In this exploratory study, adolescent males identified as abusive or at high risk for being abusive towards female partners described multiple intersecting social norms and belief systems that may further inform our understanding of the context of male sexual risk behavior and adolescent pregnancy involvement. Specifically, social norms of multiple-partnering and high levels of sexual activity based on their own expectations and those of male peers were accompanied by adversarial sexual beliefs regarding the dishonesty and manipulative actions of girls concerning rape and pregnancy, likely supporting increased sexual risk, encouraging lack of accountability for sexual risk, and rationalizing abuse in the form of rape and negative responses to pregnancy.
Consistent with previous research with adult abusive men,17,18
findings from this adolescent sample reveal high rates of multiple sex partnering and pregnancy involvement. Consistent with previous research with adolescent males, both in the U.S. and internationally,20,21,26,34,35
findings also indicate norms of male hypersexuality, including attitudes that men “need” sex and multiple sex partners, and attachment of social status male peers to these behaviors. Importantly, these norms appear to be modeled by older men in their families and communities and supported by peers; thus, there appear to be multiple sources of proximal social reinforcement for high-risk sexual behavior.
Findings also demonstrate participants' and their peers' lack of condom use following alcohol or drug use. These results echo other findings elucidating adolescents' reasons for condom non-use36
but are notably contrary to those from previous quantitative studies of adolescents, which indicate no association between condom use and substance use at last sex.37,38
Lack of consistency between present findings and this previous work may be indicative of major differences in sampling and data collection methods, or it may a consequence of previous studies assessing solely risk at last sex. More research is needed to better elucidate the associations between substance use and sexual risk among adolescent male perpetrators of dating violence.
Building on recent research demonstrating that adult abusive men are more likely to report forced unprotected sex,18
as well as prior work among adolescent males describing norms of coercive sex and rape,22
the adolescents in our focus groups described both condom non-use in the context of rape and myriad ways in which rape is rationalized by those who perpetrate it. Regarding not using condoms during rape, multiple participants stated that they and their male peers would not attempt to use protection in a situation of rape for fear the girl would leave; this is consistent with previous qualitative research with adolescent males documenting that initiating discussion of condom use may provide an opportunity for girls' reconsideration of sexual activity.24
Acknowledgement of such conscious decision-making regarding sexual protection in these circumstances suggests that rape by adolescent males identified as abusive or at risk for abuse may be, at times, highly calculated in nature, a portrayal of sexual assault consistent with the literature describing young male perpetrators of rape.39
Regarding rationalizations for rape, participants described lack of male control over their sexual behavior, not perceiving a victim's resistance, and misinterpreting a victim's resistance as a sign of sexual interest. Again, these rationalizations are consistent with previous work describing excuses provided by known perpetrators of sexual assault for their actions.36
However, multiple participants described rape as uncommon and indicated that girls claiming to be raped are typically lying about the incident. So, although it is unclear whether forced sex is considered normal or common among these young men and their peers, the rationalizations provided for rape and lack of condom use in this context indicate a strong lack of accountability for such actions and for consequences to themselves or the girls they might victimize. In fact, in confronting girls' distress in the context of being raped, participants commented that they felt girls should simply ‘get over it’ and ‘move on,’ displaying little empathy or understanding of the traumatic consequences of their actions (e.g., “being a rapist is almost as traumatic as being someone who is the rape victim...”).
This observed lack of empathy or concern for the well-being of sex partners may be supported, in part, by the adversarial belief system described by these same individuals concerning women's tendencies to lie or otherwise manipulate men about rape, birth control, and pregnancy. Several participants across multiple focus groups described girls as purposefully misleading boys, telling them that they were using birth control pills when they were not and poking holes in condoms so that they would become pregnant. The participants ascribed the motivations of these young women to keeping a man in a relationship against his will.
In the present study, adversarial sexual beliefs were accompanied by social norms of multiple-partnering and high levels of sexual activity, based on their own expectations and those of male peers, and the belief that men cannot control their sexual behavior. This combination of normative risk and adversarial beliefs appears to provide support for not only increased male sexual risk, but additionally for males' lack of sexual risk accountability, rationalization of rape, and negative responses to pregnancy described. Thus, young men we spoke with felt it was not their responsibility to consider the concerns of young women with whom they have sex, including cases involving coercion or force to obtain sex, and that they do not bear responsibility when a pregnancy occurs. Avoidance of responsibility has been described in other studies of adolescent men;35,40
however, our results suggest that when pregnancy does occur, it may be seen as validation of these adversarial beliefs (i.e., ‘this girl is
out to get me’), leading young men to further abuse young women who become pregnant; several focus group participants described male peers' abusive responses to female partners' disclosure of pregnancy. Further study is needed to assess whether such abusive responses relate to findings documenting high homicide rates among pregnant adolescent girls.41
In sum, adolescent males identified as perpetrating or at risk for perpetrating dating violence described social norms supporting sexual risk and rationalization of rape, unprotected sex in the context of rape and substance use, and adversarial sexual beliefs supporting male lack of responsibility for sexual risk and pregnancy, and negative responses to pregnancy.
Limitations and Implications
The major limitations of the current study relate to sampling and include the relatively small sample size and the difficulty in identifying known adolescent perpetrators of dating violence. Few programs exist that intervene with adolescent perpetrators, and the inclusion criteria for these groups varies such that the definition of ‘at risk for perpetration of dating violence’ is not consistent across programs. Thus, young men included in focus groups conducted may not have all been perpetrators of physical dating violence or conformed to a reasonably conservative definition of ‘at risk’ for dating violence, making it difficult to ascribe the presently observed findings to this target group. Further, there is likely a broad range of severity represented among those participants who have perpetrated violence against dating partners; lack of knowledge of the forms and severity of participants' violence also poses a challenge to interpretation of the present findings. Until programs utilize a uniform screening tool or criteria or receive consistent referrals from courts of young men found through criminal proceedings to have perpetrated violence against their partners, these sampling limitations are likely to continue to hamper research involving such programs. Also, young men participating in focus groups may have been affected by their concurrent participation in dating violence prevention programs, such that their reports of sexual and other social norms would differ from those of other similarly violent adolescents; this potential limitation is somewhat mitigated by the lack of focus on sexual norms or behaviors within the curricula of the programs from which participants were drawn. Finally, while group interactions obtained via focus group methodology are often considered optimal for research on social norms, as participants may clarify or challenge perspectives raised by other group members,42
group dynamics may have caused some participants to feel social pressure to subscribe to perceived norms of male dominance, particularly concerning gender roles and sexual relationships;43
present results and generated hypotheses should, therefore, be clarified and confirmed through other research methods (e.g., in-depth interviews, survey research).
Despite these limitations, there are practical implications of the findings of this exploratory study of norms and beliefs regarding sexual risk among adolescent males identified as abusive or at risk for abuse. Addressing safer sex practices to this population necessitates understanding what males perceive as the realities of and norms for sexual relationships. Normative adversarial sexual beliefs and beliefs supportive of multiple partnering as definitional of manhood must be targeted within health promotion programs, both those focused on abusive relationship behavior and those working to promote safer sex. Further research is needed to better understand the beliefs and behavioral norms reported in the present study, both through additional qualitative investigation among perpetrators of dating violence (e.g., in-depth interviews allowing exploration of individual behavior) and quantitative assessments of broader and more generalizable samples of male adolescents (e.g., those drawn from clinic- and school-based settings). Such investigations are necessary to either clarify and confirm or indicate needed revision of the themes currently identified. Few programs currently exist that target adolescent male perpetrators of dating violence or those whose behaviors put both themselves and their partners at high risk for STDs and HIV; advancing the state of knowledge concerning these male behaviors, and the sources and supports for these behaviors, is critical to development of these much-needed programs.