Stopping workplace abuse tomorrow starts with what teens learn today

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According to recent studies, about one third of all teens in the U.S. will experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse at the hands of a dating partner before leaving high school. Data from the 2017 Wisconsin Youth Behavior Survey shows that 15 percent of all female high school students reported experienced dating violence of a sexual nature, and 9 percent experienced dating violence of a physical nature.

From Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, in every community, rural and urban, young people (predominantly young women) are experiencing abusive and controlling behavior from a dating partner. With such widespread dating violence occurring across our state, it is worth asking, what kind of response does this public health crisis warrant?

At End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, the statewide coalition of domestic violence victim advocates, we believe that a critical part of preventing domestic violence for future generations is educating youth to recognize the signs of unhealthy relationships, take action to protect themselves and their peers, and stop the cycle of abuse from continuing on into later life.

It seems every day high-profile offenders are being forced to account for harassment and other abusive actions, and the widespread recognition of victims speaking out against abuse is an encouraging, albeit long overdue step. The facts may be different from case to case, but the underlying theme is the same: The offender, almost always a man, uses their power and the victim's sense of powerlessness to force themselves on the victims. A similar dynamic plays out in teen dating violence situations. In abusive teen relationships, the violent young person exploits social pressures and emotional vulnerabilities to control their dating partner. The startling prevalence of teen dating violence means the abusive adults of tomorrow are likely beginning to develop their pattern of unhealthy behaviors in relationships now.

Given how pervasive this problem is, we must take action not just to respond to abuse, but to prevent it. Currently, a bipartisan group of state legislators is working to address this this issue by enacting legislation that would implement a dating violence curriculum for students in grades 7-12 across Wisconsin.

With 22 states having already passed similar legislation, we hope this effort will be recognized as a critical part of the work we need to do to prevent future violence, whether it be in the workplace, in the home on a movie set or in Congress.

Achieving this vision requires a long-term effort to promote healthy relationships. We must replace harmful messages — like the idea women are sexual objects or the idea that masculinity is about domination — with values of equality and mutual respect. This work will not be easy, and we may not see the benefits of our efforts immediately, but the way we respond to this problem now will have a lasting impact on the future. Similarly, a failure to address the root causes of domestic violence, sexual harassment, assault and misconduct today will result in the perpetuation of abuse tomorrow.

Patti Seger is executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.