Risk Factors of Physical Violence in Dating Relationships among African American College Students

Tara Bremond
Bonnie Ahn*
Lolita Boykin*

Southeastern Louisiana University

Keywords: Intimate partner violence, dating violence, African Americans, college students


The purpose of this study was to explore risk factors of physical violence in dating relationships among African American college students. Specifically, the study aimed to examine if a model exists explaining physical dating violence from perceptual measures, together with demographic measures including the variables such as beliefs and attitudes towards partner abuse, gender, age, class standing, length of dating relationships, mean age of first date, and household income. Results of the study found that there were significant relationships between various perceptions of dating violence and the actual experiences with physical dating violence.


Intimate partner violence (IPV) is identified as a serious social and public health problem associated with numerous negative impacts and long-term health concerns (Black et al., 2011). IPV is defined as perceived or actual physical, psychological or sexual harm by a current or former partner (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). Statistics from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) noted that almost half of female victims (47%) and more than one-third of male victims (39%) first experience, of dating violence, by an intimate partner, occurred between the ages of 18 and 24 years (Black et al., 2011). Additionally, intimate partner violence victimization and perpetration has been reported to impact one in three dating couples during college (Lewis & Fremouw, 2001). Furthermore, research on perpetration rates of IPV among men and women are nearly equal (Ehrensaft, Moffitt, & Caspi, 2004). Yet, few studies focused on gender differencing relating to risk factors of perpetration in dating violence.

Intimate Partner Violence is also a problem within African American communities. Black non-Hispanic women have a higher probability of experiencing rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner than their white counterparts (Taft, Bryant-Davis, Woodward, Tillman, & Torres, 2009). Other studies have focused on IPV and posttraumatic stress disorder and depression among African American women (Wright, Perez, and Johnson, 2010), as well as utilizing community and spiritual support of Black churches to address domestic violence (Collins & Moore, 2006).

Theoretical Underpinnings

In an effort to further understand the nature and dynamics of dating violence, it is important to understand the theoretical underpinnings of IPV. Numerous contending theories explaining IPV have illuminated the issue over the years. Studies applying social structural theories of gender determine IPV to be a demonstrative appearance of male domination and social control of females' lives (Anderson, 1997). The most popular IPV theory is the feminist-political theory that maintains patriarchy and male social dominance over women as the main contributor to abuse (Taft, et al., 2009). A common underpinning of the feminist perspective is that IPV is fundamentally a gender issue (DeKesersdy & Dragiewicz, 2007; Johnson, 2005; Anderson, 1997; Dobash & Dobash, 1979). Feminist perspective dictates viewing gender differences while examining risk factors in a hierarchy of power between men and women in relationships. A study by Baker & Stith (2008) aligned with the feminist perspective, noting that for females, the use of physical and psychological aggression was the only substantial factors of female violence. Thus, alluding to the idea women's use of physical violence is dependent on the behavior of the man.

Studies applying social structural theories of gender to determine IPV to be a demonstrative appearance of male domination and social control of females' lives (Johnson, 2005; Anderson, 1997). Several feminist scholars advocate while men are the aggressors in violent behavior, establishing the dominant role, women tend to use physical violence to protect themselves (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 2008). Some theories have considered the impact of macro-structural factors in the African American community from an ecological perspective, taking into account structural and societal dynamics (Taft et al., 2009). Structural theorists suggest ethnic differences in the perpetration of IPV are motivated by the different ecological contexts occupied by African Americans and Caucasians and not solely by race (Sampson & Wilson, 1995). This idea is consistent when considering, in general, IPV victimization and perpetration occur more frequently in African American men and women than Caucasian men and women (Taft et al., 2009). Taft et al. (2009) also reported African American women have a higher probability of experiencing severe IPV victimization than Caucasian women. However, when income level is controlled, the differential by race with rates of IPV are diminished or eliminated, signifying that income may be a clearer predictor of IPV than ethnicity (Taft et al., 2009). Additionally, at the macro level, researchers identified social disorganization theory and urban poverty as possible reasons for the high incidence rate of IPV in the African American community. In accordance with the social disorganization theory, communities trying to regulate local crime retain a greater difficulty when they are impacted by ethnic heterogeneity, concentrated poverty, and the frequent relocation of residents (Browning, 2002).

Systems theory has also been applied to family violence and IPV from the early years of research on the topic (Giles-Sims, 1983; Straus, 1973). Straus (1973) spearheaded the application of systems theory to intimate partner violence. He contended violence within family groups was the norm and is not exceptional. Giles-Sims (1983) confirmed the opinion of Strauss (1973), agreeing that conflict within family systems is ordinary and unavoidable, and the ways in which the family manages the conflict is pivotal in understanding the choice to use of violence.

Ecological theory can also be applied to IPV. Donald Dutton (2006) postulated an ecological theory, which has similarities of systems theory by focusing on the individual as the unit of analysis utilized in addressing IPV and stipulating that attention must be given to the environment and relationships of the individual. This is thought to be essential in comprehending IPV and the violent behavior associated with it. This idea includes four levels of systemic social context that influence individual behavior: (a) the macrosystem comprises of diverse cultural values and cultural beliefs; (b) the microsystem, which is the family unit, is the direct contact that encompasses an individual; (c) the exosystem is comprised of institutions and groups that interconnect the family to the broader surroundings; and lastly, (d) ontogenetic factors referring to the personal development of an individual that includes the direct developmental history (Dutton, 2006).

More theories include the impact of stereotypes, mass media, and popular culture as proponents leading to the occurrence of IPV. Henry & Zeytinoglu (2012) identified a trickledown effect of racism, low-socioeconomic status, and growing up in poor neighborhoods as a prominent component towards domestic violence in African American families, an idea conceptually reinforced in the media and with peers. As an outcome of historical incidents, African Americans, as a whole, experience racism, stereotypes, and have a higher probability than other races to not only have a lower socioeconomic status, but also reside in low income neighborhoods (Bryant, 2008; West & Rose, 2000; White, 1985). Lastly, new concepts looking at IPV among African Americans, from an empowerment perspective, have been theorized and need to be empirically tested (Wright, Perez, & Johnson, 2010).

African-Americans College Students and Dating Violence

Young adults, attending college, experience high rates of dating violence (Nabors, Dietz, & Jasinkski, 2006). According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2001) 53 percent of college students experienced dating violence by a current or former dating partner. Furthermore, Knickrehm & Teske (2000) found in their study that dating violence was a major problem on university campuses. The research and literature related to intimate partner violence, among college students, typically focuses on a predominantly white, middle class population (Walley-Jean & Swan, 2009; Jackson, 1999; Sugarman & Hotaling, 1989). Nevertheless, some attention, however, has been given to issues of dating violence among African American college students (Wright, Perez, & Johnson, 2010; Bougere, Rowley, & Lee, 2004; Brice-Baker, 1994). Other research, on the topic, focused on dynamics important in dating violence as well as different types of sexual assaults among African American students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Barrick, Krebs, & Lindquist, 2013; Krebs et al., 2011; Clark, Wells, & Dungee-Anderson, 1994). On the other hand, few articles have focused specifically on risk and causal factors of interpersonal violence affecting African American college students. Therefore, in light of the gap in the literature, the purpose of this study was to explore correlates of physical violence in dating relationships among African American college students. Specifically, the study aimed to examine if a model exists to explain physical dating violence from perceptual measures, together with demographic measures including the variables such as beliefs and attitudes towards partner abuse, gender, age, length of dating relationships, age of first dating, household income, and religion.


Population and Sample

This study employed an explanatory design using a cross-sectional survey technique. The target population for this study was defined as African American college students. The accessible population was African American college students attending a college in southern Louisiana. The purposive sample of 149 African American undergraduate students (73 men and 76 women) was surveyed. The participants were undergraduates, 18 years and older, and self-identified as African American.


A three-part instrument was utilized for data collection. Part I of the instrument consisted of a measure of the beliefs and attitudes towards dating violence: The Perceptions of and Attitudes toward Dating Violence Questionnaire-Revised (PADV-R), developed by Yick (1997).

The seven perceptual variables measured by PADV-R follows:

1.   and 2. Physical and psychological definitions of dating violence were measured to examine the respondents' concept regarding whether certain physical and/or psychological acts of aggression were considered to be violence against partners.

3.   Contextual justification for the use of dating violence was assessed to study individuals' attitudes about whether certain circumstances might justify or warrant the use of interpersonal violence.

4.   Individual factors for causes of dating violence measured respondents' beliefs as to whether there are factors within the perpetrator and/or characteristic within the dating dyad that cause partner violence.

5.   Attitudes toward the use of interpersonal violence measured respondents' tolerance about hitting partners.

6.   Environmental factors for causes of dating violence measured respondents' attitudes about whether existing external circumstances in one's environment played a role in causing dating violence.

7.   Cultural factors for causes of dating violence measured respondents' beliefs regarding whether certain societal factors inherent in societal institutions, societal norms, and cultural value systems play a role in causing of precipitating violence against partners.

Part II of the instrument consisted of a measure of incidence and nature of dating violence. The Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) (Straus, 1979) comprised three subscales: Reasoning, Verbal Aggression, and Physical Violence. In this study the Physical Violence Subscale measured the incidence of physical violence within the last 12 months as perpetrator.

Part III of the instrument, the Participant Profile Form, was a demographic form developed by the investigators using information derived from the relevant literature. The characteristics included gender, age, class standing, length of dating relationships, age of first dating, and household income.


The African American dating violence project began in the fall semester of 2013. Upon the approval of the IRB, thirty-four students in research methodology class recruited a total of 149 African American undergraduate students throughout the campus. Students in the research class contacted the respondents to explain the nature of the research project by reading the prepared script and explaining the expected time of completion of the survey, which was approximately thirty minutes. Respondents were asked to sign an informed consent prior to taking the survey.  There was no incentive provided to complete the survey. As respondents completed the survey, they were personally thanked for participating

Data Analysis

Multiple regression was used to determine if a model existed to explain a significant portion of the variance in the incidence of physical violence among African American college students. Analysis determined the incidence of physical violence scores as perpetrators in past 12 months as dependent variable and the perceptual variables and the various demographic characteristics as independent variables.


The sample of 149 undergraduate students included 73 men and 76 women, all of whom were African American. The mean age of the sample was 21.3 years old. The class standing of the sample was as follows: 38 freshman; 47 sophomore; 35 juniors; and 29 seniors. The respondents' mean length of dating relationships was 8 months and mean age on their first date was 13.3 years old. The mean household income was $ 43,000 per year with a range of 0-$128,000.

When the first block of perceptual measures was entered into the regression analysis, the test of significance for its contribution to the explanatory model was statistically significant (F6,999 = 16.87, p < .001). This block of variables had a multiple R value of .549 with an r2 of .306, indicating that this group of variables enabled the researchers to explain 30.6 percent of the variability in the Physical Violence subscale score of the perpetrator dimension of partner abuse (see Table 1).

The second block of demographic variables including gender, age, household income, and length of dating relationships was entered into the model and was found to make a significant contribution to the model. The multiple R increased to .558 and the r change for this block of variables was .031, indicating that this group of demographic characteristics collectively added 3.1 percent to the total amount of explained variance (see Table 1).

The next step in completing the analysis was to enter the remaining demographic characteristics studied in this research into the model, using a stepwise analysis procedure. When this analysis was conducted, two variables were found to contribute to the model. These variables were "Class standing" and "Age of first date": They added 1.9 percent and 1.0 percent respectively to the model. Even though the individual contribution of the last variable entered was not statistically significant, it was retained in the model since it added 1 percent of explained variance to the model and the overall model remained significant. Findings showed that models existed that were both substantially and statistically significant explaining a significant portion of the variance in the incidence of partner abuse. The total variance that this model was able to explain regarding the incidence of physical violence as perpetrator was 33.7 percent.


There were significant relationships between various perceptions of dating violence and the actual experiences with physical dating violence. In general, African American college students who were aware of the range of behaviors that constitute dating violence, who do not approve the use of violence, and who attribute the causes of violence more to non-individual related factors tended to be less abusive. This conclusion is based on the findings that there were statistically significant correlation coefficients between the scores of various scales measuring perceptions of dating violence and the perpetration occurrences of physical dating violence.

The researchers recommend that subsequent studies include other possible causal or mediating factors to identify more of a concrete attitude-behavior relationship. Although the current study supports the direct relationship between the attitudes and behaviors involved in dating violence, it cannot establish the causal relationship. For example, it is not clear how other factors contributed in shaping behaviors. The congruence of the attitude and behavior in this study may have been due to other psychological, social, and cultural influences. For example, information regarding the characteristics and quality of childhood experiences of both the abusers and the abused and childhood experiences of specifically witnessing parental violence could be important issues to investigate how attitudes were formed and reflected in behaviors.

Demographic characteristics such as gender, age, length of dating relationships, household income, class standing, and age of first date were related to the occurrences of physical dating violence. The results of the tests examining the relationship between the incidence of physical dating violence and these demographic variables separately indicated statistically significant correlation coefficients. It should be pointed out that African American male students were more physically violent than African American female students. This conclusion is also supported by earlier research which indicated that men who tend to hold traditional patriarchal views were more likely to support the use of violence against women than those with egalitarian gender role attitudes (Baker & Stith, 2008).

The longer the individuals have dated and the younger they started dating, the more abusive they tended to be. The lower household income and lower class standing were also related with the occurrences of physical dating violence. Lack of economic resources and adjustment difficulties associated with less time at college could be the source for stress, thus increasing the occurrences of physical abuse among African American college students. Some researchers posit that the stresses, strains, and oppression are factors that may contribute to African American men periodically losing their control (Taft et al., 2009).

For practice implications from this study, the researchers recommend implementation of campus-wide dating violence prevention programs. Prevention programs for dating couples should focus on the theme of gender socialization and how this socialization influences intimate male-female relationships. Dating couples should be trained for stress management and communication skills to modify and reduce aggressive behaviors between them. Additionally, innovative prevention programs, such as the use of peer theater education from a culturally relevant standpoint, should be incorporated on college campuses to help students develop knowledge and skill in recognizing the early warning signs of relationship violence on campus (Pomeroy et al., 2011).

The researchers recommend that longitudinal research be conducted to investigate how the changes in these significant demographic variables will be reflected in the results. The researchers also recommend that instruments be utilized to measure the level of individuals' stress and patriarchal ideologies to assess their sociocultural characteristics and determine if they are correlated with the occurrences of dating violence. It is also recommended that this research be conducted utilizing theoretical underpinnings that take into consideration the intersection of race and gender as they relate to intimate partner violence.

Substantively and statistically significant models do exist explaining a significant portion of the variance in the occurrence of physical dating violence among African American college students. This conclusion is based on the findings that regression models explained 33.7 percent of the variance in incidence of physical dating violence as perpetrator. Despite the complexities of various potential factors for dating violence, the models identified in the study were viable. These models in the study could be used to identify from the perceptual and demographic measures individuals who are most at risk of becoming perpetrators of dating violence.

The researchers recommend the application of this modeling process at various intervention sites such as counseling offices, shelters, or social service agencies as a way of assessment of individuals. Refinement of the model by replicating the study using random probability samples may further increase the viability and practicality of the model. Given the role of sociodemographic factors in shaping behaviors, a wide array of variables including but not limited to health status or substance use need to be investigated. The field of dating violence requires rigorous research that will inform practitioners in order to ensure the effective assessment of individuals.

The researchers also reiterate the urgency of community education and concerted public awareness campaigns given the high prevalence of dating violence. Educational efforts should include helping individuals to identify the potential abuse early in the relationship and to devise strategies regarding negotiation, ultimately preventing occurrences of dating violence between couples.

Table 1 Analysis of variance of the physical dating violence as perpetrator by the selected perceptual and demographic measures for African American college students

Model d.f. MS F p    
Regression 3 1.88 9.54 < .001    
Residual 73 .19        
Total 76          
Variable R R2 R2
p Beta
Perceptual block .549 .306 .306 16.87 < .001  
Physical definitions of dating violence           .438
Psychological definition of dating violence           .264
Contextual justification           -.157
Individual factor for causes of dating violence           .115
Attitudes toward the use of interpersonal violence           .109
Environmental factor for causes of dating violence           -1.22
Cultural factor for causes of dating violence           -0.98
Demographic block .558 .311 .031 1.99 .070  
Gender           .136
Age           -1.03
Household income           -0.98
Length of dating relationships           .007
Class standing .663 .440 .019 5.83 .018 -.194
Age of first date .787 .619 .010 2.69 .131 .131


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