We all know the rules: Boys are supposed to be strong, tough, dominant, and sexually accomplished (Berke & Zeichner, 2016; Mahalik et al., 2003); girls are supposed to be submissive, modest, nurturing, sensitive, invested in their appearance, and simultaneously sultry and chaste (Mahalik et al., 2005). These rules have cultivated patriarchal norms that have harmed women in a myriad of ways. For some time it has been argued that these hegemonic gender roles explain much of the violence perpetrated in intimate relationships—that is, intimate partner violence (IPV) and teen dating violence (TDV)—and the sexual violence (SV) perpetrated against women (Gallagher & Parrott, 2008; Moore & Stuart, 2005; Murnen et al., 2002; Parrott & Zeichner, 2003). Of course, there is debate as to whether acts of IPV and TDV are disproportionately perpetrated by males against females. While some have framed IPV/TDV as a primarily male-perpetrator and female-victim phenomenon (DeKeseredy, 2006; Dobash et al., 1992), others have presented evidence that females, too, are frequently perpetrators of IPV/TDV, and males, their victims (Straus, 2008). In her review of the gender asymmetry debate, Sherry Hamby (2009) highlighted the discrepancy in rates of IPV perpetration with a range of 10 percent to 50 percent of all IPV being perpetrated by women.
Notably, these seem to differ depending on the age of the population in which we measure the violence. Among adults, men perpetrate more IPV than women; among teens, girls appear to commit violence against their dating partner as often, or more so, than boys (Foshee et al., 1996; Hamby & Turner, 2013; Orpinas et al., 2013). This is not really surprising given that violence toward males is considered less harmful and more acceptable than violence toward females (Basow et al., 2007; Sorenson & Taylor, 2005). Even as we imagine it in our own head, there is something much more visceral and alarming for most when picturing an adolescent male slapping his girlfriend than when we envision the opposite. Perhaps it is because of those perceptions of harm (or harmlessness). Given actual biological differences between the sexes and the prevailing dictums that boys be strong and tough, we would not expect harm to come to a boy by his girlfriend. But, we would definitely expect boys can do serious physical harm if they were to strike their female dating partner. As the population’s age and physical disparities between the sexes increase, we would also expect that the harm and injury could also increase.
Using data from a nationally representative sample, Hamby and Turner (2013) found that when TDV was defined as “any” physical force, the victimization rate was higher among boys than girls. However, when the definition was more exclusive, counting only injurious or fear-inducing acts of physical violence, the victimization rate for girls was double that of boys. In fact, the data generally support this notion: While rates of physical violence perpetration may not differ between sexes (although many in the clinical and research realm continue to debate this), the rates of injury victimization are consistently disproportionate. Girls and women experience higher rates of injury (and even death) compared with boys and men (Archer, 2000; Black et al., 2011; Hamby & Turner, 2013). Likewise, rates of SV perpetration seem to be consistently and disproportionately perpetrated by males against females; and this is true whether we are talking about adolescents or adults (Black et al., 2011; Hamby & Turner, 2013; Fernández-González et al., 2014). Again, this is to be expected considering the gender roles that require boys and men to be sexually dominant and promiscuous while girls and women are to be chaste (Berke & Zeichner, 2016; Mahalik et al., 2003; Mahalik et al., 2005; Mosher & Sirkin, 1984). Hence, we might expect that boys and men would use any means necessary, including violence, to demonstrate their sexual prowess to themselves and others.
So there it is, mystery solved: Girls and women do commit as many acts of physical violence but they are far less consequential acts of violence. Boys and men are the ones perpetrating the serious physical and sexual acts of violence that result in injury. The debate has been settled. But of course, it’s not that simple. In our work (Reidy et al., 2016) on dating violence among high-risk adolescents (i.e., youth that have been exposed to violence in some manner), we uncovered some unexpected findings. We compared sex differences in psychological, physical, and sexual dating violence, as well as fear and injury resulting from the violence, in a cross-sectional sample of high-risk 11-17 year olds. Contrary to our expectations, we found boys in early adolescence reported more SV and injury victimization than girls of a similar age. Among older adolescents, when physical differences would be expected to favor boys, there were no differences in rates of injury victimization (including injuries requiring medical attention by a health-care professional), indicating that boys were injured as frequently by girls as were girls by boys. Likewise, at age 17 there were no significant differences in SV victimization between sexes.
We thought these discrepant findings may be due, in part, to the nature of the sample and the definition of measurement. The measurement of sexual TDV in this study comprised items reflecting sexually coercive behaviors (e.g., pressuring partner to have sex, unwanted touching, spreading sexual rumors) rather than acts of physical force to penetrate or complete a sexual act. Additionally, we thought perhaps the high-risk nature of the sample (i.e., youth with a history of violence exposure in their homes or community) may have influenced the outcomes pertaining to injury. It is possible prior exposure to violence may engender a phenomenon wherein girls are just as likely as boys to perpetrate severe forms of violence in dating relationships and therefore boys in this population are equally at risk of significant injury.
Fully expecting these results were a fluke or artifacts of methodology, we set out to refute or replicate these findings in a separate high-risk sample of youth. The Linkages data (Swahn & Bossarte, 2009) are derived from a particularly high-risk community and were relatively comparable to the makeup of our previous sample in terms of ethnicity, age, and exposure to violence. In addition, these data measured SV in a more severe form; that is, being forced to have sex or perform a sexual act against one’s wishes. Here again we found that boys reported SV victimization and injury at rates equal to, or greater than, girls (Reidy, Early, & Holland, 2016). There was actually a significant association between biological sex and injury victimization indicating boys reported more frequent injury victimization than did girls, but this effect size was very small. In exploring the literature we identified a similar result reported by Cascardi & Avery-Leaf (2015) who assessed dating violence in a high-risk sample of minority youth. Here, again, there was parity in the rates of victimization for boys and girls. They also found congruence in rates of injury perpetration between boys and girls (these authors did not measure sexual violence). Thus, an unexpected trend may be emerging wherein, among high-risk adolescent populations, boys may experience sexual violence and injurious dating violence as frequently as girls.
So what does this all mean? Well it’s hard to say at this point. Although findings from three separate high-risk samples suggest boys’ rates of victimization may be comparable, I think it is safe to say that there will continue to be some skepticism, which is fair. I do think this is a question that warrants further investigation for several reasons.
First, boys’ victimization in youth may actually contribute to the development of maladaptive cognitive and behavioral strategies that may increase use of violence in future relationships (e.g., Casey et al., 2017; Sumner et al., 2016). We already know that violence exposure/victimization and the severity of such exposures increases the risk of later violent delinquency (Baskin & Sommers, 2014; Turner et al., 2016). Failing to recognize their victimization may be a missed opportunity for primary prevention of later perpetration. This may also explain why the rates of injury and sexual violence perpetration by adult men ultimately overtakes women’s rates of perpetration. Second, the physical, psychological, and social consequences of such victimization has lasting effects on their functioning well into adulthood (Exner-Cortens et al., 2013; Foshee et al., 2013). Third, adolescents perpetrating dating violence may be victims too. Not only are they likely to have a history of their own violence victimization, but these youth are also more likely to have worse educational attainment, criminal justice outcomes, and less stable employment status (Apel & Sweeten, 2010; Tanner et al., 1999). These outcomes will directly affect access to social determinants of health (e.g., education, income, health services, mental health services, etc.: CDC, 2013). Thus, preventing perpetration by enhancing protective factors may improve the long-term health outcomes of these youth and reduce health disparities by increasing access to the critical social determinants of health. Perhaps the main takeaway message from this is that all youth involved in dating violence, regardless of gender and/or status as perpetrator or victim, are victims in a larger societal system and require attention and treatment as such.
Dennis E. Reidy, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist in the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a focus on forensic and neuropsychology from the University of Georgia. His research is broadly focused on the identification of modifiable factors that contribute to the onset of violence and development of strategies to prevent violence at multiple levels of the social ecology.
The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
* Correspondence to: Dennis E. Reidy, Division of Violence Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA 30341; Tel: (770) 488-0525; Fax: (770) 488-1662; Email: email@example.com.
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