The Hidden Reality of Dating Violence on College Campuses

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Health and Wellness Center at American University. Under Title IX, universities are required to provide resources and services to students in abusive relationships. Photo by Madeleine Simon

By Madeleine Simon

Faith Ferber, a senior at American University, spent five years advocating for victims of sexual and domestic violence on college campuses. She founded student groups, interned at nonprofits that help victims of sexual assault, and became an expert in Title IX legislation. If anyone would know how to stay away from violent relationships, it should be her. But Ferber recently found herself in a physically abusive relationship, one that took her eight months to get out of. She left her boyfriend in July of this year.

“Domestic violence is way more complicated than anyone can understand,” Ferber said. “Even as an advocate doing this for five years—I knew it takes people seven times to leave on average; I knew how difficult it was; I knew all the complicated feelings—but I really had no idea. Despite everything I knew, it was so much harder than I really realized.”  

Included in her advocacy work, Ferber founded the Students Against Sexual Violence club at American University, and is currently a student and federal organizer for Know Your Nine, a nonprofit that works to educate students on their rights and enforce Title IX legislation.

Ferber is one of nearly five million college women who experience physical and emotional dating abuse, according to a 2011 report by Break The Cycle, a non profit aimed at educating young people about unhealthy relationships. That means nearly half of all college women, 43 percent, go through some kind of physical, verbal, sexual or controlling abuse. But despite the prevalence of this kind of violence, universities along with federal legislators are only just now expanding their efforts to curb dating abuse. Stories like Ferber’s show that many young women, even those with education on the issue, are still vulnerable to violent relationships as they navigate the pitfalls of social media, new-found independence and a muddled hook-up culture.

“I think that for college students in particular when it comes to dating violence, they’re experiencing their first more mature, serious relationship,” said Mickey Irizarry, director of the Wellness Center at American University. “While you’re trying to develop a relationship and understand how to have this healthy relationship with another person, you’re also trying to understand yourself. So I think there are different factors that put college students at risk for dating violence.”

In the past five to ten years, colleges have made significant strides to combat sexual assault, thanks in part to the Obama administration’s Title IX guidances. And with the #MeToo campaign trending worldwide amidst numerous allegations against celebrities and politicians, sexual assault has received global notoriety and attention. But the issue of dating violence and emotionally abusive relationships, particularly among young adults, has in some ways been lost in the conversation around how women, and some men, are treated.

“Sexual assault is definitely more of the paid-attention-to issue right now,” Irizarry said. “And not to say that they are different because sexual assault can exist in unhealthy relationships. I think that people forget that Title IX for instance also concerns dating violence. It’s not just sexual assault.”

Under Title IX, universities have to provide resources for students in abusive relationships. However, colleges weren’t legally required to report incidents of dating violence on their campuses until two years ago as part of new legislation in the Clery Act.

The 1990 law mandates that universities keep and disclose information about crimes that are reported on their campus, including cases of sexual violence. But it wasn’t until 2013 that dating violence became a separate crime with its own definition, and it took another year for the amendment to take effect.  

The act requires colleges to publicly release an annual security report, which documents criminal cases including sexual and dating violence. Schools’ records of dating violence only date back to 2014.

“Before dating violence, domestic violence and stalking were outlined as actual crimes that could be counted, a lot of those actions would’ve fallen under aggravated assault,” said Laura Egan, Senior Director of Programs for the Clery Center. “Those are very different crimes. A bar fight is very different than a crime of power between the victim and their partner.”

While the Clery Act is progressive in many ways—not only separately defining dating violence, but also acknowledging “hooking up” as a valid relationship where abuse can occur—it falls short when it comes to enforcing laws, reaching all possible students and recognizing emotional abuse as a criminal aspect of dating violence.

For instance, in 2016, the Department of Education imposed a record $2.4 million fine on Penn State University for failing to comply with the Clery Act and federal requirements during its handling of the Jerry Sandusky case.

“The struggle that campuses have with Clery is that there are a bunch of guidelines and requirements that are intentionally written in a general way, but each campus is so unique and so specific that sometimes schools struggle with understanding how to apply these laws to their campus for whatever reason,” Egan said. “The schools that struggle the most are the ones that don’t have a full understanding of all of the aspects that Clery requires.”

But beyond issues with nationally enforcing policy, the Clery Act also overlooks students who live off campus. Universities are only required to report incidences that happen on campus, but cases of dating violence are much more likely to occur among older students who don’t live in dorms.

“Trends show that reports of relationship violence and dating violence tend to be more prevalent among older students—juniors and seniors—and those students tend to live off-campus,” Irizarry said. “Because by the time you’ve been in [a relationship] long enough for violence to escalate or to build, you are usually not a first-week freshman.”

Legislation like the Clery Act and Title IX take significant steps in addressing dating violence on college campuses, but students still struggle with reporting their experiences. Sometimes, students have a difficult time recognizing they’re in an unhealthy situation right away, and if they do, they may not realize the school offers help, Ferber said.

“I think that people think that it’s their relationship, they choose to be in it, so why go to the school and report?” Ferber said. “I think it’s harder to recognize the influence it has on you versus if you’re assaulted, you know you’re not studying for math in the next few days. You know you’re going to need accommodations there. But when you’re in a more long-term violence situation, it’s harder to really see how you’re impacted by that and I think that could also influence people’s decisions to report or not.”

In Ferber’s case, she did decide to go to her school for help, but she she didn’t feel that she got the best possible support. After her boyfriend assaulted her for a second time, Ferber made an appointment with the counseling center to create a safety plan in case she needed to leave the apartment she and her boyfriend shared. Ferber explained the situation to a counselor, but was told that because she had insurance, all the counselor could do was refer her to an outside therapist, Ferber said.

“I remember leaving being devastated,” Ferber said. “I was trying to speak up that I needed help and she just cut me off and said ‘this isn’t my issue.’ So that’s an accommodation that is given to us through Title IX. It’s not good enough to have that accommodation if then you’re going to ignore survivors.”

Another issue that’s overlooked by the Clery Act is the prevalence and impact of emotionally abusive relationships. The Clery Act does not legally define emotional abuse and does not consider it an act of dating violence. It is up to universities, then, to create policies and to disclose incidents of emotional, verbal or psychological abuse or not.

But emotional abuse—manipulation, constant monitoring, verbal and psychological abuse, and isolation, for instance—is often more prevalent among young adults and can be just as, if not more, damaging than physical abuse. For instance, 31 percent of college women report experiencing controlling behavior and 22 percent say they’ve been victims of verbal abuse, according the same 2011 report by Break The Cycle,

“I think that a lot of people when they think of violence, they can easily grasp an image of physical violence,” said Jasmine Uribe, Leadership and Engagement Manager at Break The Cycle. “But what happens early and more often than physical or sexual abuse is this subtle emotional type. Things that would be seen as common behaviors of relationships that can actually be really negative are jealousy, for example.”

Even without the legal requirement, many universities have their own policies on emotional abuse. But students may not be fully aware that these services exist or what they can do, as was the case with Sammy Giordano, a senior at Kent State University.

Giordano has been in three emotionally abusive relationships, starting when she was a high school student. Her third, and most abusive relationship, carried into her freshman year of college. Giordano didn’t seek out her school’s resources partly because she didn’t completely know about all of her options, she said.  

“I didn’t feel as though I was aware of resources that would be helpful,” Giordano said. “Being on the university, I’ve found that there are. But they’re not advertised enough I don’t think. Schools do have programs and organizations that help with abusive relationships and sexual assault, but you have to look for those things. And I feel like a lot of victims in these situations aren’t looking out for those resources like they should be.”

Without access to or knowledge of school’s resources, students in abusive relationships may feel as if they have to deal with this issue on their own, which can keep this form of violence even further in the shadows.

“I definitely don’t think emotionally abusive relationships are as talked about as they should be,” Giordano said. “They’re harder to detect when you’re in one because you feel like every relationship fights and everyone has their differences. But when someone is making you feel like you’re less of a person than they are, you don’t realize at the time how much that’s going to affect you in the long run.”

Giordano says that her abusive relationships are at the root of many of her emotional issues. She’s developed anxiety and depression, and trust issues in part because her relationships constantly tore her down.

Social media and technology also play an integral role in emotionally abusive relationships among younger people. The same Break The Cycle poll found that 16 percent of college men and women have been victims of abuse via technology.

Because there are now more ways to constantly connect and stay in contact, it’s easier for someone to exhibit control over another person, Uribe said.

“With social media and technology we see a lot of threats happening in text messages,” Uribe said. “I call them the ‘W questions:’ ‘where are you?’ ‘who are you with?’ ‘what are you doing?’ ‘why don’t you answer?’ So those escalate quickly escalate and it’s almost like having an electronic leash.”

Madison Zygadlo, a senior at Middle Tennessee State University, is one of those students who dealt with emotional abuse online throughout her one-year relationship.

“My previous relationship was emotional turmoil, a roller coaster for better words,” Zygadlo said. “He would call me names, tell me I’m psychotic, that I’m fat, would control me and get mad if my guy friends would text me or even tag me in something on Facebook. He once saw my friend’s sister whose name is Ryan as a best friend on Snapchat and he called me and flipped. I had to send him pics of her to prove him wrong.”

Similar to Giordano’s experience, Zygadlo also says her relationship worsened her anxiety and depression. Zygadlo’s boyfriend threatened to break up with her if she took medication for her mental illness.

“I found changes in my personality big time,” Zygadlo said. “I became really shut off and wouldn’t talk to a lot of people. A lot of my friends saw changes in me as well, and I would skip school a lot. I already had diagnosed anxiety, which he made turn into depression.”

After one year, Zygadlo said she finally snapped and broke up with her abusive boyfriend. But her experience, as well as Giordano’s and Ferber’s abusive relationships, show just how long these forms of violence can last. It’s difficult for people in unhealthy relationships to recognize the danger they’re in since many of these behaviors have become normalized in our culture, Uribe said.

“How young were we when we started getting our ideas for relationships?” Uribe said. “For many of us, we weren’t talking about relationships or sex or anything like that. We were getting it from TV, maybe a magazine, maybe some quiz on Teen Vogue or something. Think of all the Lifetime movies and all the Hallmark movies of that crazy girlfriend or that crazy ex-boyfriend—that’s dating violence.”

Five months after leaving her abusive relationship, Ferber continues to fight for survivors and has now shifted more of her focus to domestic abuse victims too, she said. Giordano has since gotten help for her anxiety and depression, she said. And Zygadlo says that in the two years after ending her abusive relationship, she’s grown and learned a lot.

“We are trying to figure our young lives out, and we are so caught up that we just end up with a person who we swore we would never be in a relationship with,” Zygadlo said. “I think once you go through something like this, you grow from it. You start to realize that these people need help—help that you cannot provide, not matter how much you think you love them. That is not love. That’s controlling and manipulative on their end. You learn that you cannot deal with it, for good reason.”

Infographic by Madeleine Simon

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