27 February 2012
Two recent studies by researchers in the Centre for Family Policy and Child Welfare are the first to examine the incidence and impact of teenage partner violence in Britain. NSPCC senior research fellow, Christine Barter, led the landmark reports, which have set alarm bells ringing among policymakers and practitioners.
(This article, by Hilary Brown, appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of nonesuch magazine: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/university/publications/nonesuch/)
‘I’ve never shouted rape or anything but it’s not like I’ve given consent. In certain situations it has been pushed on me and it was really horrible. It was aggressive.’
Emma is relating her experiences of being forced by a boyfriend to have sex ‘quite a few times’ when she was 13. She is one of more than half the girls interviewed for a 2011 study of violence in the intimate relationships of disadvantaged teenagers to have reported sexual, physical or emotional partner abuse before the age of 18. The research follows a pioneering study in 2009 on violence in relationships among teenagers in mainstream education. While the 2011 research suggests that children who have been excluded from school are more likely to experience partner violence than their counterparts in education, a third of girls in the earlier study suffered unwanted sexual acts while a quarter had been slapped, punched or beaten by their boyfriends.
The studies’ lead author, Christine Barter, isn’t easily shocked. During her 20-year research career she has explored such issues as institutional child abuse, young people’s experiences of racism, and peer violence in residential children’s homes. The latter was the catalyst for the schools study when participants strayed from the original study remit to talk about violence by boyfriends – a previously under-researched topic in the UK. But she was appalled by the prevalence of the violence in both studies and by the level of acceptance of abuse, particularly in the 2011 research. ‘Violence appeared to be an everyday occurrence, and many girls saw it as normal – albeit unwanted – behaviour,’ she says. Other findings took her and her co-researchers by surprise. ‘In both studies we found that partner violence was as common among 13-year-olds as among older participants,’ Barter explains. ‘Some girls even talked about being abused by their boyfriends at age 11 and 12.’
Controlling behaviour among all participants was more widespread than the researchers had expected, with young people using mobile phones and other new technologies to keep tabs on their partners. ‘Girls in particular felt under pressure to text their boyfriends to tell them what they were doing, or to take photos of themselves to prove their whereabouts,’ says Barter. They struggled to distinguish between concern and control, and put up with unwanted demands because they felt scared, or feared they would lose their boyfriend, while boys were more likely to challenge their partner’s behaviour.
The schools study attracted the attention of government, and formed part of an independent report into the sexualisation of young people. In the wake of the review, the Home Office launched a £2-million advertising campaign to raise awareness of violence in teenage relationships. Barter’s team was heavily involved in the campaign, advising on the storyboards for online films to accompany TV and radio adverts, and on content for posters. The campaign website, ‘This is Abuse’, has been particularly well received by young people, and includes online polls, FAQs, videos showing violent scenarios from both boys’ and girls’ perspectives, and information about where to get help. The campaign has been renewed in light of the 2011 study, a fact that Barter sees as endorsement of robust research that incorporates relevant statistical information as well as – crucially – the views of the participants themselves. ‘It’s not often that you see such direct effects of your research on policy, and one of the things that gave this work such impact was giving young people a voice,’ she says. Barter’s relationship with the NSPCC is central to this work. Having a continued link with a charity dedicated to child welfare, she says, keeps her grounded: ‘It’s all about listening to what young people have to say and transferring those messages into policy and practice.’ The research has many implications for child welfare intervention; participants rarely reported their experiences to professionals, for example, so there is a need for practitioners to include an assessment of partner violence in work with young people. It also indicates that for some teenagers becoming pregnant is not a personal choice or an irresponsible ‘accident’ but something over which they have little control. In the future Barter hopes to explore more fully the role that sexual and physical violence or coercion plays in teenage pregnancy.
Survey of 1,353 young people between 13 and 17 from eight schools in England, Scotland and Wales; 91 in-depth interviews with 62 girls and 29 boys. ‘We asked whole classes to take part in the survey, and interviewed those who were most engaged with it, as well as some of their peers. Many female interviewees reported feeling uncomfortable with controlling aspects of their partner’s behaviour. For those with no issues, the main protective factor was having a focus other than boyfriends.’
• a quarter of girls and 18% of boys reported physical partner violence
• nearly three-quarters of girls and half of boys reported emotional partner violence
• one in three girls and 16% of boys reported sexual partner violence
• most girls but very few boys reported that the violence had a negative impact on their welfare
Semi-structured interviews with 44 boys and 38 girls between 13 and 18 years old via a range of agencies and organisations working with disadvantaged young people in south-west England. The research does not claim to be representative of the UK population, but suggests that levels of violence may be higher than previously assumed. ‘Having a good rapport with interviewees is important. Wherever possible, Marsha Wood, who undertook most of the fieldwork, spent time getting to know the participants and gaining their trust.’
• over half the girls and a quarter of boys reported physical partner violence
• two-thirds of girls and a third of boys reported emotional partner violence
• half the girls and a small minority of boys reported sexual partner violence
• most girls said their experiences had a negative effect on their wellbeing, while most boys were unaffected