Two Sides to a Statistic

A disclaimer: I never did like statistics as a college student, and all these years later I'm still not a fan. One primary reason is that it is really hard to trust a statistic unless you are willing to actually read the research conducted behind it. As my statistics professor put it, "every statistic has two sides."

Case in point: An organization, with good intent, sent out a fact sheet about teen dating violence. This information was widely circulated in my community and I would suspect in communities around the country. The information within this document was useful and helpful in raising awareness about teen dating violence. And no surprise, statistics were used in putting the information together, interpreted for the reader and used to make a point. The point being that teen dating violence is a big problem in the United States.

But the problem with this type of quick information sharing is that much gets lost in the interpretation of the research or in trying to make a point with as few words as possible. And therefore, often, the inaccurate side of a statistic is told.

Male and female teens are equally likely to perpetrate and experience dating violence, states Child Trends' Five Things to Know about Teen Dating Violence. If you visit the link used for this statement and you read the article in its entirety, I suspect that you will agree with me -- the statement used in the list is not a fully accurate description of the truth. It is a prime example of what is often left out of the conversation.

Multiple research studies have demonstrated that there is a reciprocal use of violence by both partners. However, in many studies "researchers fail to address the meaning, context, or consequences of the violence" (Dekeseredy, 1995). For example, much of the dating violence research overlooks whether female use of violence was in self-defense or in response to male physical or sexual violence (O'Keefe 2005).

In fact, multiple studies have found that adolescent boys clearly stated that they would use violence against their partner to get their way or to control their partner, whereas adolescent girls would slap or push their boyfriends to be cute, playful or flirtatious. Adolescent girls indicate that fear is a primary effect on them, whereas adolescent boys report little to no fear. As O'Keefe states in her findings, "Given that fear, intimidation, power and control are at the core of adult battering relationships, it is critical to understand how these dynamics may be played out in adolescent relationships.

Given that nearly 70 percent of female victims and 54 percent of male victims experience intimate partner violence prior to the age of 25, it is important that we get this information right. It is critical that we are able to educate our adolescents about the root causes and impact of dating violence. And it is critical that we be cautious about our use of language when we do so. Blaming the victim instead of holding abusers accountable can have a lethal impact.