While Valentine's Day gets all the hype in February, it's also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, so a good time to explore particular challenges for teens facing such abuse. We often get calls from parents and other adults concerned about a young couple, and we can certainly provide some general answers and suggestions for how to talk with and support their child; ultimately though, we encourage having teen victims themselves contact us if they choose to, even anonymously if they'd prefer, because hearing their direct experience is the most critical starting point for assessing their risks and options. Also, because our services are free and completely confidential, there are unique ways the Women's Freedom Center can help minors looking for information, safety planning, and non-judgmental support.

One in three teens in the U.S. have experienced some form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from a partner, with young women between the ages of 16 and 24 at greatest risk — almost three times the national average. According to loveisrespect.org, a resource empowering youth to help end dating abuse, only about one-third of teens who were in a violent relationship ever told anyone. This shouldn't come as a surprise though: beyond the valid fears any victim has about disclosure, teens in particular may feel ashamed, may think it's their fault, or worry that their parents will restrict their freedom or just make them break up. And the younger they are, the less aware they may be that what's happening is even unhealthy. According to another good resource geared toward teens, dosomething.org, violent behavior may begin as early as the 6th grade, and 72 percent of 13 and 14 year olds are "dating."


What further complicates youth-specific challenges is that dating culture itself has shifted dramatically over time, while dating hazards have not. The result? Same sexism, different device. With teens connecting increasingly on smartphones and social media, online harassment, threats, and stalking are far more common. With each new app, misogyny and abuse too have new avenues. The Pew Research Center estimates that 26 percent of young women have been cyber-stalked, and 25 percent have been the target of online sexual harassment. Dating violence online can also include controlling a partner's activity on Facebook, leaking personal photos, constant messaging, looking through someone's phone, and sending unwanted sexual pictures.

Another digital form of abuse is sexting-coercion. While studies show sexting is done almost equally by teen girls and boys, they show too that gendered differences and sense of entitlement do exist: 51 percent of teen girls say pressure from a guy is why girls send sexy messages or images; only 18 percent of teen boys cited pressure from a girl. Moreover, girls still face a no-win double-standard: they're much more likely to be shamed if they sext, though if they refuse, they're shamed as a prude. But the rise of online feminism, especially among young women themselves, is providing greater awareness, plus safe spaces to connect and create change.

For parents, a great resource is caring-unlimited.org, offering signs to look for if concerned your teen is being abused, OR is being abusive; plus suggestions for how to help. And besides our 24-hour hotline, we have many proactive ways youth, parents, schools, and other organizations can help address teen dating safety. Contact our youth outreach advocates to find out about age-specific presentations they offer to groups. Ultimately of course, our broader culture needs to change too. Beyond the old "BE MINE" candy slogans, how about these: Love = Respect; consent matters; and no is OK, too. We can all put hearts around those.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham and Southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at Women's Freedom Center and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.