Two new studies of adolescent girls have found that one in four has been sexually or physically abused or forced by a date to have sex against her will.
In addition, those who have had such experiences are far more likely to show signs of depression and to engage in risky health behaviors, including smoking, drinking and using drugs, eating disorders, failing to use contraception and becoming pregnant.
“Although these rates are stunningly high, they’re very consistent with what we’ve seen in earlier studies in several states,” said Dr. Robert Blum, chairman of the adolescent health department at the University of Minnesota. “The association between abuse and other problems is so striking that all of us in the education and health systems must have our antennae up about abuse whenever we see a kid who isn’t functioning well, whether it shows up as emotional distress or suicidal thoughts or school failure.”
The Commonwealth Fund’s study, based on a nationwide survey of 6,748 girls and boys in grades five through 12, found that most of the abuse was by a family member or family friend, took place at home and occurred more than once.
A quarter of the girls surveyed said they had at some point wanted to leave home because of their concerns about violence. The survey did not define abuse, leaving it to those filling out the survey to decide what constituted physical or sexual abuse, or being forced to have sex.
The Commonwealth Fund found that the gap between the sexes on some risky behaviors is disappearing, with adolescent girls now smoking, drinking and using drugs at almost the same rate as boys their age. Eating disorders remain far more prevalent among girls.
One in four girls exhibited symptoms of depression, a rate 50 percent higher than for the boys. Among high school girls, 1 in 3 had thought about suicide in the past two weeks.
African American girls appeared to be an exception, reporting fewer symptoms of depression or low self-confidence than white, Asian American or Hispanic girls.
And while boys reported less abuse than girls, physical abuse was not uncommon: 12 percent of the high school boys and 8 percent of those in fifth through eighth grades had experienced such abuse.
The Commonwealth Fund study, based on a representative national sample of students who completed anonymous questionnaires in public, private and parochial schools, was conducted by Louis Harris and Associates from December 1996 to June 1997.
The other study, released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, is based on a new analysis of a 1992 survey of 3,128 girls in 8th, 10th and 12th grades in Washington state, focusing on sexual behavior.
The girls who said they had been sexually abused were three times as likely as the others to have been pregnant, an association that has long been known to researchers.