MONDAY, Aug. 2, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Nearly one in five sexually active teenage girls experience date violence, a new study reports.
Harvard researchers add that those experiencing it are also more likely to become pregnant.
"Across the country, we found that one in 10 girls reported experiencing physical violence from a dating partner in the past year. That number rises to one in five if they have ever had sexual intercourse," said lead researcher Jay G. Silverman, director of the Violence Against Women Prevention program at the Harvard University School of Public Health.
Teenage girls who experience dating violence who have had sexual intercourse are much more likely not to use a condom and to become pregnant, Silverman added, at least in part because the girls feared negotiating using a condom with a potentially abusive and coercive partner.
"They are also more likely to have multiple sex partners," he said. Why this is so is unknown, but researchers theorize that the girls were coerced into having sex by others, or that they went to one partner to escape another.
In the study, Silverman's team collected data on 6,864 teenage girls who participated in the 2001 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The girls were asked about dating violence during the past year, as well as other health risk behaviors, according to the report in the August issue of Pediatrics.
Researchers found that dating violence spanned all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. However, it was more common in urban and rural areas and less common in suburbia.
"We need to do much more to recognize this issue," Silverman said. "We do a tremendous amount around pregnancy prevention, around STD prevention, but what we don't do is acknowledge what appears to be, for many girls, the context for these risks."
Young girls who have an abusive dating partner often aren't able to negotiate using a condom; they are not choosing when they have sex, and it's often a forced experience, Silverman said. "They don't have the control to protect themselves or prevent pregnancy," he added.
"We need to acknowledge and intervene in this incredibly widespread experience for young girls," Silverman stressed.
Silverman said part of the problem is there are not many places that girls who experience dating violence can go to for help. "Adolescent health-care providers are concerned about asking about dating violence, because if they get the answer 'yes,' they don't know who to tell them to call," he said.
"We have to do much more to create safe spaces, healing spaces, where young girls can get the help they need so they can better protect themselves," Silverman said.
Silverman believes that parents, too, have a role. The more parents are involved in their child's life, the less likely the child is to be involved in dating violence, he said.
"If we are really going to prevent this, we have to be working with young men," Silverman said. "It's the boy's behavior that we have to affect. We have to have intervention programs at much younger ages than we have now."
"This is a huge concern for our young people," Silverman said. "We have to recognize it, we have to talk about it, [and] we have to break the silence if we are really going to help protect these children."
Dr. Carolyn Sachs, an assistant professor of emergency medicine from the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in domestic violence and sexual assault, said the findings "are consistent with most of the other literature concerning the relationship between partner violence, early sexual experience, and at-risk sexual behaviors."
The American Psychological Association has a page devoted to dating violence.