How Students Experience Violence

New study tracks extent of emotional, physical and sexual violence. Among the findings -- reported rates of relationship violence are higher pre-college.
July 8, 2008

About 45 percent of undergraduates report having experienced some sort of relationship violence before and/or during college, with emotional abuse being most common, according to a new study, “Relationship Violence Among Female and Male College Undergraduate Students,” published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Researchers anonymously surveyed 910 undergraduates at three urban campuses – a nonresidential community college, an Ivy League institution, and a mid-sized Catholic university -- relative to the prevalence of three types of relationship violence: Physical, “defined as pushing, grabbing, slapping, choking, or hitting;” emotional, “defined as being put down, made to feel bad about oneself, being isolated from friends and family, or acting in a possessive manner;” and sexual, “defined as being pressured, coerced, or forced into having sexual contact.” The participants -- students in 67 classes randomly selected to take the survey -- were asked for information relative to violence not only involving romantic partners, but also violence they experienced involving friends, casual acquaintances and strangers (there was also an “other” option).

"Most of the studies typically do focus on either strictly partner violence, or violence between same-age peers -- so boys fighting with boys or girls fighting with girls. This was a more broad undertaking, looking at relationships and trying to determine in which forms of relationships do each of these types of specific violence occur," said Christine M. Forke, the study's lead author and a nurse practitioner and research director in the Craig Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Among the findings: For all three types of violence, students report higher rates of both victimization and perpetration before college than during. Of the 910 respondents, 35 percent report experiencing relationship violence before college, compared to 24.9 percent during.

Overall, 27.2 percent of students surveyed report experiencing emotional violence, the most common type reported, followed by sexual (24.9 percent) and physical violence (20.9 percent).

About 42 percent of students report being victims of violence, while only 17.1 percent report perpetrating it, with men more likely to report perpetuating sexual violence, women more likely to report perpetrating physical violence, and both equally likely to perpetuate emotional violence. “It is unclear,” the authors write, “whether female perpetration is reflective of women initiating violence within a relationship, female-female violence within same-gender relationships, self-defense, or retaliation for past abuse. Because women typically inflict fewer injuries than men, they may have less fear of punishment or stigma and consequently may be more comfortable reporting perpetration than men.”

Yet, one of the major findings of the study, Forke said in an interview, is that while reported victimization rates are higher for women (at 53 percent), a significant number of men -- 27.2 percent -- also report being victimized. "I really think this is typically thought of as an issue for women, and if you think about resources that are out there, people go to the women's center; it's very woman-focused," said Forke, who described a need for non gender-specific resources.

In the study, the authors suggest that future research focus on male victims and their needs. Furthermore, the authors write, “Emotional abuse was the most frequently reported form of violence experienced by male and female students before and during college. While emotional abuse frequently is not a focus of violence prevention, it can cause poor outcomes and may predispose victims to other forms of violence. Therefore, educational efforts focusing on healthy relationships should begin during childhood."


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