Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
 
Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
Volume 34, Number 2, March/April 2002
DIGEST

One-third of Teenagers Experience Abuse Within Heterosexual Relationships

Nearly one-third of U.S. adolescents who have recently been in a heterosexual relationship have been abused by their partners, according to a study of the health and health-related behaviors of a nationally representative sample of youth: Twenty-nine percent have experienced psychological abuse, while 12% have experienced physical abuse.1 For adolescents of both genders, the odds of experiencing psychological abuse, physical abuse or both roughly double or triple with increased age and with increased number of relationships within the past 18 months; several other social and demographic factors (such as race, family structure and religion) are significantly associated with abuse of either males or females.

To determine the prevalence of violence within heterosexual relationships among U.S. adolescents, researchers examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). Add Health respondents were asked to give social and demographic information and to report on up to three romantic relationships that they had had within the 18 months prior to the survey. They were also asked to report any exposure to psychological abuse (such as being sworn at, insulted or threatened) or physical abuse (such as being pushed) within those relationships. Adolescents who reported having 1-3 heterosexual and no homosexual relationships within the previous 18 months were included in the study. Researchers performed polytomous logistic regression analyses to determine which individual factors are associated with abuse within adolescent relationships.

Overall, 7,493 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 21 were included in the study: Sixteen percent were aged 12-14, 59% were 15-17 and the rest were 18-21. Roughly half were female (53%); the majority were white (74%) and non-Hispanic (88%). Fifty-two percent of the respondents reported living with both biological parents, 18% in other two parents households, 21% without a father figure and 3% without a mother figure; 6% reported their family structure as "other." Some 54% had at least one parent with higher than a high school education. When asked about the importance of religion, 36% of adolescents said that religion is very important, 36% that it is fairly important and 28% that it is unimportant. Seventeen percent of respondents attended a small high school (1-400 students), 44% a medium-size high school (401-1,000) and 40% a large high school (1,001-4,000). Two-thirds of adolescents (67%) reported having had one relationship in the previous 18 months, 22% had had two and 11% had had three. The mean grade point average of the respondents was 2.8.

About three in 10 adolescents (32%) reported having experienced any form of abuse within a recent heterosexual relationship; 29% reported having experienced psychological abuse, and 12% physical abuse. Twenty percent had had exposure to only psychological abuse, while 12% had had exposure to physical or to both types of abuse. There was little difference between males' and females' reports of abuse.

For adolescents of both genders, number of relationships and age were significantly associated with abuse in the regression analyses. Adolescents with two relationships had elevated odds of having experienced psychological abuse (odds ratio, 1.6 for males and 1.8 for females) and physical or both types of abuse (1.6 and 2.7, respectively) in comparison with those with one relationship; those with three relationships had even more elevated odds of having experienced psychological abuse (2.4 and 2.1) and physical or both types of abuse (2.9 and 3.4). Male and female adolescents aged 18-21 had higher odds of having experienced psychological abuse than 12-14-year-olds had (2.3 and 1.6); 15-17-year-old and 18-21-year-old males had elevated odds of having experienced physical or both types of abuse (2.0 and 2.5).

Other variables were significantly associated with gender-specific differences. Males without a father figure had elevated odds compared with those who lived with two biological parents, and males who attended a large high school had elevated odds compared with those who attended a small one, of having exposure to psychological abuse (odds ratio, 1.6-1.7). The odds of exposure to physical abuse or to both types of abuse were elevated for black and Asian males in comparison with whites (2.2 for each) and for males who reported their family status as "other" (2.4) in comparison with those who lived with two biological parents. Males with at least one parent who graduated from college had lower odds than those with parents with less than a high school education of having experienced physical or both types of abuse (0.6).

Females with at least one parent who graduated from high school had elevated odds compared with those whose parents had not (odds ratio, 1.8) of having exposure to psychological abuse; the odds of psychological abuse also were elevated for females without a mother figure compared with those who lived with two biological parents (2.1). Females who reported that religion is fairly or very important had 1.3-1.6 times the odds of those who reported that religion is not important to have had exposure to psychological abuse. For females, the odds of physical or both types of abuse decreased by 25% with each one-point increase in grade point average.

The researchers comment, "Given the importance of the number of relationships a respondent has had within a limited time period, the higher prevalence of victimization in older age groups may be partly a function of the greater dating experience that generally accumulates with age." They conclude that their findings "underscore the importance of examining the correlates of partner violence during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, when both the number and seriousness of relationships tend to increase, thus increasing the potential for violence."--J. Rosenberg

REFERENCE

1. Halpern CT et al., Partner violence among adolescents in opposite-sex romantic relationships: findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, American Journal of Public Health, 2001, 91(10): 1679-1685.