A study of 710 girls ages 14 to 17 who were living in two-parent families found that teen-agers who witnessed domestic violence or were the subject of violence from a parent were at least three times more likely to engage in risky sexual activity than a teen-ager who did not experience violence in the home.
"The vicarious experience of violence within the family has nearly as profound an effect on the adolescents as if they were the victims," said Gregory Elliott, associate professor of sociology and the study leader. "Parents who say, 'We don't hit our kids but we smack each other around' still harm their kids."
However those with the highest rates of risky sexual behavior in the study were still the teen-agers who were physically abused themselves. Teen-agers who were abused but did not witness violence between their parents were six times more likely to engage in risky sex than teen-agers from families not plagued by violence, said Elliott.
Researchers analyzed data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, which focuses exclusively on females and does not provide data on these variables for young men. Their findings will be published in the October 2002 issue of the Journal of Violence and Victims.
Risky sexual behavior is defined as either having multiple partners within the last 12 months or having sex with partners who are themselves engaging in risky behavior, such as having sex with multiple partners or injecting drugs.
Adolescence has always been a recognized time of upheaval in the process of personal development. Violence can send a message that there are no sanctions against any kind of behaviors and no boundaries to protect oneself from others, said Elliott.
Teen-agers may also internalize violence may and believe it to be their fault. A familiar example is when children think that they "caused" a divorce between parents, he said.
"Moreover, if you're the only one who is getting hit, that really sends the message that you are the problem," said Elliott. Adolescents who believe they are blameworthy may consider themselves deficient as human beings, so the loss associated with risk appears less important.
While family violence is not new, its effect on childhood and personal development has only recently become the subject of social science analysis, according to Elliott. More research needs to be done measuring not only the current experience of victims but past family violence.
Elliott completed the study with Roger Avery, adjunct associate professor in the Center for Population Studies and Training at Brown University, and Elizabeth Fishman and Brandon Hoshiko, former Brown undergraduates.