by Anna Popnikolova
Content warning for descriptions of abuse, mentions of sexual assault and rape, and sensitive topics including substance abuse and discussions of a suicide attempt.
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, during which local advocacy organizations like A Safe Place on Nantucket work to educate the community about abuse taking place in teen relationships. These organizations offer resources to prevent assault and abuse, as well as free services to survivors of relationship abuse. A Safe Place has implemented several programs for Nantucket youth to educate teens about consent, boundaries, and communication, giving teenagers the resources to create healthy relationships before they have the chance to enter or create a potentially abusive situation. In nearly any passing conversation about sexual assault/abuse, the “one in three” statistic almost always makes an appearance; the statistic in question, provided by Domestic Violence Services Inc. (DVS), announces that “one in three girls are victims of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner”, a rate which exceeds any other rate of teenage violence. For example, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) identified in 2002 that one in five teenagers had reported themselves as a victim of a violent crime, a number which has had the flexibility to rise or fall in the past two decades.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a page on Teen Dating Violence (TDV), which includes CDC surveying statistics, which enforce the aforementioned DVS statistic: “Female students experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence than male students… Students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) or those who were unsure of their gender identity experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence compared to students who identified as heterosexual.” Following another statistic from DVS resources, “only 33% of teenagers who reported having been in an abusive relationship have ever told anyone.”
While no statistics about Nantucket, specifically, are available yet, the number of teen relationship abuse on the island is far from zero—and, for kids and adults alike, this is a problem.
“I think even if there’s one episode of sexual violence, it’s a problem,” explained Julie Kingston, Nantucket High School social worker and Trauma & Child Witness to Violence Therapist at A Safe Place. “I would say until there are no incidents, we have an issue.”
In middle and high school, pre-teens and teenagers are increasingly likely to show interest in romantic and sexual relationships, Kingston acknowledged, and despite the curiosity that comes from teenagers as “sexual beings,” there are other factors that come into play.
The “age of consent” for the state of Massachusetts is sixteen—at this point in life, the law recognizes an individual as “legally capable of consenting to sexual intercourse,” and any minors below the age of 16 are not considered legally capable of consent. Some states have “Romeo and Juliet” laws, which give minors with ❤ year age differences the ability to have legal sex, as long as it is consensual, but this law does not exist in the Massachusetts state legislature.
“I think the age limits are out there for a reason,” Kingston admitted, explaining that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed, and often make reckless decisions with regards to driving, drinking, and otherwise risky behaviors. The situation with sex, she says, is similar; teenagers need to make educated decisions about their personal relationships, knowing the laws in place surrounding those actions. Education for teenagers, as with all other subjects, starts in schools: “that’s where students are, that’s where the kids are. It’s important to give them that information as soon as possible so that they have that knowledge as they begin to explore and experience relationships with others… giving them that information allows them to recognize when something happens that they have not consented to happening.”
“It’s about giving them knowledge about what their rights are as an individual to their body and who they may choose or not choose to share that with,” Kingston explained that education surrounding consent — both legal consent and emotional consent are incredibly important for teenagers to have access to.
Being 30 miles offshore, Nantucket may be sheltered from what some consider “real world” problems: the ones which don’t make their way over on the ferry and breach the island’s shores. Teenage relationship abuse is, unfortunately, not one of these problems. Several Nantucket High School students came forward to share their experiences in abusive relationships. All of these students’ names have been changed in order to protect their anonymity.
“We’re taught from such a young age about “true love” and how it’s practically the goal that will fulfill your life,” began a student, who requested the alias, Salem. “Kids have puppy crushes, their little boyfriends and girlfriends, and it’s cute—it’s innocent. And then it’s not. And then it’s scary. And then it ruins your life.”
Salem explained that, from a young age, he had romantic relationships, as a kid and teenager, and had never learned how to set boundaries in these relationships; ultimately, Salem was sexually assaulted and raped. He attributes his experiences in abusive relationships to the lack of boundaries: “ I thought I had to blindly agree… I just thought that was how it worked, that was just how the world worked.”
The student, who has not reported his experience, pushed for education, conversations, and resources: “It shouldn’t be considered taboo to try and have these conversations. Our bodies aren’t taboo.”
“Boys will be boys”… is a double-edged sword,” Salem shared. “On the one hand, it can be used to justify boys sexually assaulting other people — but, there’s never any discussion on when boys are assaulted.”
Salem, as a male victim of sexual assault, is significantly more rare; the CDC statistic claims that 1-in-26 men have been the victim of attempted or completed rape, in contrast to 1-in-4 women. Despite this disparity in victims, male victims are in no way “better off,” than female victims. A 2013 study done by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) under the National Library of Medicine, concluded, “compared with students who experienced either physical or sexual TDV, female students who experienced both forms of TDV were approximately twice as likely to attempt suicide, and male students who experienced both forms of TDV were roughly 3 times as likely to attempt suicide.”
A former Nantucket High student, under the name Aliana, who no longer lives on Nantucket, shared her experiences being in an abusive relationship—in a very different situation from Salem. Aliana explained that the five-month-long relationship took place two years ago, and was with a boy named Holden. Despite Holden’s mental health problems and substance use, Aliana entered the relationship, not realizing their severity. The beginning of the relationship was, “all good,” except for his developing emotional dependency on her.
“At times I felt almost like his therapist—he would cuddle me and then tell me all of his problems, and I would just sit there combing through his hair and listening and giving him advice.” She felt drained and “exhausted,” by the relationship, but stayed with him. Initially, Aliana felt that she wanted to help him through his problems, but eventually began to feel as if she “needed to help him,” and, as a consequence, “listened to his problems 24/7”.
Aliana began to realize that Holden’s mental health and substance-abuse issues were worse than she had thought: “he would smoke, but he also regularly used acid and shrooms and he did cocaine a couple of times.”
Aliana added that before the two of them had met, he had “crushed a kid’s skull in,” which had resulted in legal problems. The relationship was “vicious,” and “toxic,” and contained large “events,” which Aliana recalled as breaking points. During the first of the two, she had taken several hours to open one of his text messages because she had been having a busy day.
“I got a call a couple hours later and he’s trying to kill himself, she recalled. “He’s overdosing, he says he doesn’t know what he took, he’s crying, he said ‘I need help,’… I said ‘why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘because you didn’t respond’… I was freaking out, panicking, crying… I stayed on the phone with him while he was crying and overdosing…”
Aliana recalled the experience as traumatic and said that after that, she “was so nervous that if I left, he would just overdose again.”
For a few months, their relationship continued the way it had been before, with Holden growing more and more emotionally dependent on her. “Mentally,” she said, “it was the most draining thing I had ever experienced,” until Aliana asked for a weekend to herself so that she could spend time with her friends and have some space. “I said I wanted a break, and he said, if you do that, I’m going to kill myself.” A few weeks after this, Aliana officially broke up with Holden, and believes that he attempted suicide after the breakup.
“I’m definitely a lot more cautious now, and I’m definitely a lot more worried now. If I say no and someone gives the slightest hint that they’re not gonna listen… even with friendships, that just fucks me up. I feel like I’ve pushed so many people away by accident.” She shared that the relationship has affected her current relationships, both romantic and platonic, and wishes that she had been able to set boundaries with Holden.
“I feel like if I had been educated more, I’d have been able to set more boundaries, and know that this is something that I don’t have to do… one boundary that I wish I’d set is when I say something, it’s final. If I’m like ‘no’, it means no.”
Another teenager, renamed Ben, who experienced a controlling and abusive online friendship, felt similarly to Aliana: obligated to help their friend when they were in a bad mental state, despite the negative effects it was having on them.
“They would message me whenever they were upset,” Ben described their online interactions, and said that their friend would often, “send me images of self-harm which were sometimes graphic and would text me and say that they were going to use drugs or kill themself… I wanted to be there for them but it got to the point where every time I saw a notification I would get really freaked out… I would shake and have panic attacks when I saw I had an Instagram chat notification.”
Ben reflected, and explained that the experience was taxing for him, mentally, and often made him very anxious. As he was torn between wanting to help his friend and being in a very overwhelming situation.
“If you ever feel panicked or start shaking when you just see that you have a message from someone, that’s a good sign you shouldn’t be messaging them,” he remarked.
One of the most important things that the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s resources identify as a warning towards a currently abusive relationship or one with the potential to become abusive is, “preventing or discouraging you from spending time with friends, family members, or peers,” as well as, “extreme jealousy.” Many people in abusive relationships — teens and adults alike, experience partners who are controlling and jealous, who restrict their freedom and interactions with people other than them. These relationships oftentimes cause victims to draw back from their friends and family and become further isolated. An NHS student under the name Jane brought forward her story, where she was placed in this kind of situation, with a temperamental partner and a looming fear of isolation.
“In the moment, it felt like nothing else mattered to me more than staying on that person’s good side and making sure they didn’t get mad… I would stop hanging out with my family or friends just so I could spend time making sure that that person wouldn’t get mad and blow their top at me.” Jane’s experience was difficult because of an added feeling of separation from her peers, and lack of a support system to help her leave the abusive situation. Reflecting, Jane said that, had she felt more accepted by her peers, she may not have gotten into the relationship in the first place.
“I was so happy to have someone who cared (or seemed to care) that I jumped the gun. I think that it’s the case for a lot of people who get into bad relationships, which is why finding your group is so important, and making sure that you don’t have to do anything irrational just to have someone care.”
Jane said that experience made her think a lot more about her relationships, and regretted the time and energy that she devoted to the abusive relationship.
The effects of an abusive relationship may not only be felt by the victim of the abuse, but also the people surrounding the victim; the family and friends of someone who is being or has been victimized by relationship abuse. The people making up a victim’s support system may also feel taxed by the abuse.
“It’s hard to know that someone you love is being treated so badly but there is nothing you can do to get them out of the situation,” shared a Nantucket High student, who has been renamed Phoebe. Her best friend entered an abusive relationship and remained in the relationship for six months. While the two had a group of friends, Phoebe was her friend’s main source of support.
Phoebe’s friend “started dating this guy and he was kind of a lot older than her, but other than that the relationship didn’t seem too harmful early on. As the relationship progressed and they had been together longer she was just really sad for a lot of the time and always talked about how upset the relationship was making her.” Phoebe felt powerless to help her friend and could offer little more advice than consistent encouragement to break up with her boyfriend.
“It was hard to see how being treated so terribly was affecting her. I didn’t know how to help because when people are in situations like that, it’s really hard to leave,” she said. After her friend broke up with her boyfriend, Phoebe found out that he had sexually assaulted her friend multiple times during their relationship.
Despite the fact that dating abuse is not unique to one specific group of people, certain groups typically gather more awareness than others. As with male and female victims of abuse/assault and the misconceptions surrounding gender, many assumptions are associated with heterosexual as compared to homosexual relationships and the abuse that may take place within those relationships.
The National Judicial Education Program identifies the numbers of LGBTQ+ youth being higher than heterosexual-identifying youth in victims of assault/abuse from romantic partners. A study conducted by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center showed that 43% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing physical dating violence, compared to 29% of heterosexual youth, 59% experiencing psychological dating abuse compared to 46% of heterosexual youth, and sexual coercion being 23% compared to 12% of heterosexual youth. Transgender youth, according to the UIJ study, showed the highest risks of all types of dating violence, 88.9% reporting physical dating violence, 58.8% reporting psychological dating violence, and 61.1% reporting sexual coercion.
The NJE explains that LGBTQ+ victims of TDV may be unable to identify their abuse as TDV, because it is commonly defined in heterosexual terms. Oftentimes, TDV is not reported from LGBTQ+ victims because of fear of “outing”—that is, having their sexuality exposed against their will. Oftentimes, the TDV may not be defined within “dating” terms, because the abuse occurred outside of a relationship or was not part of a clearly defined romantic relationship, which is more common with LGBTQ+ victims.
This was the case with a student under the name Wendy, who experienced sexual assault from a close friend, who she had identified as a trusted person in her life. Wendy explained that, at the time of the assault, she had been in middle school.
“I hadn’t had any kind of sexual experience. We had been friends since we were little and always had jokingly perverted moments where we would joke about dicks and vaginas or having sex with each other.”
Her friend had been telling her about problems she was experiencing with her then-boyfriend, and their on-again-off-again relationship had been “going through a rough patch.” At the time, Wendy recalled that she had been struggling with her sexuality, which she already knew was on the queer spectrum.
“One night we were sleeping over and I told her I had never felt sexual feelings for anyone, she wanted to see if she could change that… She made advances that I wasn’t fully comfortable with. At the time, I had some romantic feelings for her, but I hadn’t wanted it to go this far and though I slightly consented, I wanted it to stop.”
Wendy remained under the impression after the assault that it had been her fault, and that she had let it happen—which she believed placed some of the blame on her.
“Knowing she was having a rough time with her boyfriend, I felt bad and simply let it happen. Though I expressed a little bit of discomfort, I sat through it.” Following that evening, Wendy and her friend remained close.
For victims of situations like those bravely shared by Salem, Aliana, Ben, Jane, Phoebe, and Wendy, there are resources available on Nantucket Island, and A Safe Place works towards establishing programs both to support victims or the friends/families of victims and to prevent future abuse.
The Date Smart program is run by A Safe Place, and organized by Crystal Mautner, who is the Supervised Visitation Program Manager for A Safe Place and does prevention work with the Boys and Girls Club on Nantucket. Date Smart is run from October-December for 6th-8th graders, and it began in 2018. The collaborative program takes place at the B&G club, and was “designed to allow Club members to examine their feelings about dating and relationships,” and to help the middle schoolers, “build the skills they need to achieve healthy relationships free of violence and abuse for themselves.” Mautner identified education for teens on relationship health as very important.
“We want Nantucket youth to know that we are here to support them and answer any questions that they may have… it is so important for teens to be educated on healthy relationships, what that looks like, as well as unhealthy relationships and what signs to look for.”
In addition to Date Smart, a more recent program has been put into place, also at the Boys and Girls Club—this one focused on LGBTQ+ youth. The program, called Rainbow Club, is run by Annabel Danheim, who is an Advocate of Domestic Violence and Assault at A Safe Place. The club is split into a group of 3rd-6th graders, and a group for 7th-8th graders.
“We bring in pizza and we talk to the kids about the LGBTQ, what it stands for, we raise awareness on why it’s important to talk about these issues, making the kids feel like they have somebody to go to,” she explained. “We know that LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to report that they’ve been physically assaulted by one of their peers, so it’s important to start those conversations early..”
The club meets with the younger group on Wednesdays and the teenagers on Fridays, from 4-5. Danheim, who is new to the program, explained some of the challenges she’s noticed LGBTQ+ youth experiencing “a lot of fear, I think, is the main thing. A lot of people just don’t know who to turn to… I think most of them are just really scared… they just don’t know who to turn to.”
The programs run by A Safe Place and the prospective presentation that the organization may be bringing to Nantucket High School is centered around educating teenagers and giving them the resources to make informed decisions. Students who reported experiencing relationship abuse often commented that they would have been less likely to enter their abusive situations or allow them to escalate as far as they did, had they been given the knowledge and tools necessary to set healthy boundaries.
“I don’t think you fully realize that the relationship you’re in is bad until it’s actually over… you just always kind of think you’re overreacting or being annoying by talking about it,” Ben explained, recalling his online friendship, and what difficult circumstances he had been placed in. At the time, however, he hadn’t been able to identify the situation as abusive; he didn’t see anything wrong.
Jane looked back on her past abusive relationship, wishing that she had had a stronger support system of peers. Her conclusion was similar to many of the other students who have been victimized by abusive relationships, who made it through tough situations as survivors of dating violence, whatever type it may have been. She lamented, “I lost a lot of my life that I’ll never get back.”
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