Abusive pupil relationships: ‘he raped me, then he broke up with me’

Jenny Williams, now 21, was in a nine-month-long abusive relationship when she was in sixth form. “It started with small things,” she says. “He would knock my confidence and call me names.

“Later there was physical violence, like punches on the arm in front of friends, which were disguised as a joke. Towards the end of our relationship he raped me, then he broke up with me.”

Williams became isolated and depressed and didn’t tell anyone until after the relationship had ended. “People couldn’t see what was happening, so I thought I was being dramatic. Young relationships aren’t seen as serious, and the things that happen in them are undervalued.”

Defining abuse

Domestic violence is defined by the government as abuse that happens “between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members”. Unlike sexual assault, it’s a pattern that can be physical, emotional, mental, financial or sexual.

Anyone can be affected, regardless of age, sexuality, length of relationship, or whether you are living with a partner. One in four women, one in six men and one in seven female students experience it in their lifetime.

Those aged between 16 and 24 are the most at risk. Theresa May warned this week that “too many young men think it’s OK to hit their girlfriends, while young women don’t realise such relationships are unhealthy”.

Despite this, many people still “don’t think of young people and students” as domestic violence victims, says Franki Hackett, from Women’s Aid, while at many universities, students say it is largely overlooked.

People often wrongly assume that young relationships are fleeting and so cannot be abusive, says Joanna Sharpen, of Against Violence and Abuse (Ava). “They therefore downplay any abuse.”

Not telling

The myth that young people don’t experience this type of violence is particularly dangerous when it prevents them from seeking help.

Recent graduate Alice Turner rarely left the house when she was recovering from a violent relationship in her first year at Sheffield University. She didn’t tell anyone, because she didn’t see herself as a victim.

“The relationship was violent and manipulative, and there was a lot of power play in it,” she says. “But it was only after he broke up with me, when I saw him on a night out and he punched me in the face, that I understood that it was domestic violence.”

“People don’t recognise domestic abuse between two 19-year-olds, and that made it hard for me to recognise. I used to think, that’s not me, I’m a 19-year-old student.”

Young people can also suffer in silence because they don’t know what counts as domestic violence. “Many come to us and ask if their relationship is normal,” says Neil Blacklock from Respect. “They feel uncomfortable, but find it difficult to name as abuse.”

Vulnerable time

University can be a particularly vulnerable time, says Hackett. “It can be the perfect storm of not having a support network in place when these relationships start, which can make it hard to reach out.”

Turner says: “It’s easy to become reclusive at university, even though you’ve got the whole campus society. You’re not at home and you’re not forced to be there. No one’s going to check up on you. It’s easy to withdraw from everything.”

This was the case for Jessica York. As a fresher, her relationship was controlling and aggressive – like many student relationships, she says.

“I didn’t seek help because I believed I was the cause of the problem. In the end he broke up with me because he said I didn’t put enough effort in.

“Many young people go through abuse, I know lots of relationships at uni like that. Once in halls, a guy locked his girlfriend in her room and wouldn’t let anyone in.”

Universities have counselling services for students, but Turner and York both feel they could do more. They suggest putting posters up to raise awareness and clarifying where students can get help.

In recent months sexual violence has increasingly been recognised as an issue on university campuses. However Turner and York say that domestic abuse in student relationships is still largely taboo. Talking about domestic violence in wider university conversations about sexual violence would help, they say.

“Universities should have a structure in place for this kind of thing,” says York. “Not just the uni counselling sessions. Maybe they could have a separate helpline and raise awareness about what is, and what isn’t, a healthy relationship.”

Lack of support

Universities have an important role to play, as young adults too often fall through the cracks in support services, says Sharpen. They are no longer covered by child protection, but are unable to get the most from adult services that are often unsuitable for young people.

The government definition of domestic violence was changed in 2010 to include 16- to 17-year-olds. However Sharpen points out that there isn’t a “magic pot of money” to go alongside that or any new services, leaving many young adults without support.

The answer may lie partly in schools. Personal, social and health education (PSHE) isn’t compulsory, and even in schools where it is taught, domestic violence is rarely covered. The introduction of statutory sex, relationship and consent education would have a positive impact on how young people experience relationships, campaigners say.

“A lot of it comes down to the fact that we don’t get this education in schools,” says Sharpen. “It’s hard for young people to navigate their way through consent, healthy relationships and abuse. We still live in a society where women are sexualised and objectified. So young people don’t have anywhere to go to get a positive understanding of relationships.”

Williams, Turner and York want to see attitudes change. “Even when he hit me in front of friends people didn’t equate it with domestic violence,” says Williams.

“One of the most powerful ways to help young victims, Turner says, is “if people stop thinking about it as something that doesn’t affect young people.”

Claire’s story

Claire James, a student at Cambridge University, was in a relationship with a woman in her 40’s when she was 18. She says there can be an extra layer of stigma for young people in same-sex relationships to break through before they can get help.

“I didn’t tell my parents or my friends. There were a lot of secrets around the relationship and those secrets can allow violence to happen.

“To begin with she was nice and I was flattered by the attention. The abuse happened slowly. The relationship became physically violent, she was controlling about what I wore and I always had to tell her where I was.

“You think domestic violence happens to other people, that it’s not something that will happen to you. You feel ashamed about it, that you let this happen to yourself.

“The education we give young people about relationships is patchy. People assume you’ll learn it as you go along and that doesn’t help. There could be more support for people in same-sex relationships as well, because there can be an extra level of stigma.

“Breaking down stereotypes is important because that will help people to realise that their experiences should be taken seriously”

Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Where to find help

24-hour National Domestic Violence freephone helpline: 0808 2000 247

Read the warning signs for domestic violence here










Leave a Reply