The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 4, 2018

Addressing dating violence for young girls of color in the #MeToo era

In March, Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire discussed the achievements of and challenges faced by women in the United States.


In a recent address, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, emphasized the need to address sexual violence against young women and girls of color. The #MeToo movement deserves praise for sparking national media attention and activism around violence against women in the workplace, but we need to do more.

The needs of black girls, who are less often recognized as victims of sexual violence and who face age- and race-specific barriers to seeking help, deserve special attention and action.

Teens and sexual violence: A national snapshot

Teenage girls, ages 12 to 18, are at high risk of sexual violence victimization—even higher than young women in college. Sexual violence against teenage girls, including rape or other forced sexual activities, is often perpetrated by a dating partner. New estimates show that 18 percent of adolescent girls who date report past-year experiences of sexual violence by a current or former dating partner.

In addition to acute physical injuries, youth victims of sexual violence and other forms of teen dating violence (TDV) are more likely to experience depression and suicidality, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and have lower school performance. Sexual assault victimization in high school also is associated with long-term risks, including higher risk of sexual assault in college, making TDV a major threat to girls’ health and well-being.

Black girls and barriers to seeking help

Black girls face rates of sexual TDV similar to their white and Hispanic counterparts, but research indicates black girls face unique barriers to seeking help. Such barriers are concerning, as seeking help is thought to lower the risk of revictimization and the risk of mental health consequences of victimization.

Teenagers are a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to seeking help. Some researchers estimate that less than half of TDV victims reach out to any informal or formal, professional sources of help, and our research shows that only 1 in 10 youth do so. When they do seek help, most rely on friends or family rather than professional support services. Black adolescent girls who experience TDV fare the worst, as they are less likely than their white or Hispanic counterparts to seek help.

Why does this happen? In communities where black youth are most likely to live, few services are available to help address TDV and intimate partner violence and sexual violence more generally. Without access to such services, youth face barriers to obtaining the help they need.

Because black girls are more likely to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, they are exposed to community and intimate partner violence at higher rates than others. Repeated exposure to violence could contribute to young people’s perception that violence is an acceptable means of resolving conflicts, further suppressing their inclination to seek help. This points to the need for targeted interventions that address TDV among youth living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Promising avenues for intervention

School-based TDV prevention programs can improve teens’ knowledge and attitudes about TDV, but such programs have fallen short in changing teens’ violent behaviors.

The Urban Institute has worked with the Benning Terrace neighborhood of the DC Housing Authority to develop Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS), a 10-week program for youth living in public housing. The curriculum focuses on breaking down harmful gender norms, supporting racial and ethnic pride, and educating youth about safe sex practices and healthy relationships.

The program also helps youth build positive connections to peers and adult role models and connects them to health care and other resources. By adopting this multifaceted approach, PASS aims to improve youths’ knowledge and attitudes about TDV while reducing TDV perpetration and victimization for girls and boys who participate.

To address violence against girls of color, researchers, policymakers, and advocates should harness momentum created by the #MeToo movement and redouble our efforts in support of promising programs like PASS. In a climate where federal funding and leadership for public health and violence prevention services are uncertain, we cannot lose sight of how violence harms vulnerable girls.

Photo by Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock.

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