Why are younger women most vulnerable to abuse?

There are clear trends which show that younger women are most likely to be abuse victims – why is this?

UK statistics show us that violence against women is most prevalent where the victims are younger. In 2017, women aged between 16 and 19 were the most likely group to have experienced partner abuse in the past 12 months, at 7.6%. The percentage of women who had experienced abuse in the past 12 months aged between 55 and 59 was 4.4%. 

But why are young women more likely to be victims of abuse? Not much is ever said about this, but it is clear that there are several risk factors which make it more likely that a young woman will be vulnerable to abuse. These risk factors are found across the board wherever abuse is experienced.

I think it’s important, though, for us to particularly consider how we can change things for young women. Changing society for the youngest will hopefully ensure continued change throughout subsequent generations. And understanding why and how abuse affects young women is key to understanding the cycle of abuse itself – and just how it can take root in a life. 

So why are young women particularly at risk?

They tend to be inexperienced in love/relationships

This might seem like an obvious point, and many people may feel that this isn’t something we can change. Of course young women are going to be inexperienced, but inexperience shouldn’t automatically lead to unpreparedness.

Inexperience as a term simply refers to a lack of time doing or knowledge gained about something. If you’re 18, you’re never going to have as much personal knowledge about life experiences as women in their 30s and 40s. Many women in their 30s and 40s may have already had negative or abusive relationship experiences – and for those lucky enough be able to escape from them, many will have learned really tough lessons which will stay with them for life.

But while older women may have been able to learn through experience, younger women ought to have had the opportunity to learn through education. 

Unfortunately, that is not the case. A reformed curriculum on relationships and sex education only came into place in September 2020 – and only from this point has teaching secondary school pupils about healthy and unhealthy relationships become mandatory. 

So for most young people in the UK today, proper relationships education – covering consent, abuse and coercive behaviour – has not been something their schools had to deliver.

I remember my own sex education very well. Every year, we’d have just a few weeks of PHSE lessons (a half hour slot per week) centred around sex education. But sex education in my school bizarrely consisted of very few topics. I recall learning about all the different STDs on three separate occasions. And on one memorable occasion which involved lots of giggling, I remember putting a condom on a plastic willy. 

I remember nothing else from school sex education, and I don’t think there was much else. 

We never learned about what an unhealthy relationship could look like, or how to recognise the signs of abuse.

So I went into the world of sex and relationships completely unaware of what to expect or accept. All I had was some vague notion of ‘hitting is bad’ ringing in my head. And unfortunately, it’s that lack of education which turns young women’s inexperience into a danger to them.

Women aged between 16 and 19 are most likely to experience intimate partner abuse
They are highly likely to struggle with issues of insecurity

Forty-six percent of young women and girls aged 13-19 worry ‘often’ or ‘always’ about their body image. Just 39% of girls in the UK have high self-esteem. Society has created a culture whereby girls often feel pressure related to how they look, or pressure to be or act a certain way. Often a result of the immersion in social media that many young people have, these kind of insecurities are highly damaging for all aspects of a young person’s life. On the surface, however, they may not seem to be connected to abusive relationships. Certainly, this kind of anxiety could weaken a person’s mental health to a point where they are vulnerable, but overall this may seem to be a tangential issue. 

But it’s not. If a young woman is concerned about her appearance, or has a low sense of self worth, it is much easier for an abuser to prey on her. 

If someone is more secure in how they look, their life circumstances, and in their self-worth (and sometimes feeling secure about these things only comes with age) then they are less likely to be vulnerable to someone who seeks to manipulate by flattery or emotional control. 

Whereas if you are a young woman who fears that she isn’t beautiful and worries that no-one will ever find her attractive, to be clearly found attractive and wanted can be completely enthralling. But the darker side of this coin is that if you are a young women, intoxicated by feeling affirmed by someone else, you may be more likely to brush aside or miss unacceptable behaviours. 

Say that a person tells you you’re beautiful, but then goes cold on you every time you go out and gets annoyed when you mention your male friends. Maybe because of the gratification of being wanted and having your self-esteem boosted, you’ll stop going out so much, or cut your male friends out of your life. 

Cultural and sexual phenomena promote controlling behaviour as if it is love

In a couple of previous articles, I’ve covered some books and films which unquestioningly present abusive relationships as acceptable, and sometimes even glamourise them. If you want to read more about these books and films, click here and here.

But here, I want to dwell particularly on certain sexual phenomena that have become more prominent in recent years and have threatened to derail how young people view healthy sex or healthy relationships. 

Of course I have to come back to one particularly odious book/film series here. Fifty Shades of Grey has not done any favours for young people’s understandings of sexuality. BDSM is a totally normal sexual choice, and when practiced safely it is no cause for concern and is often a part of many healthy relationships.

But the kind of BDSM that Fifty Shades of Grey has on display is not safe. It’s not carried out in a healthy way that involves mutual consent. Much of the time, the female lead Ana is actually quite uncomfortable with some of the submissive acts she is asked to perform. 

Instead of normalising ‘kinky’ sex, Fifty Shades of Grey has actually normalised sexual situations where the boundaries of consent are toyed with. Violent porn is increasingly common – and this often strays far beyond the bounds of healthy consent. Consent, or a lack thereof, is not a kink. 

The presentation of non-consent as something taboo but enticing has had a severe negative impact on how young people view sexual and other relational situations, both in and out of committed relationships. 

Young people may feel that it is normal for one partner to be ‘dominant’ and have control of everything in a relationship, or feel that they ought to accept situations that they are uncomfortable with – and while this discomfort may arise from sexual situations, ultimately it can spread and pervade throughout an entire relationship.

Controlling isn’t cool, but if you spend time immersed in some of the media out there, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is. 

Young women are often in school or university – environments where abuse can flourish unchecked

Abusive relationships in school or university settings are hardly ever talked about – and you have to wonder why. Just because a victim is in a supposedly ‘safe’ setting, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be subjected to controlling and manipulative behaviour and physical and sexual violence at the same time. 

In 2018, four students at the University of Cambridge released a report into abuse in university settings. The report covered all Misconduct of an Intimate Nature (MIN), a new term used to describe intimate partner abuse (IPA) as well as sexual harassment, assault, rape and misconduct.  One of the students, Sophia Cooke, then wrote an article further explaining how intimate partner abuse was a pressing problem in universities. 

She noted that while there were a lot of training and awareness programmes catered to students which covered sexual assault and consent, there was no equivalent training on IPA. She also noted that few people seemed aware of the complex realities of abuse, an issue we find heavily impacts on younger people who maybe do not know what to expect in a relationship.

But one significant observation that she made is very rarely considered, but it is crucial to understanding why abuse is able to flourish in school or university environments. 

The social aspect of these environments usually plays a huge part in allowing abusers to monitor their victims and get away with it. Universities (and often schools too) are hubs of activity, social or otherwise. Many people form friendships through extra-curricular activities, and some friendship groups appear to attend all the same events and societies together.  A victim, therefore, may be able to go about their normal university life in a way that may make everything appear to be ok. They may seem to be engaged in their friendships and in broader university life, but often this is something of a facade. An abuser can capitalise on close social environments as these situations allow them to continuously monitor their victim and control how the relationship between them and their victim appears to the outside world. It’s a double-whammy, as the abuser can make the relationship between them and their victim look positive and healthy, making it ultimately much harder for the victim to confide in anybody and seek help. 

The close, hub-like nature of student residences also exacerbates this problem. A lack of privacy that many non-students would not tolerate is often commonplace in student halls, and this can lead to the normalisation of intrusive behaviours.

Schools are also highly problematic. Friendship groups and cliques may increase the pressure for victims of abuse to stay with their partner, and relatively little is said, done and known about abuse between pupils. Safeguarding typically focuses on students in their home environment, and doesn’t necessarily recognise the unhealthy relationships that the school environment might be allowing to develop. 

Abuse affects all women, and young women in particular. If nothing else, this fact alone should make us all the more keen to be frank and honest in teaching future generations about abusive relationships. Unless we start by education at a young age, we will not see a world free from abuse for many generations.

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