Deadly Medicine for Youth Violence

Within days of one another, two of the nation's top newspapers -- The Boston Globe and The New York Times -- published stories on youth violence. Titled, respectively, "Girl Power" (seriously Boston Globe?) and "A Rise in Efforts to Stop Abuse in Youth Dating," both reported that the rise in dating violence against young women and violence among young men rages on.

The really bad news? Law enforcement, educators, and even parents are holding girls responsible for stopping it while entirely overlooking systemic and cultural influences that breed violent behavior. The Boston TenPoint Coalition, a Christian group focusing on "troubled youth," along with Boston School Police, is packing teenage girls into public-school auditoriums and sending them a bold and dangerous message: you must prevent your boyfriends from becoming violent.

In addition to being heterosexist, this non-solution conjures up antiquated gender tropes. It paints young men as hormone-crazed meatheads who can't be expected to manage their own emotions or be responsible for their own Cro-Magnon behavior, and young women as moralistic enforcers with no sex drive and nothing better to do than regulate the boys' seemingly untamable instincts. (Interestingly, it's the same sexist framing that the abstinence-only movement has employed for decades without success.)

Michael Hennessey, the assistant chief of the Boston School Police, told the Globe, "High school boys won't listen to their parents or their teachers. It's the girls who have a shortcut to the way these kids will react, and it's a very important thing for them to know and a lot of them don't realize it." So because the adults responsible for shaping young men's ideas about themselves and ethical behavior haven't figured out a successful way to prevent violence, young women might as well take the fall for our failure of education and imagination? Nice.

Further, this point of view completely erases the influence of systemic racism and classism that make violence -- usually intertwined with turf wars, drug dealing, and other "alternative" forms of economic survival -- seem like a pretty viable option for young men who don't receive a solid education, community support, or social and financial capital. According to the Times, 72 percent of black men in their 20s who didn't have a high school diploma were jobless and 21 percent were incarcerated in 2004. And 2009 promises to be an even more difficult time economically, foreshadowing a rise in violence. It's preposterous to think a bunch of nagging girlfriends are going to stave off that inevitability.

With regards to dating violence, the statistics are similarly depressing. A study published last July in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that more than one-third of the 920 students questioned were victims of emotional and physical abuse by romantic partners before they started college. And the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that dating violence had risen by more than 40 percent since 1999. The vast majority of perpetrators, unsurprisingly, are male.

Seems like another opportunity to look at systemic and cultural influences, doesn't it? So much of domestic violence is tied up in alcohol and drug addiction, and the enduring tradition of macho behavior.

Instead, much of the prevention efforts highlighted in the recent Times piece focus on educating girls about interpersonal violence and urging them to flee abusive relationships. Even well-intentioned efforts by grieving parents seem sadly one-sided. Deborah Norris, mother of Heather Norris, who was killed last September by a violent boyfriend, created to "help girls learn when things are amiss in a relationship."

But what about the young men? Do we really think teenage boys so depraved that they can't respond to an education on emotional management or be asked to takeĀ  responsibility for preventing and ending interpersonal violence?

This seems to be the thread running through both of these recent stories: that we still live in a country where gender stereotypes (men are violent and uncontrollable, women are passive and responsible) in collusion with systemic invisibility, lead us to continue making the same ineffective interventions. Our short-sightedness and sexism is, in itself, a sort of violence. It prevents us from empowering the next generation to live better, more peaceful lives.

Thankfully, the national government appears to be opting for a more systemic, less sexist approach to understanding and ending youth violence. The United States Department of Health and Human Services is currently soliciting grant applications for a new initiative on "Youth Violence Prevention through Economic, Environmental, and Policy Change," positing that violence is highest in areas in which "at least 20 percent of the residents are poor" and there are "high concentrations of poverty and unemployment, high levels of residential instability, family disruption, crowded housing, drug-distribution networks, and low community participations."

And other organizations throughout the nation are targeting men and boys with intervention efforts designed to -- finally -- get real about the culture of masculinity and the way in which it both limits and leads men to violent behavior. The Masculinity Project is asking multi-generational men all over the country, "What does it mean to be a man?" with an eye on developing a new black masculinity in the 21st century. Gender theorists like Michael Kimmel, filmmakers and educators like Bryon Hurt and Jackson Katz, and so many others are doing the difficult work of dismantling the culture that continues to socialize young men into believing that violence is part and parcel of manhood.

Of course young women must be educated about dating violence and encouraged to protect themselves. Of course they can play a role in reimagining masculinity, in discouraging the men they love from falling into tired stereotypes. But holding young women primarily responsible for preventing male violence is like telling young men that ending the epidemic of eating disorders in this country is ultimately up to them. Sure, there is a thin ideal, a $40 billion diet industry, and psychological, physiological, and genetic influences at work, but that's nothing that a little encouragement from a supportive boyfriend can't solve, right?

We do young people a disservice when we provide sexist, surface-level solutions to the ongoing problem of youth violence in this country. It's not only ineffective, it's deadly. According to the CDC, 15 young people ages 10 to 24 are murdered each day.