenomenon in the United States?
Beverly Black: Between 9 and 30 percent of high school students have been victims of teen dating violence and sexual assault. Rates vary depending on how dating violence and sexual assault are defined. A recent survey, commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, found that 67 percent of teens whose families have experienced economic problems in the past year have experienced abuse in their own relationships.
Q: What is being done to reduce these problems?
BB: There are many programs across the United States and in other countries that try to reach teens to reduce these problems before violence begins. Many of these programs are being offered in middle schools and high schools. Rhode Island and Texas have state laws requiring curricula on dating violence in their schools. The programs are often offered in collaboration with agencies that address adult intimate partner violence or sexual assault, but sometimes the sole purpose of the organization is prevention.
Q: What kinds of programs have you found to be the most effective?
Arlene Weisz: Our interviews with experienced teen dating violence and sexual assault prevention practitioners from fifty-two programs in twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., helped us augment our own experience running programs for middle school youth and for a university community. We learned that programs can be successful whether they combine or separate sexual assault and dating violence, but in this era of scarce resources and limited opportunities to present to youth, there are many advantages to combining the content about both topics or even combining this content with general violence prevention or substance abuse prevention in extended programs. We also learned that, ideally, programs should include at least several sessions.
BB: Research supports the importance of longer programs, and it’s logical that it takes time to learn new behaviors and to change attitudes that are widely supported in our society. If possible, programs should have some single-gender and some mixed-gender sessions and should be careful to give messages that are nonblaming for both genders. Programs should not be victim-blaming by implying that girls can take precautions that would stop perpetrators, and programs for males should also avoid blaming, because this attitude “turns them off” from absorbing the messages. Because of their essential, long-lasting roles in adolescents’ lives, programs should regularly address teachers and parents, as well as the teens themselves. Programs should be based on a theoretical framework so that their views on the causes of violence guide program development. It is important for programs to routinely evaluate their structure in order to incorporate the enthusiastic responses that they often receive from teens and parents and to make changes and adjustments that will best meet the needs of participants. People who run programs that are new to program evaluation might want to partner with university personnel or professional evaluators to assist them. The results of evaluation can guide program development and can incorporate voices from the community that help educators understand what each community needs.
Q: What exciting prevention programming trends did you learn about in your interviews with practitioners?
BB: The most exciting programs are the ones that include interactive activities, such as discussion and experiential exercises or role-plays. These activities are more likely to engage youth. Teens often hear many lectures about how they should behave, so they are likely to tune out anyone who lectures them. While prevention educators probably want to develop a manual of topics and activities to provide guidance to new educators and to enhance evaluation efforts, they should also provide opportunities for adolescent participants to direct the conversation according to their own questions and interests.
AW: Peer education and youth leadership components of prevention programs are exciting and empowering. They increase the relevance of program content, provide role models for the adolescents, and are generally respectful of youth. Many peer education programs have theatrical components that also allow the audience to interact with the characters in the skits, which is thought-provoking and engaging. We are excited about programs that include content on healthy, respectful relationships and content on bystander intervention that increase a sense that peer group norms do not support dating violence or sexual assault. Most of the program leaders we interviewed were very thoughtful about presenting culturally sensitive material, and we hope there will be growing attention to sexual orientation as well.
Q: Did you learn anything about prevention programming that can be troubling or problematic?
AW: Following up with the topic of peer education, we learned that programs need sufficient resources to conduct peer education and to provide adequate support for youth who are involved in any aspect of youth leadership. Peer educators need thorough training to conduct programming about such sensitive topics, and there are also many logistical challenges in working with today’s busy youth. We also learned that many programs encounter teens who have already been victimized by teen dating violence or sexual assault. Program leaders need to thoughtfully plan how they will respond to these survivors with opportunities for youth to talk to the presenters privately so that they can be connected to needed services.
BB: As we might have expected, we learned that most programs are very busy and under-funded. We hope communities will pay prevention educators well enough to enable them to work in the field long past the apprenticeship stage, because experience enables educators to improvise skillfully to address teens’ interests and respond effectively to survivors in the audience.
Q: What recommendations do you have for schools or community centers that might want to start a program?
AW: We encourage people who are beginning a program to make connections with organizations that are already working to reduce violence against women. A good program is based on expertise in addition to good intentions. We also hope our book will provide many helpful suggestions about how to start and maintain a good program.
Q: How can institutions that face severe budget restraints still address these important prevention issues?
BB: Collaborating with other prevention programs might be a good way for educators to capitalize on scarce resources. Programs that prevent general violence, bullying, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy might be combined with those that work to reduce teen dating violence and sexual assault.