By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A new study finds that almost half of undergraduate students report experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse in their personal relationships. Experts say parents need to teach their children how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships before they head out into the world.
The study, published in the July issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine surveyed 910 students (390 male, 520 female) ages 17 to 22 and found high rates of relationship violence across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and from three very different types of schools – a local community college, a Catholic university and an Ivy League school.
“Students at each school reported similar experience with relationship violence,” the report states.
Although violence in general may be more prevalent among lower income groups, relationship violence knows no boundaries and “crosses socioeconomic levels, race and gender, and is prevalent across ages,” the study’s lead researcher, Christine Forke, a registered nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the Washington Post.
Students participating in the survey were asked if they had experienced physical violence such as pushing, grabbing, hitting, choking or slapping; emotional violence, defined as being made to feel bad about oneself or isolated from family and friends, or having a partner act in a possessive manner; or sexual violence, defined as being coerced, pressured or forced into having sexual contact.
Overall, 44 percent of students reported experiencing at least one type of relationship violence, 42 percent as a victim and 17 percent as a perpetrator. Fifteen percent of females in the study reported being victims of sexual violence.
Amir Afkhami, an instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University said he thought the figures were low. Based on his clinical experience, he said, “at least one-third to one-fourth of women students have experienced some type of forced sexual contact.”
The results of this study may be eye-opening, but they’re not new.
According to recent National College Health Risk Behavior Surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the annual victimization rate for completed and attempted rapes on campus is now as high as 35.3 per 1,000 female students, which is the equivalent of 350 per year on a campus of 10,000.
Thirteen percent of college students report being forced to have sex against their will and fourteen percent of students polled report being the victim of an emotionally abusive relationship in the past year.
Substance abuse on-campus often serves as the fuel for these acts of violence, particularly that of sexual aggression. One study conducted by the University of North Carolina found that 67 percent of male sexual aggressors and 50 percent of female victims had been drinking at the time the victimization occurred.
The predominant “hook up” culture on college campuses these days is another risk factor for relationship abuse.
Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of the book “Unprotected,” chronicles the serious consequences being suffered by students as a result of the rampant casual sex that is taking place on today’s campuses. Her clinic at the University of California in Los Angeles sees a flood patients every year who come to her suffering from the fallout from risky behaviors that are promoted on campus as being free of consequences as long as participants are “protected.”
“But in the world I inhabit, there are plenty of consequences,” she writes. “On my campus, sexually active students are much more likely to seek counseling and to rate their relationships as stressful. Almost daily, I prescribe medication to help students, mostly women, cope with loss and heartbreak. . . . (T)here is no condom for the heart.”
As a result of these unhealthy relationships, depression has become a particularly worrisome problem on-campus. The American College Health Association National College Health Assessment found the number of students who reported ever being diagnosed with depression has increased 56 percent in the last six years, from 10 percent in spring 2000 to 16 percent in spring 2005.
In spite of plenty of hard science linking casual sex and depression, students are surprisingly ignorant of this information, Dr. Grossman writes.
Experts say parents need to step in because many colleges and universities do nothing to stop these destructive behaviors. Some even encourage these behaviors with co-ed dorms and health clinics that distribute condoms and other contraceptives without accurate information about the physical and emotional risks associated with casual sex.
Other features of the college environment, such as frequent unsupervised parties, easy access to alcohol, single students living on their own, and the availability of private rooms, may contribute to high rape rates of women college students.
Arming children with facts before sending them off to college will not only improve their chances of having a healthier campus experience, it will also protect them from the bad advice they’re likely to get on-campus.
This is particularly true for incoming freshmen who are particularly vulnerable because the transition into college life, being away from family and established support systems, can increase a student’s dependence on unhealthy relationships.
“If your child doesn’t know what a healthy relationship is when they go out into the world, it can be detrimental to them,” Forke said.
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