“Healthy relationships are the best protector against abusive relationships,” says Chaka-Khan Gordon of Helpmate, an Asheville nonprofit providing services and support for survivors of domestic violence. That’s why, as a youth outreach specialist, Gordon visits high schools in Buncombe County to teach boundaries, respect and healthy communication.
“I don’t teach it, like, ‘This is about dating,’” she tells Xpress, noting that many ninth graders in her classes aren’t dating yet. The idea is to offer young people healthy relationship skills for any relationship, be it with family, friends or romantic partners.
The terms “dating violence” or “domestic abuse” evoke obvious physical violence, such as visible bruises. However, that characterization of abuse in relationships has never shown the whole picture.
According to Love Is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline aimed at teens and young adults, “Dating abuse is a pattern of coercive, intimidating or manipulative behaviors used to exert power and control over a partner.” Abusive behaviors include putting someone down frequently, isolating someone from family or friends, stalking and pressuring or forcing physical intimacy.
Technology, especially social media, has created new avenues for abuse and harassment; in some regards, it enables abusers to hide more easily. One sign of relationship abuse is checking a person’s phone, email or social media accounts without permission, explains Love Is Respect.
Bringing Helpmate into schools is a project of the Community Violence Prevention Task Force of Buncombe Partners in Prevention, says Christy Price, the nonprofit’s director of outreach. Buncombe Partners in Prevention is a collaboration between Helpmate, Pisgah Legal Services, Mountain Child Advocacy Center and the sexual violence prevention nonprofit Our VOICE.
Julia Horrocks, managing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services, says her nonprofit supports the program because “a child’s exposure [to domestic violence] increases the chance that the child will become a victim or a perpetrator as an adult.” But education can reduce a child’s risk of exposure to abuse, she continues.
In other words, it can break the cycle.
‘Abusive tactics as romance’
Abusive relationships can occur between partners of any gender. However, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that women ages 16 to 24 experience domestic violence at the highest rate of any age group, noting it is three times the national average.
“A huge reason is a lack of experience [with dating] and the normalization of abusive tactics as romantic,” explains Gordon. Receiving attention from someone we like is captivating. “That produces all these chemicals and hormone releases, and it feels really good,” she says. Those emotions can make it difficult for someone in a relationship to identify when abusive behaviors appear later.
She cites “love bombing” as an example of an abusive tactic: the practice of showering a partner with over-the-top affection, attention and/or gifts at the start of a relationship, then using that behavior to justify later control, manipulation or neediness.
It’s difficult to assess the scope of dating violence, as much of it goes unreported. And data collected by the N.C. Department of Administration’s Council for Women and Youth collates all reported domestic abuse and doesn’t identify the relationship to the abuser, such as a family member or a dating partner. Nevertheless, NCDOA data from July 2020 to June 2021 shows that 1,898 children in North Carolina ages 13-17 received remote or in-person services for domestic violence, and as did 9,079 people in the state ages 18-24.
Buncombe County doesn’t collect data pertaining to dating violence among youth. Despite the lack of data, however, Gordon says she knows anecdotally that dating abuse exists in the county. Why? Because students — and even teachers — speak with her about it.
Buncombe County teaches a curriculum called In Touch With Teens, developed by the nationwide nonprofit Peace Over Violence. A key component of the program is journaling prompts, which are used for interpersonal awareness building.
Another component of the curriculum contextualizes abusive relationships within American culture. “Relationship abuse is not a personal problem. It affects people personally, but it’s really a social problem,” says Gordon. “Our relationships are simply reflections of the larger community and larger society that we live in. … Look at the messages you’re presented in the media.”
In class, students analyze how violent, abusive or controlling relationships are normalized in song lyrics, TV and film — such as the romantic comedy trope of the relentless male suitor who wears down a woman’s resolve until she finally agrees to go on a date with him. The goal is to encourage students to discern their own values and “[live] from personal choice,” rather than emulating popular culture’s example, Gordon explains.
Technology and social media always come up in lessons. Gordon says, “Whenever I talk to them about [social media abuse and harassment], I’ll say, ‘How many of you have been mistreated, abused, harmed?’ They all raise their hands.”
Gordon focuses on how “nothing on the internet is private.” No matter if kids are sending text or images, Gordon says, “Somebody can find it.” She asks that students treat “the internet [as] a public space, just like when you go into the mall or you go to school.” She also teaches about communication styles, such as being passive or assertive.
Yet the healthy relationship topic that adolescents most want to discuss isn’t directly tied to tech. “Boundaries are a huge thing with youth,” Gordon says. “Because so many adults have problems with healthy boundaries, they are on the receiving end of so many poor boundary experiences.”
Breaking the cycle
Helpmate’s program has come to some county schools since 2003, but it only received funding for a youth prevention educator in 2016, says Price. In previous years, it taught in the county’s schools sporadically, she continues, but added, “T.C. Roberson has always been a high school where a specific coach reached out annually to schedule our prevention education programming.” In 2021, T.C. Roberson is the only school where Gordon, who began her role in winter 2020, will be serving. She credits the coach, Laura Beatty, for advocating that the program reaches students.
“Helpmate teaches setting dating boundaries before you are in a difficult situation,” Beatty writes in an email to Xpress, noting that she mostly teaches ninth graders. “[S]tudents are less likely to go beyond what one may be comfortable with in a dating relationship if boundaries are known and set beforehand.” Beatty also writes that she likes how the curriculum teaches what respect looks like while dating.
Typically the lessons take place in two back-to-back health classes; in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gordon has been presenting lessons over video on PowerPoint. She wants to see the curriculum be more widespread so its lessons can be reinforced. “You teach this in the ninth grade and that’s the last time you talk about it; that’s not good for social-emotional learning,” she says. “We’d prefer to present this to every grade every year.
Helpmate’s 24-hour hotline can be reached at 828-254-0516. More information about violence in teen and young adult relationships is available at LoveIsRespect.org.