By Cristina da Silva

Trigger Warning: This post discusses and depicts dating violence which may be disturbing to some readers.

Without the tools to maintain and engage in healthy relationships, young people are more likely to become victims of dating violence and abuse. As a young adult, I found this out the hard way. 

Like most relationships that are abusive or violent, my abuser initially seemed quite loving and affectionate. He was charming and doted on me constantly. When he slowly began controlling my every move, I found excuses to justify his behavior. He increasingly isolated me from my friends and family. Eventually, his jealousy and control escalated to physical violence: He choked me until I lost consciousness. None of this was love, but unlike so many basic tools we’re taught in school, I never learned the basic foundations of a healthy relationship.

After three years of countless bruises, police reports and extreme verbal and emotional abuse, I found the courage to end my abusive relationship once and for all. When I share my story, people tend to ask the same question: “Why didn’t you just leave?” The answer is complex, and one that victims know very well: We are trapped in a cycle of violence and fear fueled by emotional abuse and manipulation. Perhaps more appropriate questions are, “Why do some people abuse others, and how can we prevent abuse from happening?”

Nationwide, an average of 20 people experience intimate partner physical violence every minute. In New York, the number is much higher, with 1 in 3 adolescents experiencing some form of dating abuse before the age of 18.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York students report a higher rate of physical dating violence than the national average, and more than 1 in 6 female high school students in New York report being forced into sexual activity. The United States, and particularly New York State, is experiencing a public health crisis.

As a result of the growing HIV epidemic in the 1990s, many states enacted laws that required school districts to teach young people how to protect themselves from STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Lawmakers recognized this epidemic for what it was, a public health crisis. As a result, students today who receive comprehensive, medically accurate sexual education are less likely to contract HIV and other STDs. Teaching young people to make healthy sexual choices was a crucial step in reducing HIV and unwanted pregnancy. 

Dating violence, like the HIV epidemic, is a public health crisis that requires lawmakers to enact policies that will teach young people to make healthy emotional choices. Studies show that survivors of intimate partner violence are twice as likely to attempt suicide multiple times, and cases of murder-suicide are more likely to occur in the context of abuse. Additionally, nearly 80 percent of intimate partner violence cases are linked to substance abuse. 

New York must amend the state’s sexual health standards to require teaching medically accurate, comprehensive, inclusive, age-appropriate information on healthy relationships and consent. Acquiring this knowledge at a young age can lower incidents of dating violence, sexual harassment and assault, empowering future generations of New Yorkers. 

A healthy relationship curriculum will give students the opportunity to learn about refusal skills, how to de-escalate an argument, and forms of control, such as domestic abuse and bullying. Starting in kindergarten, we must stop teaching little girls (and boys) that when a boy is mean to you, it is because he likes you. We must stop teaching girls that it is their job is to police their body. We must find a way to teach children self-acceptance and self-worth, and that being victimized is not their fault.

As of publication, 11 states (and Washington, D.C) have already issued mandates to include healthy relationships education in their sexual education curriculum. It is time for New York’s lawmakers to recognize that dating violence is a public health crisis and that the adoption of healthy relationships education is a critical step toward eliminating teen dating violence and breaking the vicious cycle. It won’t be easy, of course. The effort to successfully create and implement effective curriculum will require collaboration among many stakeholders. But that effort will help ensure a healthy, safe, and thriving student body – and it needs to start now.

Cristina da Silva is a Wagner alum who specialized in advocacy and political action. She is passionate about women and children’s rights and is a survivor of intimate partner violence.