Dating violence hurts one in three American teenagers, but they often don't consider it abuse until they watch it happen to someone they love -- in many cases, an adored celebrity. February marks the United States' fifth annual Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, and there are more headlines about the issue than ever.
On Friday, football star Ray Rice issued a public apology for punching his wife, Janay, into unconsciousness during a 2013 casino visit -- an incident that led to him being suspended from, and later reinstated by, the NFL. That same day saw the release of the controversial movie "Fifty Shades of Grey" featuring a BDSM relationship some say is abusive. A few days before, President Barack Obama appeared in a video during the Grammys urging artists to help stop violence against women.
High-profile events like these can be positive because they get people talking about dating violence while lawmakers work to change education standards. "For many teens, it may bring up the issue for the first time," said Casey Corcoran, program director for Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit organization working to end domestic and sexual violence. "They may feel more comfortable talking about Chris Brown and Rihanna at first than they do about themselves or their friends."
Disturbing images of Rihanna with deep bruises on her face went viral in 2009 after the "Umbrella" singer was assaulted by Brown, her then boyfriend. He was 19 at the time.
Dating violence, which differs from domestic violence in that the couple is not married, affects one in every three American teens. About a quarter of 14- to 17-year-olds told researchers they knew at least one victim of dating violence, and a third of them have witnessed it in person, according to the American Bar Association.
But they don't bring it up -- only one-third of teens in abusive relationships reported the violence to police -- or often even recognize that what's happening can be considered abuse. When celebrities like Rice or Rihanna become involved, it can start a conversation about what abuse is and what the warning signs are. "When talking about popular culture, we're also talking about youth culture, and that's very real for them," Corcoran said.
Some teen TV shows have begun featuring plot lines dealing with dating violence, said Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline based in Austin, Texas. Young people watch "Teen Mom" or "Switched at Birth" and reach out for help. It's a wake-up call. "Advocates will get texts, chats, calls from teens who say, 'I'm watching this on MTV, and this happens to me. Am I in an abusive relationship?' " she said. "It really presents a unique opportunity to educate teens."
Pop culture can also make that difficult sometimes. The media backlash and victim-blaming of Janay Rice, for example, could scare youth away from reporting violence. Watching "Fifty Shades of Grey" could give some young women the wrong idea about being pursued by men, said Amy Bonomi, professor and chairwoman of human development and family studies at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "A lot of ways we think about romantic relationships as constructed by Hollywood is 'Oh, it's really sexy and hot when someone follows me or calls me a million times,' " she said. "Those are also warning signs."
Though a movie or celebrity case can be a useful starting point for a discussion about teen dating violence, Bonomi said education on the subject should start earlier. Lessons on healthy relationships are usually looped into sexual education courses, over which states have jurisdiction. At least 19 have laws urging or mandating a teen dating violence curriculum, including Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, Texas and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Pop culture may improve those situations, too. Moving through the U.S. Senate right now is the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015, which was introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., earlier this month. The legislation would require public schools' sexual health curriculum to include information on sexual assault, domestic violence and communication, according to a news release. The act was inspired by Rolling Stone's reporting on an alleged 2012 assault at the University of Virginia.
Whether it's required by law or brought up because of Ray Rice, Bonomi said teens need to learn more about dating violence. "When people have reached adulthood ... it's wonderful if they've developed those foundational skills from the very beginning," she said.