Feature Story: Protecting Our Youth

DEPT: Feature Story

STORY: Teena Apeles

In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, writer Teena Apeles explores a different side of this serious topic–young Asian Americans and dating violence.

When the news hit that 19-year-old performer Chris Brown was arrested for physically attacking his 21-year-old girlfriend and singer, Rihanna, dating violence came to the forefront of the public’s attention. The shock of the incident came in many forms: that such high-profile stars could be a victim and a perpetrator of such violence, that dating violence was a more serious epidemic than people thought, and the surprising responses of many teenage girls who faulted the victim. Just what is dating violence and how is it affecting Asian American youth today?

Dating Violence Defined

Dating violence is a form of domestic violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines dating violence as “the physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence within a dating relationship.” The Center for the Pacific Asian Family notes that it can be “committed by a current or past boyfriend or girlfriend” and involves verbal abuse (name-calling and verbal threats), physical abuse, emotional abuse (mind games) and sexual abuse/assault. Dating Violence Resource Center goes further to describe dating violence as “controlling, abusive and aggressive behavior in a romantic relationship.”

It is difficult to obtain specific statistics on the incidence of dating violence among Asian American youth because of the scarcity of data; in studies on the subject, Asian Americans are often classified as “other,” bunched in with other smaller minority groups. What we do know is that, on average, one in three girls in the United States has been a victim of dating violence, two-thirds of them will not report it to anyone and, based on a study in New York of teen girls, about 80 percent will remain in abusive relationships.

While a couple of these figures seem to decrease as girls become older and more educated, the statistics are still frighteningly high. The choice to stay with an abusive boyfriend extends to college female students as well, with 39 percent to 54 percent of victims remaining in physically abusive relationships, according to the Dating Violence Resource Center. Unfortunately, the center also states that of the 50 percent of victims on college campuses who do report the violence to someone, only 20 percent of them turn to the authorities. What makes it extremely difficult to come forward is that the perpetrator is often someone close to them: 60 percent of date rapes on college campuses are committed in casual or steady dating relationships. And the incidence of dating violence among youth and young adults is likely much higher because so many cases go unreported.

The Hard Truth

“One in three women will experience physical abuse during her lifetime,” says Amara Jade, community outreach director at Asian/Pacific-Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP) in Washington, D.C. “That statistic covers physical abuse, but we know that domestic violence constitutes a range of abuses including physical, mental, emotional and economic abuse.”

This statistic is consistent with the dating violence statistic among American youth. The Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence notes that 41 percent to 60 percent of Asian Americans experience physical and/or sexual violence over the course of their lifetime. So it is far from a stretch to assume that such violence begins at a young age, beyond the household. And studies have shown that young women, specifically ages 20 to 24, are the most vulnerable to rape and sexual assault.

The women at DVRP know these facts all too well and weren’t surprised by the Brown-Rihanna news. “Teen dating violence, like domestic violence, does not discriminate based on socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual identity. However, it is always shocking to see the media frenzy around these two celebrities,” says Chaitra Shenoy, board member of DVRP and policy and technical assistance attorney at Break the Cycle, a site educating youth about domestic and dating violence. “For most of us who work in anti-gender-based violence organizations, we know that celebrities are also victims and perpetrators of these crimes. What was more shocking than that incident were the responses by young people to this incident. We were a bit taken back as many teenage girls were blaming Rihanna for the incident, assuming she did something to make her boyfriend angry at her, enough to use physical violence.”

Despite graphic images of Rihanna’s bruises circulating on the Internet, in a survey of 200 teenagers by the Boston Public Health Commission, a startling 46 percent blamed Rihanna for the incident and 52 percent felt she and Brown were both responsible. In a cursory search of Asian American blog postings and comments, young women in the community didn’t seem to share the sentiment. One blogger from Asian-interest sorority Sigma Psi Zeta wrote “to consider that ‘she deserved it’ should not even enter into dialogue. No one deserves to be abused. Nothing can justify physical violence, and ‘self-defense’ will never be able to explain the bruises.” Others commented that they found Brown’s behavior “totally inappropriate” and that it was “really sad” that people said Rihanna faked the incident.

Connecting to Youth

Over the past decade, schools across the nation put teenage dating violence programs in place to educate their students and to help teens develop skills to form positive and healthy relationships. The Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence had seen the need for teen dating violence education early on, in 2001, when it developed the Waves of Asian Voices Emerging (WAVE) curriculum to serve Asian and Asian American youth in the Boston area. (And since Rihanna’s beating came to light, demand for such programs and educational workshops has increased.) But the high incidence of dating violence continues.

At college campuses across the nation, when students first start their university careers they are introduced to services and centers specifically serving victims of dating violence and sexual harassment. Yet a large percentage of those abused, across all races, never come forward or ask for help. What’s so disturbing is that some students don’t see this abuse as wrong. In 2003, the National Center of Victims for Victims of Crime reported that in one study “approximately 70 percent of female students listed at least one form of physical violence (for example, slapping, punching, or kicking) as acceptable, and more than 80 percent described dating situations in which physical force was acceptable.”

Are Asian American teens and young adults really aware of how serious dating violence is?

“I think they are aware, ” says Sheryl A. Rodriguez, national president of the Asian American-interest sorority Alpha Phi Gamma Sorority Inc. “But I believe that people still have the notion in their minds that ‘this can’t happen to me’ or ‘this is not domestic violence.’ I think it is the fear of admitting that you may be a victim that blinds us from the truth.”

Rodriguez notes her own sorority is very much involved in the battle against domestic violence. “Each of our schools addresses this issue on a university level as well as with the community,” she says. “The sisters have had speakers come to their campus to address domestic violence and how to identify a person that may be in a domestically violent relationship.” They have participated in walks against domestic violence, provided self-defense workshops and partnered with other organizations with a common goal to address the problem on their campuses.

The Cultural Barrier

The statistics are clear – whether in high school or college, white or Asian, about 50 percent of dating violence victims never tell anyone about the abuse. So why are these educated, English-speaking Asian American young women still living with abuse? Rodriguez feels it comes down to cultural issues. “Because we are Asian Americans, sometimes it is difficult to break down the barrier of being passive, and to speak up when there is an issue,” she says. “There may be times when we know something is wrong, but because of the way we were brought up, we remain silent. Our culture highly values family, and at times when we make decisions, it is not based on what we want, but based on what will be best for our families. Also, there could be a sense of embarrassment to yourself and to your family name if attention were brought to your issue regarding violence.”

Her sorority sister, Christine Nguyen, national vice president of Alpha Phi Gamma, adds that it’s also a question of not being able to recognize abuse. “I remember being a young to late teen and not realizing many of the signs and just how many people close to us that have actually been involved with dating violence at one point or another,” she says.

The teenage and college years are a very pivotal time for boys and girls who are only beginning to learn about relationships and sex. But in an Asian American household, there may not always be an open dialogue to discuss such issues.

“I think that domestic violence and sexual violence are still very taboo subjects in Asian American communities, even among the youth. For many Asian Americans, they come from families that engaged in abusive or violent behaviors,” says Chun Mei Lam, a graduate student at UCLA and hotline counselor at Los Angeles-based Center for the Pacific Asian Family, who notes it’s not so different from communities of other races. “As Asian American teenagers enter the dating world, they’re working with the information and knowledge that has been given to them over the course of their lives.”

The range of relationships teenagers in general are exposed to varies. Some are healthy, some are abusive; some have discussed sex and dating with their parents, some have not. Where there’s no open communication, youth turn to friends, social networks and media for answers, notes Lam. “As a result, there will definitely be those who do not know how to be a healthy and supportive significant other, and unfortunately, some will engage in controlling or abusive behavior,” she says. “For those experiencing such behavior, some will be able to recognize unhealthy aspects of their relationships while others may mistaken controlling behavior, such as constant checking up via phone calls/text messaging, controlling behavior towards clothing choice, and isolation from friends, as signs of love.”

Nguyen of Alpha Phi Gamma feels that expressing your feelings is not always something fostered in Asian American culture. “The expectation placed on young Asian Americans to deal with their problems and handle them on their own is very high,” she says. “The hurdle is to make them feel comfortable to discuss it and recognize those signs of domestic violence as they often come from surprising places and people.”

She adds, “I have learned that even though there is a wealth of information and help out there, the abusers make sure those they abuse become isolated and are controlled mentally. They instill fear and helplessness in their victims so that those issues aren’t revealed and discussed amongst other Asian Americans.”

What we have to remember, stresses Lam, is that finding oneself in an abusive relationship is a very complicated matter at any age. “Most of our significant others don’t verbally intimidate us or slap us on the first date,” she says. “If they did, it would be much easier to walk away. Usually, we fall in love with a person who is kind, sincere and loving, and then the abuse begins. At that point, it becomes much harder to leave – for teenagers, young professionals, elderly women, everyone.”

Targeted Prevention

What is encouraging is the fact that youth-based Asian American organizations are trying to become more educated about domestic violence issues.

“Like most 20-somethings, API youth are actively engaging in exploring sex, relationships and sexual identities,” says Shenoy of Break the Cycle and DVRP. “The younger generation is receptive to ending gender-based violence. We believe that youth are really interested in addressing this issue and are actively figuring out ways to engage in the movement, while getting their friends, classmates and colleagues involved as well.”

The Alpha Phi Gamma sorority is a great example of young women actively participating in the fight against gender-based violence. “Our national philanthropy is the fight against domestic violence, so it is an issue we have and do discuss,” says national vice president Nguyen.

CPAF and DVRP are among the many Asian American organizations across the nation that reach out to Asian-interest sororities and fraternities that want more information on dating violence. And at the high school level, CPAF has trained peer counselors to increase awareness among Asian American teenagers. They’ve found that working with peer counselors has made a huge difference in reaching youth, making it easier to get the message across.

Shenoy at Break the Cycle concurs: “Research shows that when a young individual is seeking help to leave an abusive relationship, they turn to their peers for support. Educating peers with the right information on the dynamics of teen dating violence and their legal rights is as important as empowering the survivor.”

Progress Report

Much has changed since the arrival of the Internet, and going farther back, the women’s rights movement. In the Asian American community, it’s a constantly changing fabric made up of immigrants and an American-born population who come from often drastically different backgrounds. And with that, how organizations fight dating or domestic violence in the racial and specific ethnic groups has had to adapt as well.

“We know that, like with our elders, gender-based violence is still something that is hard to address for the generation born and brought up here. We understand that the methods of abuse have changed, like the use of technology and stalking, but the taboos are still very prevalent in our communities,” says Shenoy. “We are really hopeful that no one is reverting back. Even in 2009, we are facing the same obstacles that we faced in 1990, and organizations like ours are seeking out support from every community member, including men and religious leaders.”

Dialogue and increasing awareness continues to be key, says Lam of DVRP. “I don’t think that violence is something that is innate. It is something that has been learned or at least reinforced by our environment,” she says. “It is vital for us to talk to youth and even those in their 20s or 30s about domestic violence and alternative models of healthy relationships. To prevent violence we must also teach young men and women to respect their partners and to empower them to deem abuse as unacceptable.”

Measuring progress is a difficult task. More survivors are speaking out, more individuals are joining the cause at the local and policy level and even a celebrity news story has helped give the battle an added boost. “Parents and community leaders are our biggest allies when they address teen dating violence in a responsible and empathetic manner,” says Shenoy. “Finally, the media has an undeniable influence on social justice issues, including dating violence and sexual violence.

“Although we have a long way to go to stamp out gender-based violence, we are progressing in changing people’s minds and beliefs on what constitutes a healthy relationship,” says Shenoy. And that is something we can all work toward and applaud.