Gender stereotypes seen in dating abuse study


Both psychological and physical abuse in dating relationships have been reported among high school and college students in the United States, with mental and physical health consequences similar to that of cohabiting adults. Whereas women are much more likely than men to be the victims of domestic violence, most studies on adolescents found that males experience rates of relationship abuse similar to or greater than that of females. In order to explore this apparent disparity, in 2007 my University colleagues — Sarah McMahon-Cannizzo, School of Social Work and Ruth Anne Koenick, Director of Sexual Assault Services and Crime Victim Assistance Unit — and I conducted a dating assessment survey during class time among Rutgers-New Brunswick undergraduate volunteers. Our subjects were 18 to 25-years-old, freshmen to seniors, and with a current or past college dating relationship of at least two months. Results are being prepared for publication but we want to provide the highlights to the University community now before more of our subjects have graduated.

Subjects reported one of five frequencies from "never" to "very frequently" of their partner's behavior on 40 items distributed among one positive scale and eight abuse scales. We analyzed the results of the heterosexual sample, 662 female and 293 male respondents, using chi-square and multivariate analyses of variance. Most background items did not vary significantly by gender, including age, college year, citizenship, marital and cohabitation status. Somewhat more male than female respondents were white or Hispanic, neither religious nor spiritual and had shorter relationships.

Females were significantly more favorable than were males about their partner on the positive scale. There was no gender difference on the sexual abuse scale. For the remaining seven abuse scales, males reported more abuse than females, for both non-physical and physical items. Fortunately, the overall levels of dating abuse we found were low, with the highest frequencies reported by a minority of the students.

The non-physical forms of abuse included self-esteem, isolation and emotional control, jealousy, verbal abuse and withdrawal. These categories included items such as: my partner ordered me around, threatened or harassed me, monitored my interactions with other people and insulted me in front of others. Males also reported more threatening behavior — "my partner threatened to hit or hurt me" — and more physical abuse. The latter includes the two items that showed the largest gender differences: intentional infliction of pain by pinching or slapping and throwing something at the respondent.

A gender difference abuse average, calculated from the 19 abuse items that were significantly different by gender, was used to divide our sample into categories of high, medium and low. Gender differences were evident in each category. The percentage of males was twice as high as that of females in high, 10 percent versus 5 percent; 50 percent higher in medium, 54 percent versus 37 percent; and 50 percent lower in low, 37 percent versus 58 percent. These gender differences occurred in both short- and long-term relationships.

What might account for our findings of greater male than female report of abuse in their college dating relationship? One hypothesis is suggested by the third largest gender difference: "My partner had radical mood changes: sad, calm, euphoric, angry, hyperirritable." Types of psychopathology with a greater preponderance of females than males emerge during adolescence, including premenstrual syndrome, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder. Behaviors accompanying all of these disorders might be perceived by a partner as radical mood changes. Another possibility is that males may perceive abusive behavior by females more harshly than vice versa. Males have a greater preponderance than females of substance abuse, which in part may contribute to their abusiveness in dating relationships.

We welcome feedback from our subjects and others in the University community.

Judith M. Stern is a recently retired professor of psychology at Rutgers whose courses included "Psychology of Sex and Gender" and "Abnormal Psychology." Stern welcomes feedback at jmstern@rci.rutgers.edu.


Judith M. Stern

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