May 28, 2019

Three things to know about teen dating violence

During Sexual Violence Awareness Month, Deinera Exner-Cortens stresses the importance of adolescent relationships
Deinera Exner-Cortens, leading researcher in teen dating violence shares career insights during Sexual Violence Awareness Month.

Deinera Exner-Cortens, leading researcher in teen dating violence shares career insights.

During her undergrad at the University of Calgary, Deinera Exner-Cortens took a trip to Botswana. Though she originally went to participate in a field trip researching HIV/AIDs with Wilfreda (Billie) Thurston, professor emerita, by the time she returned to Canada, she had discovered the research area that would become the focal point of her career – dating violence.

“In Botswana I saw the intersection and social factors between HIV and dating violence for the first time — it was eye-opening,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens, PhD, who holds a joint academic appointment with the Faculty of Social Work and the Cumming School of Medicine.

“Romantic relationships should be places where you have fun, you learn and are sometimes emotional, but you shouldn’t have to worry about your safety. Meeting teens who have experienced those kinds of relationships and seeing the impact on their long-term well-being really fuels me to do prevention work.” 

Over the past decade, Exner-Cortens has built a career researching teen dating violence and healthy relationships. Currently, she is leading an evaluation of WiseGuyz, a program administered by Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality to prevent violence among 14- to 15-year old boys, which, if successful, could become the standard approach to violence prevention across Canada. The study is supported by a $1.25-million grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada.  

Three things you need to know about teen dating violence

From her research, Exner-Cortens highlights three key facts about teen dating violence that everyone should know:

1.      Teen dating violence is a strong risk factor for future intimate partner violence

According to a 2017 study led by Exner-Cortens, female victims of teen dating violence had almost one-and-a-half times greater risk for experiencing physical adult intimate partner violence.  

“People don’t put stock into adolescent romantic relationships and often minimize them as silly or fleeting, but they have really critical impacts on health and development,” she says.

“Dating violence happens as early as middle school around entry to Grade 6. If we’re serious about preventing domestic violence, we have to be open to talking to youth, supporting them to have healthy relationships, and take dating violence seriously.”

2.      Healthy relationship skills need to be learned and developed from childhood

Exner-Cortens emphasizes that interpersonal skills aren’t a one-size fits all model.

“Just because we’re good at friendship doesn’t mean we’ll be good romantic partners. Healthy dating skills need to be learned, just like reading and writing,” she says. “When we enter new interpersonal contexts like dating, we need support to develop the right skills. It’s our responsibility to work with youth so they know what a healthy relationship looks like, feels like and sounds like.”

3.      Social issues intersect with dating violence

While it’s important to teach youth individual skills to prevent teen dating violence, Exner-Cortens says to combat dating and domestic violence, we simultaneously need to address broader social issues that are linked to violence in romantic relationships.

“Addressing structural barriers including racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism is critical to promoting youth well-being,” she says.

“WiseGuyz is a multi-target program that promotes mental health, bullying prevention, healthy relationships and academic achievement. Though it’s aimed at addressing teen dating violence, it critically examines broader social constructs like gender, consent, sex and sexuality to provide a more holistic view while promoting overall well-being.”

If you think you have experienced sexual violence, or know someone who has, visit the Sexual Violence Support website for campus and community resources, or arrange a confidential consultation with Carla Bertsch, the university’s sexual violence support advocate, by confidential email