Dating violence is widespread among adolescents in the United States, with cross-sectional studies showing that between 9% and 38% of adolescents have been victimized in the past year and/or within any dating relationship [1–13]. These studies have generally shown a gender symmetry trend for psychological and physical types of dating violence among adolescents. For example, Swahn’s study of adolescents recruited from a high risk, racially/ethnically diverse community showed that females and males, who reported on dating violence victimization within the last 12 months, experienced similar rates of psychological abuse (e.g., threats, insults, stalking) (38.3% among females versus 33.7% among males) and physical abuse (e.g., slapping, hitting, scratching, pushing, kicking, punching) (28.8% among females versus 32.6% among males) . Further, studies showed that both females and males are sometimes victimized more than once by a dating partner; Coker’s findings showed, for example, that 3.2% of females and 1.2% of males had been beaten by a dating partner two to three times within the last 12 months . Regarding sexual violence victimization, findings from cross-sectional studies have shown that sexual violence victimization rates tend to be higher among adolescent females (8.2% - 15.0%) compared to males (4.9% - 7.0%) [1, 7] in recent dating relationships.
Studies have also captured adolescents’ longitudinal experience of physical and/or sexual violence beginning in adolescence through young adulthood [14–20]. Halpern and colleagues (2009) followed a longitudinal sample of males and females to determine physical and sexual violence victimization onset timing and persistence between adolescence and adulthood; their findings showed that 36% of males and 44% of females experienced victimization by adulthood and 7% of the total sample had persistent victimization from adolescence to adulthood . Smith’s (2003) study, which included women age 18 and 19 recruited during their freshmen year in college, showed that girls victimized in high school were at significantly greater risk of revictimization in college, including risk of more than one type of victimization; overall, 88% of the sample experienced physical or sexual assault from age 14 through the fourth year of college and 63.5% experienced co-victimization . Other longitudinal studies also showed similar trends of sexual and physical violence revictimization; once victimized in adolescence, subjects were at increased risk for revictimization in young adulthood/college years [16–20]. In addition to these studies, within the context of longitudinal intervention studies aimed at reducing dating violence, Foshee and colleagues showed that dating violence victimization could be reduced in males and females up to four years after the intervention was delivered . In sum, these longitudinal studies were instrumental in adding to our understanding of how and when physical and sexual types of violence occur. However, the studies did not include psychological/emotional types of dating violence and similarly did not break down information about the number of dating violence occurrences and the number of abusive partners subjects had.
In addition to the high prevalence of dating violence among adolescents shown in U.S. studies and the tendency for re-victimization, as a public health concern, dating violence victimization has been shown to be associated with adverse mental and physical health problems, including depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, injuries, problem alcohol use and drug use, disordered eating, and risky sexual behavior [2–11, 20]. Teens from racial and ethnic minority groups may be at disproportional risk for experiencing health burdens due to victimization. A study of 8,000 predominantly African American and Hispanic teens recruited from New York City high schools showed that dating violence victimization was among the top risk factors for females making a suicide attempt (61 percent more likely than non-victimized females) .
Despite the large body of extant literature documenting prevalence of dating violence victimization and health correlates, including longitudinal studies that have characterized adolescents’ experience of dating violence at multiple points in time [14–20], prior studies have not, to date, collectively characterized across the adolescent period (ages 13 to 19) all dating violence types (physical, sexual, and psychological/emotional), the number of times adolescents experience each of these abuse types, and the number of partners who perpetrated each abuse type. In the present investigation, we used a method similar to the timeline follow-back interview to query adolescents about their experiences of dating violence from age 13 to 19—including dating violence types, frequency, age at first occurrence, and number of abusive partners. The timeline follow-back assessment method has been widely used in studies to retrospectively capture at risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, among adolescents [22–24]. We adapted the method to capture both relationship and dating violence histories in a sample of college students. While retrospective dating violence assessment may result in under-reporting of abuse due to issues of recall bias , retrospective assessment is the field’s standard for capturing dating violence experiences and our assessment method used memory prompts to facilitate recall, which we describe in more detail in the methods section.
The 2009 Institute of Medicine report – Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People – called for a critical focus on the prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders in young people . Given that dating violence has been associated with mental and behavioral health issues that may be a result of the violence or a contributing factor to it, our study attempted to provide additional information about dating violence among adolescents spanning age 13 to 19, including the number of times they experienced the dating violence, the age they first experienced it, and number of abusive partners.