Young, Female, and in Danger: Violence in Relationships

by Cathy Seasholes

Editors' note: The following two reviews cover videos on the sensitive topic of violence --date rape -- in young women's lives. We hope you'll read both of them to gain a better grasp of some of the possibilities available for helping young women understand the potential problems with seemingly casual dating relationships.]

DATE RAPE: THE ULTIMATE VIOLATION OF TRUST. 27 mins. 1989. Prod.: Hart Associates. Written by Jeni Frick. $59.95. National Center for Violence Prevention, P.O. Box 9, Calhoun, KY, 42327-0009. Telephone: 800-962-6662; fax: 800-541-0007; website:

IN LOVE AND IN DANGER: DATING VIOLENCE. 15 mins. 1998. Prod./Dir.: Fran Victor and Bill Harder, for The Junior League of Ann Arbor (part of The Dating Violence Prevention and Education Project). Sale: $119.95. Sunburst Communications, 101 Castleton Street, Pleasantville, NY 10570. Telephone: 800-431-1934; website: http://www.

DATE VIOLENCE: A YOUNG WOMAN'S GUIDE. 23 mins. 1997. Prod.: Barbara Bender and Denny Cogswell. Exec. Prod.: Art Linkletter, Barbara Bender, and Pamela J. Nelson. Rental: $75.00. Sale: $129.00. Films for Humanities and Sciences, P.O. Box 2053, Princeton, NJ 08543-2053. Telephone: 800-257-5126; fax: 609-275-3767; website: http://www.

"WHEN A KISS IS NOT JUST A KISS": SEX WITHOUT CONSENT-AN INTERACTIVE EDUCATION/AWARENESS PROGRAM. 36 mins. 1994. Created by Toby Simon, Associate Dean of Student Life, Brown University. Sale: $99.00. Mumbleypeg Productions, 152 Madison Avenue, Suite 1903, New York, New York 10016. Telephone: 212-889-1919.

While both males and females are victims of sexual assault and relationship violence, young women and girls live in especially dangerous times. One quarter of girls report having experienced some violence in their relationships before graduating from high school. Isolation, the pressure to belong, and lowered self-esteem can make it difficult for them to reach out for help in the midst of troubled relationships. Add to this the difficulty of making safe decisions in the context of dysfunctional role-modeling by parents, the glorification of sex and violence in the media, and gender socialization.

We know more about violence against women now than ever before, yet we have not made much progress in changing the frequency of this violence. The four videos reviewed here were created by people wanting to change this, to build greater under-standing of the dynamics of power and control as expressed through violence in heterosexual relationships, with the hope of preventing future abuse.

Open up the National Center for Violence Prevention's catalog and you'll find over twenty videos focused on acquaintance rape. Highlighted as a special selection is Date Rape: The Ultimate Violation of Trust. This educational video is geared toward a college audience, with the intent of increasing student awareness of the risk of sexual assault in dating situations.

Date Rape begins with a list of commonly held myths and quickly moves into a role-played scenario. A young woman is talking on the phone to a friend while waiting for a man to arrive for their first date. The friend expresses concern, stating "I've heard he's a real jerk. . .be careful," and the lead woman assures her that things will be fine. However, when a perpetrator is motivated to assault a woman, rarely are things "fine." Signs of trouble at the beginning of the scene are subtle, yet a careful analysis reveals that the man has clearly planned how the evening will end.

Date Rape continues with statements and advice provided by experts - unfortunately, the weakest section of the video. While each of the professionals has valuable information to share, their presentations are stiff, their appearances dated, and some of their statements seem to reinforce stereotypes.

Hearing a survivor's personal account of her experience is often what it takes for people to transform their own beliefs and behaviors about sexual assault. Thus the final eleven minutes of Date Rape are dedicated to a college woman's powerful story of being raped on her twenty-first birth-day, and a reenactment of her experience, which is frighteningly timeless. Excessive alcohol consumption left her unable to consent; a male friend-of-a-friend exploited her vulnerability and raped her; and in the depths of her struggle to survive after the assault, she attempted suicide.

Date Rape is best for its relative low cost, the narrator's summarizing comments, and the survivor's personal disclosure. What is missing is a written guide to help viewers critically analyze and interpret what they are hearing and seeing in this dated video. Notably absent are racial diversity, a challenge to some of the professionals' culturally narrow statements, a critique of scenes in the final role play, and context for the survivor's self-blaming statements which, left unquestioned, implicitly suggest that she was somehow responsible for the rape.

For every shortcoming noted about Date Rape, the video In Love and In Danger: Dating Violence, created ten years later, succeeds. The visual presentation is engaging and contemporary, the experts are dynamic, and there is an excellent companion work-book complete with handouts. In Love and In Danger doesn't address sexual assault, but looks at other forms of dating violence in teen relationships. Here, a survivor's recounting of her intense and terrifying personal story is also central to the video. Her ability to articulate the complexities of her feelings and thoughts earlier in the relationship, through the violence itself, and into her healing process, adds additional depth. This award-winning video is marketed for a seventh- to twelfth-grade audience, and is equally valuable for parents and educators.

In Love and In Danger conveys a lot in fifteen minutes. The professionals who are interviewed speak naturally and fluidly, reflect some diversity, and are portrayed with a sense of genuine passion and knowledge. What they have to say seems worth listening to. The narrator gets right to the point when she says, "All it takes is to fall in love with someone who is willing to use violence." Another person affirms that, "We're talking about crime, and regardless of age, teens need to be held accountable for their actions."

Some of the power of this video derives from the developmental con-text for regarding gender and violence issues that is set in the opening scenes. Groups of elementary and then older students are filmed with corresponding voices repeating phrases heard all too often in school hallways: "Boys rule," " If you don't have a boyfriend, you're nothing," "If you really love me, you'll do it." Since what seems most distinct about teen relationship violence is that young people are more likely to inter-pret violence as a sign of love than adults are, it is also critical that we talk about positive alternatives. A sexual assault professional emphasizes that, "We need to teach our sons and daughters about healthy relationships from the time they're very young. The earlier we start, the less likely they are to be part of the statistics on violence."

In Date Violence: A Young Woman's Guide, the approach of direct, practical advice is taken further by including concrete ideas about what positive intimacy and boundaries might look like, stating, "A healthy relationship. . .is one where there is personal growth, freedom, and a foundation for realizing hopes and dreams." Date Violence is process oriented, acknowledging that people change with time and personal growth and that many things can be true at the same time for a young woman. The video concedes that the path taken to leaving destructive relationships is often not a straight or easy one.

While the faceless, female narrator sometimes sounds too scripted, it is refreshing and effective that she speaks directly to the viewer. Throughout the video, comprehensive lists of examples are used to illustrate her points. These examples encourage self-reflection and are complemented by statements like, "Recognizing abuse is most clear by the way it makes us feel." The primary limitations of this video are the metaphors highlighted throughout, such as, "Romantic love is the spark that ignites the fire, and that fire can either burn out of control or become an ember glowing in the hearth of the soul." While these images might resonate with more spiritual or religious adolescents, they seem an unlikely match for average American teenagers.

"When a Kiss Is Not Just a Kiss": Sex Without Consent is the only film of the four whose primary artistic format is not video, but the recording of a live theatrical performance on a college campus, intended for video distribution. The video includes an introduction which sets an emotional context for the audience, a play involving two male and two female characters in their first several months at college, and a two-part interactive talk-back session between audience members and the cast. While it would seem most desirable to have the play live on one's own campus, the video version holds its own as a valuable educational resource.

In Sex Without Consent, the actors present an innovative performance about the complexities of how things get said versus how they are interpreted, intent, boundaries, expectations, friendship, responsibility, drinking, male-female relationships, violation, and rape. They act with humor - and occasionally what seems to be impromptu dialog - portraying emotionally difficult issues with an accuracy quickly recognized as realistic and familiar to many young adults.

Unique to the format is the opportunity to watch the situation unfold, making one's own observations and judgements about what is transpiring, while hearing some of the characters think out loud as the scenario plays out. At the close, the lead male and female describe dramatically different interpretations of what happened the night before, as illustrated by her description: "Before I knew it he had his hand up my shirt and he was grabbing my breast," and his: "Next thing you know her shirt was coming off and it was working out really well."

The actors do an excellent job of staying in character when they field questions from the audience about why they acted as they did, and are equally skilled when transformed back into themselves, powerfully articulating rebuttals to misinformation their characters portrayed or they heard from the audience. The video also includes important statistics about college male perpetrators. The degree of distorted interpretation and harmful action is profound, and sadly illustrates how far we must go to bring about a cultural revolution to truly eliminate violence against women.

Rape is an offense against both body and spirit that leaves lasting effects on all aspects of a victim/survivor's life. Relationship violence can also end in murder. When the perpetrator is an acquaintance or someone you are dating, the betrayal and violation can be all the more confusing and complex, and if the victim is a teen or young adult, the impact is further intensified. Each of these four videos makes strides toward educating viewers about the myriad issues in relationship violence between young men and women. While there is no law against saying no, there is a law against refusing to accept no as an answer.

[Cathy Seasholes is the founding director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Women's Resource Center, and a former staff member at the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, Madison, Wisconsin. She holds a master's degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.]

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