Gender, sexuality and healthy relationships

Emily Robson discusses how the dynamics of gender and sexuality affect young people’s ideas about healthy and unhealthy relationships

Teenagers sitting on benchIn my last blog I discussed the emerging research on mobile technology and its association with abuse in young people’s intimate relationships. Here I’m going to explore what we’re learning about how the dynamics of gender and sexuality in society affect young people’s thinking about what’s healthy and unhealthy in relationships. I’ll be focussing on what we can learn from the research and how this can inform practice – including the development of relationships and sex education.

Gender stereotypes

Since the early 2000s there’s been ongoing interest in the significance of gender in domestic abuse. Whilst much of the debate focuses on male-on-female abuse, research is increasingly looking at female perpetrators, abuse within same sex relationships and the significance of power and gendered narratives in relationships.

I attended the European Conference on Domestic Violence (ECDV) 2017 in Porto, Portugal, where Marianne Hester, a leading professor at University of Bristol, spoke about developments in relation to gender and domestic abuse drawing on her research. She outlined preliminary findings from the PROVIDE study (Programme of Research on Violence in Diverse Domestic Environments). This project looks at a number of key areas including developing and refining a way to measure the severity, frequency and context of domestic abuse. This could help practitioners and researchers differentiate between types of abuse and learn more about patterns of victimisation amongst men. It will be particularly helpful for considering how professionals engage with fathers (both as victims and perpetrators).

Ceryl Davies from the University of Lincoln presented research exploring young Welsh women’s roles in heterosexual relationships at ECDV. The young women in her study identified with the concept of gender equality and wanted equality in their own relationships. However Ceryl found that in practice, society’s established gender roles and double standards about gender restricted young women’s ability to achieve equality.

For example, in some of the discussions from Ceryl’s research, heterosexual young women described their boyfriends as very controlling - getting ‘in a mood’ or ‘sulking’ if the girlfriend didn’t want to have sex, deciding ‘everything’ and restricting when girls could see their friends. Girls talked about feeling pressure to placate their boyfriends, who they felt ‘get angry easily’. These controlling behaviours were largely accepted by the young women in the research as something they had no control over, because ‘expectations on girls are now different’. The girls often used gender stereotypes to further rationalise their boyfriends’ behaviour – for example that men ‘want to be in control’.

These findings relate to my own research, which I presented at ECDV. I used focus groups with young people (aged 15-24) to explore how they made sense of domestic abuse, looking specifically at how people’s gender and sexuality influenced who young people perceived to be victims and/or perpetrators. Young people drew upon common arguments to rationalise their views, such as the idea that men can’t be victims of domestic abuse because they’re stronger than women.

In some discussions of different types of relationships I found traditional gendered narratives were challenged. For example, the young people were able to consider straight men, lesbian women and gay men as victims of domestic abuse. This facilitated gender neutral discussions about what makes relationships healthy - for example the importance of trust, respect and happiness.

In other cases however I found young people relied on gender stereotypes to make sense of same-sex relationships and women’s violence towards men. The main stereotype young people referred to was the idea that it’s socially unacceptable for a man to hit a woman because men are stronger than women and physical abuse is therefore more likely to cause harm. In heterosexual relationships this idea can help to identify unhealthy and abusive behaviours.

However, this same logic can also be used to normalise domestic abuse in same-sex relationships or when a woman is being abusive toward a man. For example the young people in my research said that the idea of a (weak) woman being abusive to a (strong) man was ‘not as bad’ as a (strong) man being abusive to a (weak) woman. They thought a male victim is less likely to be harmed and assumed he would be more able to fight back.

Likewise, stereotypes about strength often led to assumptions that because both partners in a same-sex relationship are the same gender, they are ‘equally matched’. This created an ‘equal fight’ scenario, where the partner being abused was seen to be at less risk of harm. Donovan and Hester also found this in their research (2014).

Final thoughts

This is just a snippet of the large field of current research into how gender and sexual identity are associated with domestic abuse. What do these findings tell us about the best way to educate young people about healthy, safe relationships?

The research shows the importance of providing young people with non-gendered ways to make sense of their relationships – and a space to discuss concepts such as trust, consent, love and happiness. Research also highlights a need for adults to help young people safely discuss gender stereotypes and assumptions so they can explore what these mean to their own relationships and lives. By raising their awareness of these issues we’re helping them to become part of an inclusive, equal and fair society.

In many cases children and young people can provide a depth of information that society needs to make sense of the complex issues surrounding domestic abuse, gender and sexuality. But often they don’t have a platform where their voices can be heard by policy or law makers. Practitioners, educators and researchers can empower children and young people to share their thoughts and help them to expect, find and negotiate healthy happy relationships throughout their lives.

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  1. Davies, C. T. (2017). This is abuse?: Voices of young women on the meaning(s) of intimate partner abuse. In II European conference on domestic violence: programme (pp. 86). Portugal: Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences University of Porto.

  2. Donovan, C. and Hester, M. (2014). Domestic violence and sexuality: What’s love got to do with it? Bristol: Policy Press.

  3. Hester, M. (2017). (What) about men? In II European conference on domestic violence: programme (pp. 9). Portugal: Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences University of Porto.

  4. Robson, E., Madill, A., and Hugh-Jones, S. (2017). Gender, Sexual Orientation and Social Contracts: Young people’s use of social contracts in sense making of domestic violence. In II European conference on domestic violence: programme (pp. 87). Portugal: Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences University of Porto.