Out On The Couch

Dating Violence Among LGBTQIA+ Teens

Posted: 2-29-20 | Muria Nisbett

images of teenagers arguing or fighting and a support group

Muria Nisbett, LCSW

As a mental health professional, you may be familiar with some of the issues faced by teens who identify as LGBTQIA+: bullying, harassment, rejection, and physical and emotional violence. One lesser known and often undiscussed issue is teen dating violence (TDV). Violence against LGBTQIA+ teens is usually categorized as a hate crime–but much of the harm experienced by this population is inflicted by a dating partner. February has been designated as TDV awareness month, and each year, we acknowledge the millions of teens who endure violence in their dating relationships. This article looks specifically at LGBTQIA+ youth, who are often omitted from statistics.

TDV is a significant public health and social justice issue (Murray, King & Crowe, 2016). It is, in fact, the most common form of youth violence, and recent statistics have estimated that roughly 1.5 million U.S. high school students experience TDV each year (LoveisRespect.org, 2015). When these issues are not addressed adequately and early on, they can lead to intimate partner violence later in life (LoveisRespect.org, 2015). Since violent behaviors often begin between 6th and 12th grade (Louisiana Department of Justice, 2015), school administrators, mental health providers, and others who interact with teens should be aware of the warning signs of TDV. Additionally, they should become familiar with best practices to meet the needs of youth. These include acquiring an understanding of how dating violence affects young people who identify as LGBTQIA+ and gaining familiarity with the available resources.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that about 10% of high school students have reported experiencing physical or sexual dating violence (CDC, n.d). While there are many studies that examine TDV, the unfortunate reality is that most of these studies fail to take into account the sexual orientation or gender identity of the respondents (Dank, Lachman, Zweig & Yahner, 2014). For this reason, accurate data on LGBTQIA+ TDV is still largely unknown (Dank, Lachman, Zweig & Yahner, 2014). Some studies have suggested that LGBTQIA+ youth have greater odds of experiencing violence and victimization within intimate relationships than their non-LGBTQIA+ peers (Dank, Lachman, Zweig & Yahner, 2014); rates of cyber and psychological dating abuse as well as physical abuse are significantly higher among LGBTQIA+ young people (Zweig, Dank, Lachman & Yahner, 2013).

The adolescent years are generally a time in which identities are developed and the pursuit of intimacy is negotiated. This developmental period can be filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and a rush of unfamiliar emotions (Espelage, Merrin & Hatchel, 2018). For LGBTQIA+ youth, adolescence can entail significant social isolation and victimization because their dating practices are often deemed socially unacceptable. As a result, these teens are less likely to talk about their dating experiences for fear of further victimization (Espelage, Merrin & Hatchel, 2018). When these teens do open up about negative dating experiences, they are more likely to receive dismissive and demeaning responses (Marrow, 2004, as cited in Espelage, Merrin & Hatchel, 2018). Espelage, Merrin and Hatchel (2018) suggest that the best approach for addressing the needs of LGBTQIA+ youth is to understand their unique experiences with intimate partner violence, and the association between these events and future adverse mental health outcomes.

Teen Dating Violence Statistics

Many therapists are woefully unaware of how common teen dating violence is. Approximately 1.5 million high school students in the U.S. report being intentionally hit or physically harmed in the last year by someone with whom they were romantically involved (Murray, King, & Crowe, 2016), while one in three young people are reported to be in an abusive or unhealthy relationship (Gellar, 2018). Meantime, one in 10 teenagers involved in romantic relationships report being nonconsensually kissed or touched, or physically forced to have sexual relations with their partner (CDC, n.d.). These statistics are even more striking among LGBTQIA+ teens: nationwide, 17.8% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students–in comparison to 5.4% of heterosexual students–reported being forced to have sex (Kann, et al., 2016). A 2013 study conducted by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center found that 23% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth, as compared to 12% of heterosexual youth, have experienced sexual coercion (Zweig, Dank, Lachman & Yahner, 2013). Affirmative therapists, especially those who work with adolescent populations, need to be aware of this problem in order to properly assess their clients and create safety plans. 

Types of Teen Dating Violence

TDV extends far beyond physical abuse–it also includes financial, digital, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse (LoveisRespect.org, 2017). Financial abuse involves using money as a form of control. In financially abusive relationships, the abuser may coerce their partner to use their credit card or debit card; withhold money, thus requiring their partner to beg for allowances; or control what their partner can buy and how their money can and should be spent (LoveisRespect.org, 2017). Financial abuse often begins with subtle acts; these are generally warning signs that should not be ignored.

Digital abuse is becoming more common between teens, though the warning signs are often dismissed. In this type of dynamic, the abusive partner may dictate who their partner can and should be friends with on social media; request passwords to access accounts; constantly text and require immediate responses; pressure their partner to send explicit photographs; and look through their partner’s phone or emails to keep tabs (LoveisRespect.org, 2017). In LGBTQIA+ relationships, digital abuse can also entail an abuser publicly posting relationship status without consent, thereby outing their partner, who may not be ready to disclose their sexual orientation (LoveisRespect.org, 2017). 

Emotional and mental abuse in LGBTQIA+ relationships can differ greatly from the ways in which they show up in heterosexual and cisgender relationships. In most relationships, mental and emotional abuse occurs when the abuser constantly puts down their partner, makes threats of harm, or constantly accuses the other person of cheating. The abusive person may assume control of their partner’s behaviors and actions (LoveisRespect.org, 2017). Meantime, in LGBTQIA+ relationships specifically, the abuser may also use tactics involving fear, shame, and threats of loss of community to control their partner. If the abuser is aware that their partner feels any shame about their sexual orientation or gender identity, they may use this to exert power and control in the relationship (LoveisRespect.org, 2017). Additionally, if the abuser is aware that their partner belongs to a religious community or a traditional family structure, the abuser may use the fear of outing their partner to assume control or cause them to lose their support system.

Limitations in the Laws

At the school level, many of the laws currently implemented fail to provide adequate protection for LGBTQIA+ youth. Quite frankly, some of the laws have done the opposite of protecting them, instead putting them at significant risk (Lenson, 2015). One law currently in place is referred to as “No Promo Homo,” and nine states have implemented it. The law requires school officials to take a neutral stance on sexual and gender identity, and prohibits any discussion or services to promote the well-being of LGBTQ students (Lenson, 2015). 22 states have implemented laws requiring school boards to include curricula on TDV, but none of these provide guidance on sexual minority dating violence (Plichta, 2018). At the clinical level, the American Academy of Pediatrics outlines their recommendation for the assessment for intimate partner violence, but these recommendations do not include guidelines for sexual minorities (Plichta, 2018).

What’s Next?

Given the gaps in the research, the lack of adequate reporting of TDV statistics affecting LGBTQIA+ youth, and the necessity for development of best practices to address the concerns of this population, mental health providers and school officials are in an optimal position to begin meeting these needs. TDV is a developmental stepping stone in the pathway toward adult intimate partner violence (Dank, M., Lachman, Zweig & Yahner, 2014), which can lead to poor mental health outcomes such as increased rates of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicidal ideation among survivors. Prevention and early identification are key, as the primary risk factor for future victimization is early victimization (Plichta, 2018). Further research is needed for a better understanding of the circumstances that place LGBTQIA+ teens at higher risk for dating violence and the consequences of this type of abuse. Such research will assist with the development of prevention and intervention programs that specifically target the current and future needs of this population.

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