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Teen dating violence is no joke

The Toronto Star by Anuradha Dugal 17 April 2012

Apparently, it was supposed to be funny.

In an effort to capitalize on the celebrity of Chris Brown, the hip hop artist who was convicted of assaulting his former girlfriend Rihanna, a Georgia restaurant recently created a new sandwich: “The Caribbean Black and Bleu.”

The restaurant slyly tweeted: “Chris Brown won’t beat you up for eating this unless your name starts with R and ends with A.”

After a public outcry, the sandwich was pulled from the menu.

That’s the good news.

The bad news? This is not an isolated incident.

Belvedere Vodka recently launched an online campaign that showed a grinning young man who seems to be trying to force sexual contact on a frightened young woman. The tag line: “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly.” The company pulled the ad, but many suspect the whole thing was simply a PR campaign.

Last year, men’s clothing retailer Topman was forced to withdraw T-shirts that read: “I’m so sorry, but,” followed by excuses: “You provoked me . . . I was drunk . . . I didn’t mean it . . . ”

It seems violence against women has graduated from social crisis to trendy marketing campaign. The cultural zeitgeist is in motion and businesses have noticed.

So have your kids. Following Brown’s controversial appearance at this year’s Grammy awards, dozens of young women tweeted: “. . . he can beat me anytime.” Last summer, #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend and #rapistsongs trended big on Twitter. And despite attempts to get them removed, Facebook pages like: “You know she’s playing hard to get when she tries to break out of your van,” and “You know she’s playing hard to get when you use another roll of tape,” remain live.

Every day, in dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our sons and daughters are learning it’s okay to treat sexual and physical violence against women as a joke.

This mindset is helping to create an epidemic of teen dating violence, with one in three teens in Canada experiencing some form of abuse in their romantic relationships.

Societies with the strictest gender roles have the highest rates of violence against women, and Canada isn’t as far ahead as we assume. If you think gender doesn’t matter anymore, you haven’t been in a high-school classroom lately. Teachers who deliver Healthy Relationship programs funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation tell us they’re often shocked at how fiercely some teens defend creaky old gender stereotypes. This month, a U.S. study of Grade 7 students found that 63 per cent strongly agreed with sentiments like: “When dating, the boy should be smarter than the girl.”

Young people may joke about violence, but those who experience it are usually silent. They don’t tell their teachers and they certainly don’t tell their parents. They’re most likely to tell their friends, who are least likely to understand the issue and least able to help. Although teens may be wizards when it comes to technology, their relationship skills can be rudimentary.

A teen who is abused by their date has a much greater chance of being abused later in life. Once learned, abusive behaviour is extremely difficult to change. That’s why dating violence is one of the strongest predictors of future violence. Prevention is key, and the earlier in life the better.

Research clearly shows Healthy Relationship programs work. Girls and boys alike learn to recognize the warning signs of an abusive relationship and how to get help. They learn how to create a respectful relationship — romantic or otherwise — a skill they will use for the rest of their life. As one teen said after participating: “It’s like you see the world differently. You see the value of the people around you.”

However, the message that violence is normal has become so loud, it’s going to take a massive, collective effort to be heard above the din.

You can help. Be a positive role model, and talk to your children about relationships. Ask them what their friends are saying, what they’re watching online, and what they see in movies and video games. If your local high school doesn’t offer a Healthy Relationship program, ask them to start one.

If we work together, we can help our kids beat the odds, and stay safe in their relationships.

Anuradha Dugal is the Director of Violence Prevention Programs at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. The Foundation’s annual campaign to end violence against women, Shelter from the Storm, runs from April 14 to May 13,