Dangerous liaisons

Can a program pioneered by young women who were victims of dating violence teach teens to end the abuse?

Published March 21, 2006 11:51AM (EST)

It's a warm March evening at a youth center in northern New Jersey. Ten minutes ago, about 15 teenage girls, black, white and Latina, almost all in jeans, were playing some boisterous, scrappy billiards or practicing hip-hop moves. Now they're sprawled on couches listening quietly to a presentation -- until some of them are suddenly told to get up.

"Can you go in the corner and stand under the basketball hoop?" one of the two presentation leaders asks a girl. "Can you come here and do jumping jacks?" she asks another, without smiling. "I'll tell you when to stop." And another: "Can you come forward here and sing 'Happy Birthday'?" Guffaws, protests. The leader relents, but only slightly. "OK, you can just say it if you want." The game continues, like some sort of extreme Simon Says. "You in the white jacket, can you go walk around the room?" Girls are walking, singing, jumping all around, their faces reddening while their friends snicker on the couch. Finally, they're told to sit down.

"How did you guys feel when I made you do what I do?" the leader asks. The chorus: "Embarrassed." "You were controlling." "I felt like you had no respect." "If you're gonna ask me to do something, at least do it with courtesy!"

"Then why did you do it?"

Because, they say, they felt like they had to. Like they'd get in trouble if they didn't.

"The reason why we do this game," says the leader, 20-year-old Chinonye ("Chin-EYE-ah") Chukunta, "is to show you how a victim feels inside an abusive relationship."

Chinonye and her presentation partner, Shaina Weisbrot, 19, are two of the co-founders of TEAR: Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships. They're well aware that, if statistics are any indication, one in five of those girls already knows exactly how a victim feels, that one in three is either in a violent relationship or knows someone who is, and that girls between 16 and 24 are more likely than any other age group to experience relationship abuse. Chinonye, Shaina and their three partners -- who also juggle college classes and paid jobs -- travel to New Jersey schools and community groups presenting workshops on dating violence awareness and prevention, up to three times a week. What makes 3-year-old TEAR unique is this: Its presenters speak directly from experience. All friends since junior high, each TEAR member has been through at least one abusive relationship -- except Chinonye, who has become an expert on helping a friend who's being abused.

Organizations like TEAR, founded and run exclusively by teens, appear to be rare. But TEAR -- and its success -- are part of an explosion of dating violence resources that has, for good reasons and sad, taken place over the last 10 years.

In 1996, by way of comparison, it took some doing for me to convince the editors of Parade magazine that "dating violence" existed in the first place. At the time, I could offer only scattered, tiny-scale statistics, a few examples of community efforts and school programs -- and a pile of newspaper clippings about teen girls murdered by their boyfriends. But my story finally ran on the cover; over the two weeks that followed, the volume of calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline doubled. It existed, all right.

Today, teens have far more resources not only for support, but also for prevention. There are now hundreds of dating-violence awareness programs in communities and schools, many with teen workshop presenters. The National Center for Victims of Crime offers a Dating Violence Resource Center. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, declared Feb. 6-10 of this year National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week, calling on government and private groups to sponsor educational activities. The response was more than ceremonial: The American Bar Association, for one, worked with teens to create a dating violence "toolkit" available to schools -- including safety tips, key phone numbers, a DVD of teens talking about their experiences, and curriculum ideas for teachers.

Awareness of dating violence has increased, in part, as educators have educated themselves, says Patti Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW) and a pioneer in the field. In the late 1980s, Giggans says, her organization was focused on early intervention: educating teens about healthy relationships in order to prevent domestic violence down the road. "We'd go into schools and talk to students about not growing up to be battered and batterers, but then they'd come talk to us in the hallway and say things like, 'He makes me go home and call him every night at 7 -- is that a 'controlling behavior' kind of thing?'" she says. "That's how it dawned on us: We were talking about the future, but it was happening now."

Even the term "dating violence" itself has had to come into its own, like "date rape." (Giggans believes it was popularized by her past collaborator and fellow pioneer Barrie Levy, author of several books on the topic, including "Dating Violence: Young Women in Danger.") It was once just as revolutionary to assert that a "date" could "rape" you as it was to assert that obsessive teens were engaged in anything but puppy love.

It's also become clear to educators and advocates that while girls are still the victims in a majority of cases, they can be perps, too. (Guys are even less likely than girls to report abuse, so the numbers of male victims may be higher than anyone realizes.) Dating violence in same-sex relationships also seems to be about as prevalent as it is in straight relationships.

Yet despite the "proliferation" of resources that Giggans has seen in recent years, there's still a long way to go, she says. Some schools still decline LACAAW's violence-prevention curriculum -- in use by thousands of schools and youth programs nationwide and abroad -- saying, "We don't have that problem here." School leadership, system-wide, remains slow to repond to their efforts. Many states still make it difficult for people in dating relationships to secure orders of protection. And, of course, the problem persists: Shaina says that virtually no TEAR presentation ends without someone approaching, or at least e-mailing, to share her, or his, situation.

Shaina herself has escaped two violent relationships, one that began when she was 13, and one that ended, believe it or not, mere months ago -- nearly three years after she co-founded TEAR. Shaina sees the irony. "I did not want to face that this was still happening," she admits, explaining that the second relationship initially seemed like salvation from the mind control she'd succumbed to in the first: obeying orders to wear baggy clothes and stop hanging out with her friends. But the second, too, spun into violence: shaking, shoving, even death threats. "It just shows you how difficult it is to leave, how even when you know all the information, someone can make you feel like they're the only one for you," she says. Is it really over this time? "I'm gone," she says. Phone number and e-mail changed, no contact at all. "TEAR saved my life."

And so did Chinonye, Shaina says. The two have been best friends since they were 12. They, along with two other pals, had the inspiration for TEAR in their East Brunswick, N.J., school library, when they were supposed to be studying for midterms. Three of the four had experienced relationship abuse; Chinonye had stuck with them through it all. ("Shaina could scream at me and hang up on me and the next day I'd still be like, 'Wanna hang out?'" she says.) They started by organizing a dating-violence awareness day at their school -- attended by 100 girls -- and then, Shaina says, "We decided we didn't want to stop." TEAR now has five members who rotate duties: arranging and doing presentations, maintaining the Web site, answering e-mails. (They offer TEAR's e-mail as a resource at every event, promising confidentiality.)

TEAR also has bigger plans: a national organization, a hotline, shelter services. With the passion of a convert, Shaina is clear that she wants to make TEAR, or something like it, her career. But for now, she's satisfied with the direct impact they're having already. "I feel like every time we leave if we've seen one change in a girl's face, if we've seen one tear, gotten one thank you, we've done our job," she says.

At the recent North Jersey event, Shaina and Chinonye discuss a slide depicting the "cycle of abuse," showing how the "honeymoon period" can devolve into threats of, then actual, violence -- bringing the "honeymoon period" right back. ("I'm so sorry, I'll go into therapy, here's some flowers.") They are careful to use gender-neutral pronouns, saying that a slide that reads, "Abuse of Male Privilege," should really say, "Abuse of Authority." They talk about the importance of offering an abused friend unconditional love and support -- "Be the rock, the predictability they're not getting in this relationship," Shaina says -- and when it comes time, to decide that safety overrides secrecy.

And they ask tricky questions: "Agree or disagree: It's the victim's fault for being abused." Here, the conversation happens to be uncontroversial -- the girls appear to get that in abusive relationships, by their nature, there's some "You Must Stay!" brainwashing going on -- but it's not always so simple, Shaina says. Especially when TEAR does coed presentations (which she prefers), there's much more victim-blaming, by both girls and guys, that they've got to work through. Claims like "She must like it!" are hard for Shaina to hear, but she says she's learned not to get -- or at least act -- defensive.

But there's definitely emotion in the room that night. Some of the girls -- Salon is disguising the minors' identities, and that of the youth center, to protect their confidentiality -- resent the bitch-and-ho factor in some rap ("It's derogatory and might lead the guy to think, 'That's what I need to call her, or I won't look cool,'" one girl suggests); a precocious 13-year-old, blond hair half out of a ponytail, makes this slightly lisping speech: "It just pains me to see that women have come so far, that we're strong, that we can intimidate, but that girls in abusive relationships don't realize that they can have that effect, that they can say" -- and here her voice rises -- "Stop hitting me! Don't say that to me! I'm not like that! You can't push me around because I'm a girl! I'm not like that and you can't keep abusing me or I'll end it! She goes on: "Women have our emotions on our side and we can force that on a guy and we can be so cruel when it comes down to it and" -- her voice rises again -- "they're not gonna know what's coming and if it came down to it we could probably make a grown man cry because we would dig and dig and dig and we'd pick at things that hurt him so bad. And for people to get abused when they're dating someone is just wrong." Now she's yelling. "You say you love that person, so then why are you hitting them? Why are you saying they're a slut? Why are you saying they're worthless? You're wrong! You shouldn't do that!"

Clearly some nerves have been touched. I also notice that one girl, the loudest pool player and liveliest dancer of all, is strikingly quiet and still now, slumped in her seat, left cheek mashed into her hand.

Shaina normally tells her own story at the end of the presentation, but tonight she's forgotten to bring the essay that she usually reads from. Her quick impromptu summary leaves the girls with a lot of questions -- "Like, what did he do?" "Do you feel stronger now?" -- but it's hard to tell exactly what impression her story has made.

Giggans says that while teen-to-teen education is generally extremely effective -- "Teens at this point aren't paying a whole lot of attention to what adults are saying," she notes -- you can never be 100 percent sure what effect teens' speaking from experience will have on their peers. "Kids don't automatically relate to just one person in front of them, given everyone's diverse background, the class system in this country, and so on. It's a challenge because people like to disidentify. They like to say, 'I'm not like them so it's not gonna happen to me.' 'They haven't walked around in my shoes, so this is bullshit.' There's that barrier. That's why the youth programs work best when there's a large number of different teens for kids to relate to -- there's a certain critical mass," she says. "Still, honestly, any time kids see someone up there being brave, and not judgmental, it has an effect."

After the presentation, the once-loudmouthed pool player approaches Shaina and Chinonye. Wiry and thin, at only 16 she's taller than them, but right now her voice -- what few words she says -- makes her seem tiny. Her boyfriend had been hitting her, shoving her, pounding on the door of her house, she says. "I did something stupid," she whispers. "I took him back."

"You're not stupid," says Shaina, giving her a card with TEAR's e-mail and emergency numbers. "She was in a relationship like that," says an adult staff member, pointing to Shaina. "Does she look stupid?" The girl smiles toward the floor and shakes her head no. A friend calls her from the pool table and her head snaps up at the sound of her name. "Wait!" she yells, grinning and turning on her heel. "I'll break!"

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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