Adolescent Girls’ Perceptions of Dating Relationships and Violence
Warren Wilson College
CPO #7868 WWC P.O. Box 9000
Asheville, NC 28815
This paper addresses how a group of African American adolescent girls perceive dating relationships and violence. Because of their young age, the girls are just beginning to experience the world of dating. Observations, interviews, and focus group data are used to uncover the ways in which these girls think about their social lives, and ultimately balance their actions and interactions with their perceptions. Violence/aggression is included as an important issue because of the ways in which it intersects with dating relationships and with the construction of gendered social roles.
We all moved to the other room when Sue arrived for the “sex ed” discussion, as the kids were calling it. There were about 14 kids there today, and lots of talking and moving around. Liz ended up sitting next to me, and I saw her with a note that said, “Do you want to go out with me?” and then had boxes for checking yes or no. I didn’t see her check her answer, but when the discussion was over Liz got a hug from the guy who wrote the note to her.
When asked about first dating experiences, many different images and memories may pass through one’s mind. It depends how one defines dating in the first place—is it when you go on a “real date,” or is it “when your little and you think you have a boyfriend,” or when you’re “just goin’ out with somebody”? Most girls, like Liz, start having dating relationships about the time they are in the sixth grade. There’s no right age to begin having relationships based on attraction, but this is when we begin to sense a bit more freedom from our families and begin to spend more time with peers. Dating experiences can vary a lot from person to person, and especially from one’s first experience to the most recent. Perceptions of dating relationships, however, can be formed without much “true” experience. Influences such as media, family, and friends can shape these perceptions.
The girls in this study are at that midway point between forming ideas about relationships through other’s experience and their own. All of the girls are around the ages of 11-14, and their dating experience ranges from merely talking on the phone to meeting boys at the movie theater. Regardless, when asked about their perceptions of good and bad relationships they were very clear and sure of their responses. Violence was the second issue I specifically asked the girls about, and again they were confident in their answers. I chose these topics because I was interested in how the two intersected. My findings actually focus less on this intersection between violence and relationships than on the girls’ stated perceptions of each issue and the delicate balance they construct between their perceptions and actions.
Why focus on perceptions of relationships and violence? Why choose to question only adolescent girls? There are a variety of reasons. First, achieving an understanding of the way people think about a topic can help us to understand why they act in a particular way—very much like theory informing practice. Second, relationship violence has become an important social issue, and adolescent dating violence a relatively recent concern. Third, addressing these issues with a group of young people, who are just beginning to create their own social identity, can give us insight into how this process occurs and possibly affects experiences with these same issues in adulthood. And finally, focusing on female experiences is particular to feminist methodology—the methodology I attempted to use in the process of conducting this research and writing my findings.
Feminist methodology is not only about focusing on women, but also about how you focus on women. Feminism has made important contributions to social theory, particularly by elevating social constructionist theories to a position of authority within the field. In particular, gender is understood as “a process of social and cultural differentiation, of creating boundaries and borders between “men” and “women” whose masculine and feminine identities are thereby established. Gender construction involves both ideas and practices, especially rituals” (Garner, 2000, p. 486). A focus on the social construction of gender roles, combined with an interest and duty to explore and record the diversity of women’s experiences, results in the feminist methodology I strive for in this study.
Another important perspective helpful to me in the writing and analysis of these findings is grounded theory. Silverman (2000) outlines these stages of developing an analysis based on qualitative data: (1) develop categories which highlight the data, (2) use the data/text as much as possible to demonstrate their relevance to those categories, and (3) develop the categories into a larger analytical framework that is relevant to outside theory and experiences. With these two methodological frameworks in mind, I gathered relevant background material to try to illuminate the experiences of the girls in my study.
Exploring the issues of adolescent dating relationships and violence must include not only questions about perceptions of these issues, but also the context—adolescence. This stage in the life process can be a very exciting and trying time for young people. Rapid physical development is accompanied by many other developmental tasks. Distancing oneself from parents and a childhood identity often includes increased involvement with peers, concern with peer perceptions, increased ability to reason and develop personal values, experimentation, development of affectionate relationships, etc. (Sousa, 1999).
Persons of adolescent age are often expected to become involved in dating relationships. Because personal experience with dating is limited or nonexistent at this stage, ideas about dating most likely come from parents, friends, and even media (Jackson, Cram, & Seymour, 2000). Adolescents are more likely to conform to gender-specific roles and accept traditional notions of romance because they are still in the process of constructing a social identity (Jackson, et al., 2000). From a social constructionist perspective, gender roles are one of the primary ways in which individuals express their identity. The boundaries that mold gender can be formed through play, socialization, everyday interactions, and rituals (Garner, 2000). Adolescents are involved in the formation of these boundaries with peers, family, and society at large on a daily basis.
The concept of discursive formations combined with systems of knowledge and power was Foucault’s contribution to social theory. Discourse places the many kinds of human experience into preconceived categories—categories that are defined by systems of power and always contain an element of resistance. These ideas help us to place the construction of social identities, particularly gender, within an historical and cultural framework (Garner, 2000).
Adolescents, like any other developmental age group, are engaged in a discursive framework of gender. They accept and resist these categories in the process of constructing a whole social identity. Studies of teenagers often focus on important issues such as the formation of social groups, dating, sexuality, and violence. It is the hope of researchers that attention to these key issues through observation, questions, and analysis will lead to an overview of how teens construct their identities and negotiate their space in society.
For example, Douglas Foley’s (1990) study of teenagers in a south Texas town examines how they learn traditional American values through participation in sports, dating, different social groups, and school. He shows that the discursive formations of gender and class are reproduced through the above activities. Uncertain Terms: Negotiating Gender in American Culture (1990) is a collection of articles that also explores the varied and multicultural spaces in which gender is negotiated. Author Joyce E. Canaan (1990) focuses on the experiences of mostly middle-class white teenagers. Sharon Thompson (1990) writes about a group of African American teenage girls who present themselves as “tricksters,” often resisting typical gender roles and performing “drastic entertainments” to combat their meager social resources.
As Tolman (1994) asserts, “adolescence is a moment when sexuality, identity, and relationships are heightened” (p. 324). Observations of teen relationships as well as analysis of teens own perceptions of relationships are important tools in understanding this unique stage of life. In addition to relationships, other issues become relevant in the formation of social identity. Violence or aggression, a cultural and societal issue, can also be understood as another phenomenon useful in the negotiation of gender and social roles.
Aggression research often focuses on gender differences. There has always been a lot of discussion and difference of opinion concerning biology, aggression, and gender. Bjorkqvist and Pirkko (1992) suggest that the question of whether men are more aggressive than women should be irrelevant. Instead, contextual factors such as culture, type of aggression, and level of aggression should be focused on. They argue that firstly, it may be ethnocentric to lump all aggressive behavior into two categories: male and female. Secondly, just because physical aggression is the most apparent and appears the most serious, should it be considered the most important? And third, aggression can occur on an institutional, group, or interpersonal level—all of which provide different contexts, meanings, and motivations for aggression.
It has also been argued that physical, direct verbal, and indirect aggression follow and partly overlap each other as developmental stages of aggressive strategies (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Kaukiainan, 1992). Following this theory, adolescence should be a time when physical aggression is still important, while direct verbal aggression is beginning to be developed. We are also warned to keep in mind that physical aggression is socially unacceptable and varies in acceptability by culture.
When relationships and violence/aggression are combined in the adolescent stage of the life process, interesting problems develop. Research focusing on adolescent dating violence is relatively recent. Attempting to understand and explain this phenomenon within the larger context of interpersonal violence and its relation to dominant gender roles is complicated.
There are some problematic aspects in comparing adolescent dating violence to domestic violence. Firstly, the developmental tasks of adolescence affect the way in which dating relationships are formed and defined (Sousa, 1999). Secondly, most of the research to date shows that for adolescents, females and males are experiencing equal rates of violence in their relationships and are most likely to be involved in mutually abusive relationships (YVSP; Molidor & Tolman, 1998; Gray & Foshee, 1997; Briar, 1995). There is even some evidence that females are perpetrators of violence more often than males (Gray & Foshee, 1997; Jezl, Molidor, & Wright, 1996). This differs from the statistics that suggest men to be the primary perpetrators of domestic violence.
Traditional feminist theory has interpreted interpersonal violence as gendered. Given our patriarchal society, relationship violence can be understood as a symptom of violence against women in general with roots in inequality and male dominance. Cultural factors, such as ideas about a woman’s place/space in society, are cited as contributing to the occurrence and social acceptance of this violence (Gamache, 1991; Kurz, 1997). These notions, however, are based on statistics and evidence of abusive adult relationships. What happens when contrary data develop in light of both adolescent and adult experiences?
Possible explanations for women’s use of violence include differences in types of violence and severity of violence as well as different meanings and results. Many have used this data as evidence for the female-victim role. “Victim feminism,” as Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia define it, continually places women in the position of the powerless and actually creates fear (Sorisio, 1997). They argue that placing so much emphasis on victims creates a dichotomy between worthy and unworthy victims. Many feminists are now calling for a revised theory that can include women’s use of violence. Renzetti (1999) argues that feminists must reevaluate the context in which violence occurs (often culturally mediated). She also calls for collaboration among academics, women’s advocates and victims alike, in order to name, define, and understand women’s violence. Finally, feminists must own the problem of women’s use of violence. This means that it should be woman defined while remaining grounded in the strength model which builds on victim’s strengths and effective survival strategies.
In this study of a group of African American adolescent girls, many of the above theories and perspectives are applicable. Most importantly, the social construction of identity, through perceptions of relationships and violence/aggression, is explored. Within this search for identity, we can see the discursive formation of gender, including resistance to and compliance with dominant gender roles, negotiations of power, and exchange of knowledge.
This experience begins with an after-school program run by a community organization in a small southern city. While dedicated mostly to improving homework and studying skills for school, the program also provides snacks, rewards for good behavior and improved grades, and recreational activities. The program is attended by choice, and lasts for the entire school year. Parents are expected to be as much a part of the process as the kids and the program directors are. There are usually about 15 kids who attend every day of the school week (though this number varies), and all attend public city schools. All of the kids in this story/study are African American. For our purposes, however, we will be focusing only on the girls in the group and how they perceive dating relationships, violence, and gender roles. Observations, focus group data, and five personal interviews are the foundation for this analysis.
Spending time with the participants and observing their interactions in the after-school program was as important to this research as direct questions about their perceptions of dating and violence were. Because the larger group consists of both girls and boys, the interactions between them can say much about how the girls’ actions coincide or contrast with their stated perceptions. The interactions were mostly verbal, but physical interaction was also important at times. I observed the girls’ public displays of shared knowledge (gossip), ideas about relationships, sexuality, and friendship.
The first hour of the program is called “homework hour,” and all of the kids are expected to be working on their homework. If they do not have homework per se, they must be doing something academic or educational. Afterwards, there is usually a planned activity of some sort. One day a week, the activity is a “sex ed” discussion that covers everything from sexual anatomy to birth control to discussion of “good” relationships. Most other days, unless something particular is scheduled, the kids go to a nearby community recreational center.
The atmosphere during the program is very high energy. From the time the kids are picked up at their schools by the directors of the program until they are picked up by parents or dropped at the bus station, there is constant activity and commotion. During homework time, the kids are divided into two different rooms—one is for those who consistently don’t get their homework done or keep their grades up, and the other is for those who do.
In the rowdy room, Mark was walking around instead of doing his homework and one of the girls put some glitter on him. Angelina grabbed his arm as he walked past her and smelled it, and she said it stunk. Megan [assistant director] told him to sit down and told Liz to do a particular activity if she had no homework to do. Liz said “No” right to Megan’s face, and replied that she had already done that [activity] and that it’s boring. When Debbie [program director] showed up and asked Liz about her homework, she said she didn’t have any. Debbie said, “Well that’s fine then, Miss D’s and F’s.” Nathan started laughing, “D’s and F’s,” he said. Debbie replied, “What are you laughing at Mr. Failing?” Nathan replied that he got D’s and C’s, not F’s. Then Tyrone started laughing too, “D’s and F’s!” Debbie just said, “What are you talking about straight A student?”
Not long afterwards, Tyrone was switched over to the quieter room.
I would often stay in the “rowdy room” and help some of the kids with their homework or studying. If I wasn’t helping with homework, I would simply observe the interactions that were taking place. Many of the students had trouble sitting still for very long—especially after being at school all day. Whenever there was a chance, they would get up and move around, talk to each other, or start “cutting up.” On the surface it may seem that “cutting up” is nothing more than a way to put others down or make fun, but it is actually a ritualized exchange of knowledge that is often sexual in nature. This observation was recorded when both Angelina and Latasha were in the room with Mark:
Mark told a story about why they call him “jumper.” He said he was just watching a movie when he felt something wet on his neck—and it was Angelina’s tongue, her and some other girl, but he’s not “naming names.” Later Mark was talking about how he used to get good grades in elementary school, and then he started hanging out with Latasha and his grades just went down hill. “I said I don’t want your tongue in my mouth, but she did it anyway!”
In Joyce E. Canaan’s (1990) study of white suburban teenagers, she found marked differences in the ways boys and girls confirm social relations in public space. Boys primarily used joke-telling as an oral and active form of creating masculinity and defying adult authority. Girls, on the other hand, used the less overt form of passing written notes to consolidate knowledge of others and “construct a version of femininity that centers on appearance” (p. 228). These different forms of negotiating gender and exchanging knowledge differ from the way in which the African American students in my research utilized public space to achieve much the same ends. “Cutting up” can happen within the larger group, so that everyone can hear and choose to take part in the ridicule, or it can happen between two individuals in conversation. Either way, girls are not excluded from the very public form of joking and gossiping that takes place.
Everyone keeps talking about how they could easily start rumors about everyone else, and talking about what they’ve heard about other people. Angelina, Latasha, Nathan, James, and Mark start “cutting up.” James tells Mark he’s been “puttin’ his lips in the wrong place.” Mark asks James where he’s been hearing that and James replies, “Could be Nathan or Damian or your grandma!” He calls it “kissin’ cootchie.” They start talking about “69” and whether or not they swallow. Then Mark says he knows something and whispers it to Angelina and Nathan so that James will think it’s about him.
As in this case, “cutting up” usually begins by picking on one person. Earlier in their conversation the other kids told Mark that there were rumors about him being a fruit and a drag queen. Mark could come back by telling stories about those who are picking on him, or he can start rumors of his own. Inside knowledge about another person is the currency used in these exchanges. By engaging in this kind of playful commentary, these kids learn from each other what the most recent information is, and in turn can use it for themselves at a later point. This information, often gossip, circulated through “cutting up”, is most often teasing others about their romantic relationships, their family’s romantic relationships, appearance, or sexual identity. Through the sexual nature of the conversation, they also exchange information they know about sexual activity—regardless of whether it is gained through experience or not.
I also observed much physical interaction during activity time at the community recreational center. Again, because the rec center is also a coed setting, which includes adults and kids not part of the program, it gives us a glimpse into how the girls actually translate perceptions of dating and relationships into real experiences.
Today the kids spent time both inside and out at the rec center. Toni, Maya, and Latasha all started out in the gym watching the guys play basketball. There were a couple of guys in particular they were talking to and even flirting with in the hallway. Toni especially would act disinterested, and then suddenly become very interested in what one boy was saying. She would playfully shove him away from her and then walk away herself. Later, outside, I saw that Latasha and Mark were hanging out in the playground area. Mark was pretending to keep Latasha captured in his “castle.” Latasha would try to escape, though not very hard. Meanwhile, Angelina was in the group van listening to music with some others. She had a shirt on that she wore over another shirt, and Nathan kept taking it from her. She acted very upset over the incident and took his jacket as collateral. At first I tried to help Latasha and Angelina with their predicaments, but they didn’t seem to need it (or want it?).
Both Latasha and Angelina play a certain coquettish feminine role in this scene: Angelina pouts and acts angry when Nathan takes her shirt, and Latasha concedes control to Mark in their playground kingdom.
I found out a few weeks later that Angelina and Nathan had started going out. During the interview Angelina and I had, she talked a bit about her relationship with Nathan and told me that she wasn’t sure they were even going out anymore. She said it was because he was too jealous, and that they were both just too strong-willed. This is information that Angelina may have known prior to dating Nathan, and though she did begin a relationship with him, she was considering breaking it off because her definition of a good relationship was not matching up to her experience.
The verbal and physical interactions these girls have with one another and with boys in their peer group both clash and coincide with dominant views of femininity. A very general view of femininity would place these girls outside of the public ritual of “cutting up.” Femininity is supposedly compliant and private (Brownmiller, 1984). But because the girls participate in public displays of and exchanges of knowledge, they situate themselves in an entirely different discourse of gender than their white counterparts (See Canaan). However, the girls also comply at times with “typical” feminine gender roles, mostly observed during physical interactions with boys. This different discourse balances the public way in which the girls act out, both verbally and physically, and the personal way in which they perceive their actions.
Some of the girls volunteered to share their views on relationships with me, both in a focus group setting and in personal interviews. Most of the girls revealed that they did have dating experience, and all of them had ideas about what good and bad relationships are. Two major themes surfaced in the discussion: communication and trust.
Interviewer: So what’s a good relationship?
Allison: When you can tell ‘em stuff, and they won’t tell nobody. Or like when you can tell your deepest darkest secret, and they don’t cheat on you or nothin’, and they don’t overreact when you, like, hug somebody.
Communication, according to these girls, means not only talking a lot and having things in common, but also being able to keep a person’s confidence. This is an important point because, as shown above, revealing information about other people’s lives is one way in which these kids gain knowledge needed to participate in “cutting up” or to defend themselves when they are the object of ridicule.
In Tolman’s (1994) study of adolescent girls’ sexuality, she finds that one of the major fears girls have when participating in sexual relationships is this same violation of confidence. Rochelle, one African American girl in her study says that she is “scared of being talked about and getting an undeserved reputation” (p. 330). It is unclear if the girls in the after-school program are truly involved in sexual relationships or not. Regardless of the “truth,” these girls are careful within their personal relationships not to violate a certain level of trust if they wish to remain in that relationship.
Though the focus group was still a public space, the fact that only girls were present influenced the way they talked about their relationships. Firstly, the girls were able to openly discuss how they defined good and bad relationships. Secondly, they were much more open about their own experiences—though only to a certain point. I found that when the discussion centered around negative aspects of communication or trust, the stories the girls told were abstractly their own, or stories of other’s lives.
Allison: Oh, well, he’s 12, he’s too short, he’s shorter than I am. Yeah, but um, he short, and he’s 12, and he’s not a virgin anymore because of certain happenings with my friend’s cousin; and he’s not a virgin anymore.
Whether or not the information is concrete, the girls insinuated that it was other girls who engaged in sexual activity:
Angelina: How ‘bout you Jessica?
Allison: Ha, ha, ha
Angelina: Go ahead.
Allison: Remember what you told me?
Jessica: What’d I tell you?
Allison: About when you used to live in Washington…
Jessica: What about it?
Allison: And your boyfriend.
Jessica: What about him?
Allison: You know what I’m talking about.
These findings are similar to those Canaan (1986) found in her study of middle-class teenage girls’ morality. She proposes that sexuality is central to how a person constructs their identity. Telling stories or gossiping about other girls’ sexual lives is easier than talking about their own experiences or lack of experience. Through this discourse they create categories by which other kids can judge morality.
Communication is also important because at this stage in dating, talking is one of the only things they are allowed by their parents/guardians to do. Going to the mall or movies are allowable activities as well, but often they must say they are just meeting friends, never boys. Within the relationship itself, communication also means not arguing a lot. As Maya said, “Well, me, personally, since I have a boyfriend, we talk about a lot of stuff. We don’t really tease, but like if we tease, it’s not like about big stuff—it’s about little bitty stuff, and then we stop before someone gets mad.”
Confiding in the person that you are romantically involved with, as Maya suggests, is important to maintaining the relationship. This level of communication is also intricately related to the issue of trust because of the vulnerability inherent in shared secrets and experiences. Foley (1990) finds that the teenagers of North Town, Texas, choose to confide in those they are romantically involved with. “Only someone who claimed to “love you” could be trusted. A lover would not betray your fears and weaknesses to your competitors” in the social structure (p. 70). Angelina commented that in a bad relationship people are “tellin’ each other’s business and stuff like that. Like say he gonna get left back [in school], she might go tell everyone; she pregnant, he might go tell somebody else.”
The other aspect of relationships that is so important is trust: be faithful/don’t cheat, and don’t be jealous. Jealousy came up so often that it could almost be a theme in itself, however, it is actually the flip side of being faithful. One is not supposed to cheat, but constantly being suspicious of your partner is also not approved of.
Anyway, there was a fight. They was just like, they didn’t trust me…I talked to another boy, like say I was talking to another boy and…I could just give him a friendly hug, and it’s like, what you doing with him? Nothing. And you know how that go. And anyway, when he be like talking to other people, I be on his case. Like, oh you better, uh, stop touching her—what you think you doing? Smacking him and stuff like that.
For Foley’s (1990) teenagers, the goal within a relationship differed between boys and girls. Boys talked about relationships or romance “in terms of sexual conquest,” while girls spoke in terms of “love and marriage” (p. 71). The demands for boys and girls were different too; girls had to exchange sexual “favors” for the protective attention of a boy, while boys had to “attend” to their girlfriends in order to reach a level of sexual intimacy with their girlfriends.
For the girls in my research, however, it appears that the demands boys and girls place on each other are more similar than different. As Angelina states above, it is vital that girls feel confident in the exclusivity of their relationships, but it also expected that they behave the same way. Because of the girls’ relative sexual inexperience, compared with the North Town teens, the issue of interdependence within a relationship is based more on confidentiality and trust than an exchange of services. Being trusting and faithful is expected of both boys and girls; and girls act on any incursion of this agreement by ending the relationship or literally striking out.
The way the girls talk about relationships is based on their perceptions of what a good or bad relationship is. The way they act in those relationships, on the other hand, may or may not coincide with their stated perceptions. As in the above section, there appears to be a pattern of balancing perceptions with actions; the discourse of relationships requires that the girls demand that boyfriends adhere to the perceived rules while attempting to adhere to the same rules themselves.
One particular method of violating the rules of a relationship is using violence or aggression. Though all of the girls responded that violence was wrong, particularly in relationships, there were certain circumstances in which they agreed that using violence was understandable. Some even admitted to being violent themselves. The subtle difference between their perceptions of violence and their actual use and understanding of certain kinds of violence points to yet another balancing act performed by the girls.
Interviewer: How would you ladies define violence or abuse?
Angelina: Oh I define abuse like putting your hands on ‘em, yelling, uh, any kind of physical or negative reaction, that’s what I call abuse. Cause it don’t have to be physical, cause it can be like mental abuse where you can make ‘em feel like—like mental abuse to me is when you like talk about ‘em and you talk about ‘em so much that you actually make ‘em feel that way. Like if you talk about a woman’s weight, and you keep on, she’ll really feel that way and have low self-esteem—that’s abuse to me.
Maya: Yep, right on sister.
Interviewer: Do you agree? So you think abuse or violence is not just physical?
Maya: Playin’ mind games with you.
When asked about their perceptions of violence, most of the girls were as sure of their answers as they were when asked about dating. They agreed that violence was not only physical, though that was the main type of violence referred to when they told stories of violent relationships. Initially, after defining what they thought violence was, all of the girls concluded that violence was “bad” or “just wrong.” Though simplistic, this response points to a learned value very common, especially in recent years, in North American culture. The issue of violence (in the media, in schools, in homes) is consistently front-page material. A campaign against violence and the acceptance of violence is evident in many media outlets.
When specifically asked if certain kinds of violence or certain reasons for using violence were okay, they did elaborate on exceptions to the absolute that violence is wrong. Only three of the girls were able to (or willing to) tell stories of relationships in which violence was used. Michelle briefly stated that her mom had been in an abusive relationship, but did not explain. Allison, on the other hand gave two detailed accounts of older women she knew to be in abusive situations. Only Angelina told her of own experience with “bad” relationships:
Almost all of my boyfriends, they’ve tried to like touch me. They might have been just playin’, but…anyway, I’ve been in some violent relationships. Like I was in one, but it wasn’t all violence, cause in a way he was kind of funny, but he ain’t hurt me. If he ever hurt me, boy, I’d kill somebody. That’s violent right there. I’m a violent person. Yes I am, I am not ashamed of it. I don’t know why; it just runs in my family.
During the focus group, Angelina also told everyone that she wasn’t afraid to hit a boy if he hit her. She had no qualms admitting her own capability to use violence if the situation called for it. Although violence in general is understood to be wrong, one’s own personal use of violence can be mediated by certain factors, such as self-defense.
The story Allison told of an older woman friend also illustrates this dichotomy between others’ use of violence and personal use of violence. According to both Allison and Angelina, nobody has the right to violate your space or put their hands on you, “unless you their child.” Allison’s older friend, whom she considers to be almost like her sister at times, is in an abusive relationship. She has seen the bruises, and has heard stories from the woman’s son. The son told Allison that one night, “he could have picked up [a] knife and stabbed that man in the back because he was so mad.” Allison claims that stabbing him would have been “uncalled for” but that he was acting out of fear for his mother’s life. She admits “I would’ve probably killed somebody for her too, but it doesn’t make it right.”
For Allison, the difference lies in the circumstance. “If your life is in danger and somebody else is violating your space, then yeah, that’s okay.” Outside of intimate relationships, however, she tells a different story: “I don’t know, I threatened to beat up this little boy, and he was scared and he yelled at me and he backed up. And then this other boy came and I backed up cause he big.” A person’s position of power dictates whether or not personal use of aggression can be legitimized. If you feel you have power over someone (like she does over that boy) then aggression can be rationalized. Other’s use of violence cannot normally be rationalized because it falls into the category of “just wrong.” It can be rationalized, however, when that person is reacting to another who has power over them (i.e. self-defense).
For a couple of the other girls though, identifying themselves as violent persons did not seem to upset their perceptions of violence as wrong. As Angelina stated above, she considers herself a violent person and is not ashamed of it. In fact, she says, “It runs in my family.” Toni also talks about herself as violent:
Interviewer: Do you know any girls who are aggressive or who aren’t afraid to use violence?
Toni: That use violence? I use violence.
Interviewer: How so?
Maya: When she dances she throws her elbows, and she gave a little girl a bloody nose one night.
Interviewer: But you didn’t mean to do it, did you?
Maya: It took her awhile to say it (laughing)!
Toni: I didn’t like her though I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t just hit her with my elbow; I slashed her with my fingernails (laughing).
In addition to perceptions of dating and violence, I was interested in what the girls thought about gender and use of aggression. Conforming to dominant gender roles often means males and females are governed by different social standards. For example, males are expected to be aggressive, while females are expected to be compliant and non-aggressive. Female aggressiveness is not “normal,” unless motivated by instinct—protecting young or vying for suitable mates (Brownmiller, 1984; Sayers, 1982; Bjorkqvist & Pirkko, 1992; Bjorkqvist et al, 1992). When females are aggressive, the social standards used to judge their actions tend to be harsher than for males precisely because their actions are not “normal.” I questioned the girls on whether or not it was okay for girls to be violent/aggressive and whether it was more acceptable for boys to be violent/aggressive than for girls. Their responses did not reflect the double standard inherent in dominant gender roles.
It was obvious that the girls viewed violence in general negatively, but they also did not make any exceptions for who was inflicting the violence. It does not matter whether you are a girl or boy—violence is not okay.
Interviewer: Is it more okay for girls to hit a guy than for a guy to hit a girl?
Allison: No, because I mean it’s all the same, ‘cause they invading somebody else’s space. Y’all people, so I mean if you’re invading somebody’s space then it’s wrong. I don’t care if you’re a guy or a girl, it’s just wrong. You’re not supposed to do that.
Even within the confines of a relationship, the girls did not see a difference between male and female responsibility in regards to violence. Neither males nor females have a right to use violence/aggression, but neither do they have to put up with violence/aggression being used against them.
Interviewer: Do you think it’s okay for girls to be [aggressive]?
Toni: No. I mean if somebody hit you though…
Maya: In some situations, if it’s in some situations though you have to be violent. Like with a husband who tries to beat on you, you have to be violent with ‘em, be aggressive.
Interviewer: So is it okay for boys to be aggressive?
Maya: No. Like when? Like when we try and beat ‘em up (laughing)?
Interviewer: Well, what if it was the other way around? What if it was a girl?
Maya: Well, if it was the wife and they have to defend themselves cause the woman was crazy, yeah. But don’t hit her or nothin’. Just take her and restrain her or something, but don’t hit her.
By including examples of girls or women having to use violence, an important issue of power is raised. Use of violence in relationships is often dependent on a woman’s relative position within that relationship. As Angelina pointed out:
I personally, I’m quick to hit a boy. I am very quick to hit a boy, especially my brother. I mean I am quick. And I know it’s not right for me to hit them, but I know they gonna’ hit me back. If they don’t, I’m sorry, but I hit them back too cause they’re not gonna’ hit me cause I told ‘em I wasn’t their child. So I think it’s equal. If I hit a boy, then I think he has the right to hit me back…If you can give a lick, you can take a lick. But I think relationships go both ways.
Allison also admitted to personal aggression used against her brother. Knowing that it makes him feel bad, she realizes that “it makes [her] feel better.” In other situations with boys at school however, she only threatens aggression when she’s sure of her power. When a boy that’s bigger than her enters the scene, she backs up.
In certain aspects, the girls are not aware of “typical” gender roles within their relationships with boys. Identity is based more on one’s humanity and individuality; violating personal space or “putting your hands on someone that’s not your child” is the key issue, not the gender of the individual. However, the girls are also aware that violence/aggression in relationships does occur and that often women are considered victims. So, in other aspects the girls’ responses are gendered; personal acts of aggression can actually be preemptive attempts to defy female compliance (as in Angelina’s case), or simply be a means to assert their power in a system that they know has double standards.
There is one more important issue to address within the topic of gender and aggression: that is the differences between physical and verbal aggression, and direct vs. indirect aggression. Though I did not directly ask the girls what their perceptions of these different forms of aggression were, I did observe some interesting patterns within their interactions.
Indirect aggression is a kind of social manipulation. In their study of gender and aggression, Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Kaukiainan (1992) found that girls are more likely to use indirect aggression, boys are more likely to use physical aggression, and girls and boys equally employ verbal aggression. I observed, however, that gender did not appear to be a factor. The girls used indirect aggression (rumors), verbal aggression (cutting up and teasing), and physical aggression (pushing and hitting), though this was often done in a playful manner.
The girls in this study seem to resist traditional or often observed patterns of gender roles within the discourse of violence. Though the balance they create between their perceptions and actions contains both acceptance and resistance to these gender roles, the weight of the scales is heavier overall on resistance within the discursive framework of gender.
Paying attention to diverse experiences and cultural contexts is an important aspect of feminist methodology. It would be inappropriate to ignore the ethnic background of the girls in this story. The most obvious culturally mediated aspects of this study are how these African American students interact with each other when “cutting up,” and how the girls perceive violence.
“Cutting up” often includes talk and gossip of a sexual nature. As Canaan (1986) shows in her study of teenage girls’, sexuality is central to how a person constructs their identity. She shows how stories told can create categories for other kids to judge sexual morality by. These stories are about other girls’ sexual lives, because it is easier and safer than talking about one’s own experiences. During the focus group, if talk of a sexual nature would arise, there was usually some pointing of fingers. Though sexualized conversation was common, none of the girls admitted to, or actually had, any personal sexual experiences. Most denied they had even kissed anyone.
While rumors and stories about peers are common themes in studies of adolescents, the intricate ritual of verbal exchange witnessed in this study seems specifically African American. Thompson (1990) points out that “the art of signifying” is an important part of African American oral and written communication. “In contemporary usage, signifying is a varied and complex rhetorical practice of indirection and coding that multiplies meanings by blurring the distinctions between implication and assertion, fact and fiction, wish and joke” (p. 270). Cutting up and signifying are essentially the same verbal art used by the kids in this study.
The second culturally relevant theme occurs when the girls are asked about their perceptions of violence. Specifically, violating another person’s space, or putting your hands on somebody is never okay—unless that person is your child. Personal space itself is culturally defined, but it seems that the specific boundary of the parent/child bond is peculiar to the family and culturally defined values of the girls. As Angelina explained, “I don’t think it’s okay for anybody to put their hands on somebody, unless that is their child. And that’s what I tell everybody—I’m not your child, so don’t hit me.”
It is likely that there are many other cultural differences between the girls in my study and adolescents in other studies. In reference to perceptions and interactions though, these are the two most striking differences I noticed.
There is a system within which the girls construct their social identity. Imagine that this identity is the center of the system, and that this system exists within the unique time of adolescence. From all sides and directions there are forces that influence the construction of this identity.
First there are learned values received from family, important because they are the very first outside social forces experienced by humans. We begin with these learned values and then continue to build on them, change them, and eventually construct an identity that retains elements of this primary socialization. Media as a mechanism for translating culture is also a part of this early socialization process. Many perceptions of relationships and violence stem from these influences.
Peers become more important as influential forces during adolescence. For the girls in this story, the after-school program provides an extended time period during which they engage in gossip, teasing, cutting up, and the spread of rumors. All of these are methods by which they exchange knowledge and values, which in turn influence the girls’ perceptions of relationships and violence. Interactions between peers can coincide or contrast with these revised perceptions.
Personal experience is the third force that contributes to the construction of identity. While new experiences are certainly mediated by family, culture, and peers, perceptions of personal experiences of relationships and violence are unique because of the private space in which they take place. Personal experiences allow individuals to reflect on, reject, or recombine the above influences in a way that is one’s own.
The result of all these influential forces is a social identity that is constantly in flux. For the girls, balance is an important tool used to maneuver within this system. They balance their perceptions of relationships and violence with their actions. They balance learned values with new experiences. They balance public interactions with private interactions. The result of this balancing act is not just a social identity, but a social identity with room to move.
One of drawbacks to this study is the lack of diversity as far as sexuality. It is difficult, I know, to include every aspect of social identity into one study. But because this study dealt with romantic relationships, it would have been useful to include girls who had different experiences with different partners.
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