Teenagers' opinions about when violence is acceptable or not can be influenced by the way they perceive men and women and the relationships between them. Simply telling young people that violence is wrong won’t stop it happening. Schools need to teach children about gender and sexuality first in order to prevent violence becoming seen as acceptable in certain situations.
Throughout their adolescence, young people can be exposed to high levels of violence. Physical abuse was reported by a quarter of girls and 18% of boys in a 2009 survey of 13 to 21-year olds. In the same survey, sexual abuse was reported by more than a third of girls and 16% of boys.
Young teenagers were just as likely to report violence by a partner as older teenagers were.
Many young people tolerate violence in teenage relationships. A landmark 1998 study by the Zero Tolerance Charitable Trust found that nearly half of young people surveyed thought that it was acceptable for a boyfriend to act aggressively towards his partner in certain circumstances. In addition, three quarters of young men and more than half of young women surveyed thought the woman was “often” or “sometimes” to blame for violence enacted against her by her partner.
More recent research also suggests that young people can grow accepting of violence in certain circumstances. Other research has found there may be a link between conservative gender attitudes and acceptance of violence. While the knowledge that young people accept violence is becoming well-established, our understanding of why they do is less developed.
My own research with 14 and 15-year-olds in the north of England revealed that young people have nuanced understandings of what behaviour constitutes violence and when it is unacceptable.
Young people readily and articulately characterise violence as encompassing a range of behaviour, including physical, verbal, sexual and emotional abuse. Pushing, shouting, jealousy, name-calling, rape and child abuse were all named by young people as examples of violent behaviour.
The majority of young people in my study also seemed aware that the majority of violence is perpetrated by young men. Some participants offered more detailed descriptions of perpetrators of violence which included class-based or racial characteristics. A small minority of the teenagers said women were perpetrators of violence.
Not always a problem
The young people I interviewed were less consistent in their views on whether violence is a problem. Not all violence is seen as “bad” and some violence is even seen as acceptable or as deserved. Their views varied according to the description of the violence, but most importantly, according to their understandings of how men and women behave in different circumstances.
Violence between men was primarily viewed as natural, innate and driven by a specifically “male” biology. This type of violence was not always viewed positively but was most often seen as necessary or understandable in its use to resolve a dispute, such as to protect a female loved-one or to display manhood.
Young people drew on fairly traditional ideas about male behaviour to justify violence between men. In other words, violence was accepted because it was being used to enact or reinforce expected gender behaviour.
Plain wrong, or merely trivial?
Violence by men towards women was seen as “wrong” by the vast majority of young people. Yet when specific scenarios were discussed, young people began to offer justifications. They viewed it as acceptable and even deserved in some cases, particularly in circumstances where women were not seen to be conforming to expected behaviour within relationships. For example, when they may have lied to their partner or been unfaithful.
In one scenario where violence was seen as acceptable by some, Steve is playing around with his girlfriend’s phone and sees that she has received many texts from another boy in their year. When Steve asks his girlfriend about this, she says she should be allowed to have male friends and he should stop getting upset about nothing. Steve pushes his girlfriend and calls her a “slut”.
Violence by women towards men was also seen as unproblematic. It was often seen as an understandable response for a girl, if also undesirable behaviour. The young people I interviewed saw women as being more emotional and fragile than men. They were also viewed as physically weaker and their potential to hurt or cause harm when they used violence was therefore not viewed as significant.
Views on gender are the key
All this suggests that simply telling young people that violence is wrong will not prevent them from accepting it. Young people have more nuanced understandings of violence that are greatly influenced by their views on gender – what is normal, expected and appropriate for men and women to do, both in and outside relationships.
This distinction between different forms of violence makes wholesale prevention difficult. Given that gender appears to be a primary influence on young people’s views on violence, schools should prioritise teaching about equality between the genders in order to effectively challenge the acceptance and justification of some forms of violent behaviour.
This could include cross-curricular teaching about gender stereotypes, sexism, sexual and gender pressures and gender-based harassment and violence. Recent research evidence suggests that sexualised and physical violence are prevalent in higher education too, indicating a need for preventative work to be done early on in the education cycle.