Talking to Teens about Dating Violence and Sexual Assault (and a YA booklist)

I find I’m always interested in feminist perspectives, whether it’s in regards to literature, pop culture, or current events. Feminist Fridays is going to be my forum for discussing these issues, and may come in the form of book (or other media) reviews, link roundups, discussion posts, or my rambling thoughts essays. If you’d like to make a habit of discussing feminist issues on Fridays, join in and leave me a link. If you’d like to contribute a guest post for Feminist Fridays, I’d be happy to chat with you about that as well, so contact me!


If you’re a regular reader (bless you) you may be aware that in addition to working at the library and mentoring a young man with autism, I volunteer with my local domestic violence center. I answer the crisis line and serve a weekly shift at the shelter advocating for survivors. I occasionally lead two trainings for new advocates— DV 101: Intro to Domestic Violence and a training we call “Isms” about various forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, etc.) and how to deal with our own internalized prejudices. I am also part of our teen dating violence prevention and outreach team, and that’s what I’d like to discuss today in honor of Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month.

Talking to teens about sex and dating can be awkward and uncomfortable, so I’d only do so if you think you can handle it or have had training. The information here is coming from me, not the organization I volunteer with, not the library where I work. Just me. I know this topic is of interest to a certain segment of people who read my blog (those who work with teens) and so I wanted to share my experiences.

There are two activities we facilitate with middle and high school students as part of our outreach for teen dating violence prevention. We preface the program by saying that students are free to leave if they become uncomfortable (and we also give that option to teachers). Most of the “educational” portion of these activities are rhetorical in nature. Rather than telling kids how it is, we ask them how it is, because our agency works off a premise of empowerment, that everyone is an expert in his or her own life.

But before we begin, I ask two questions:

  • How many relationships between teenagers last into adulthood? How many result in lifelong commitment?

The real numbers aren’t important; the point is that the number is low.

  • How many teenage relationships end on a positive note?

Again, actual numbers aren’t the point. Teenagers are quick to point out that most relationships end in “drama.”


In this activity, each student takes a turn drawing a card with a stereotype on it: jock, nerd, teacher’s pet, band kid, college kid, etc. All cards are gender neutral. The next  person has the opportunity to “steal” that card, or draw a new one, and so forth. Just like “white elephant” gift exchanges, hence the name.

After everyone has a dating partner, they draw three positive qualities that their partner possesses. These vary from “helps you with homework” to “has a job” to “compliments you” and other desirable traits.

Then, the negative traits are distributed, and this is when things start to get interesting. These range from “talks bad about your friends” to “wants to spend all his time with you” to “doesn’t let you eat cake in public” to “says can’t live without you” to “reads my texts without permission” to “gets jealous a lot.”

After everyone has assembled the profile of the person they are dating with both desirable and questionable traits, each person has a chance to decide if they are going to keep dating or dump their partner, and we discuss why as a class.

As advocates who have been trained to see the warning signs of abusive relationships, we automatically see the danger signs in these negative traits, but teens often have different responses. For instance, as an adult, I balk at the idea of someone snooping in my phone, but teens will often have the “but who cares if you don’t have something to hide?” response. Likewise, jealousy is often seen as something universal to all teenage relationships, so it’s often not seen as totally negative.

Instead of lecturing students, this activity is participatory and acts a conversation starter about what healthy relationships look like as compared to unhealthy or abusive relationships.


This activity can be very powerful but also upsetting. Statistics show that 1 out of every 3 teenagers will experience teen dating violence. It’s easy to throw out numbers like that, but much more startling to see those represented physically, so for this exercise, we pass out cards with red “V” for victim (I generally prefer the term survivor, but an “S” is often interpreted as “slut” so…) to every third member of class.

Then the facilitator asks for a volunteer from the group of victims to stand and is given “labels” that are (unfortunately) often associated with those who speak out about experiencing dating violence—”asked for it” and “needs attention” and “liar,” among others.

We also talk about how difficult it is for a guy to talk about experiencing violence—he’ll often be labeled as “queer” or “pussy.” Girls are most likely to be abusers during the teen years because they are often more emotionally mature and therefore can be more manipulative. Especially in middle school, girls can be physical equals with boys.

This exercise can lead to a discussion about how to come forward if you’re experiencing dating violence and also how to talk to a friend about it.

Both of these activities can shed light on what dating violence can look like in a relationship—from control and manipulation to physical and sexual violence. A lot of topics come up during these activities. Sexting. Slut-shaming. Boundaries. Consent. Age differences in relationships. These are important conversations for teens to have and talking about these issues is the only way to begin to dismantle rape culture.

For more information and resources, check out these organizations.


Love is Respect

Violence Prevention Works

Break the Cycle

Your community might also have a local organization that provides outreach and education. Consider inviting them to present to your class, book club, or other group of teens.

For librarians and teachers, who connect with teens through books, discussing a novel can be the easiest way to broach this topic. I’ve compiled a list of young adult titles that deal specifically with rape, sexual assault or abuse, or teen dating violence as an “issue” book or have scenes or subplots about these subjects.

* AMENDED TO ADD* You should also check out this post at Teen Librarian’s Toolkit for helpful information about building library programming around these issues and there is also a discussion at Stacked about discussing sexual assault and rape which contains helpful links.

3 thoughts on “Talking to Teens about Dating Violence and Sexual Assault (and a YA booklist)

  1. Fantastic and informative post! It’s interesting to understand dating education nowadays! Even though I was only recently a teenager, this kind of education is still new, and I’m glad to see it becoming more prevalent!

    This is also a great list if/when I become a librarian who works with teens/children! :)

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s