Dynamic Patterns of Relationship Violence Among Young Women

color photograph of Yasamin Kusonoki
color photograph of Yasamin Kusonoki

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

One of the most important topics in feminist research and activism is understanding the causes of gender-based violence. Yasamin Kusunoki’s research gives insight into patterns of intimate partner violence (IPV) experienced by young women. She is an Assistant Professor at the School of Nursing, Department of Systems, Population and Leadership and a Faculty Associate at the Population Studies Center and Survey Research Center within the Institute for Social Research.

Kusunoki’s research focuses on understanding the sources of gender, racial/ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in reproductive health during adolescence and the transition to adulthood. She studies adolescence and early adulthood because these are dynamic life stages that include critical age-related social changes and experiences central to development and behavior, with implications for later adulthood. For example, romantic and sexual experiences during this part of the life course are influential for health outcomes including unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, and set the stage for future family formation behaviors. According to Kusunoki, “little attention has been paid to young people’s intimate relationships, particularly relative to individual and familial characteristics, mostly due to data limitations. Even less is known about the dynamics of intimate relationships (including violence) and the mechanisms by which they contribute to disparities in reproductive health and family formation behaviors.”

An IRWG Faculty Seed Grant allowed Kusunoki to begin to explore the dynamic patterns of IPV and identify the relationship process- es that are most relevant for the risk of IPV using the Relationship Dynamics and Social Life (RDSL) Study – a unique longitudinal (weekly), mixed-method study that she and her ISR colleagues collected from 2008-2012. She finds that young women experience more violence in serious relationships, relative to casual relationships. Serious relationships include more insults, threats, and actual physical violence than casual relationships. This is largely a function of time – once a relationship has made it beyond the early, casual, infrequently together stage, violence of all types escalates. Cohabiting relationships have particularly high rates of physical violence. And, relationships that resume after a break-up have higher rates of violence than continuous relationships.

While Kusunoki describes herself as “only just beginning to scratch the surface of describing the dynamic patterns of IPV,” she finds a great deal of heterogeneity in the violent experiences of these young women. For example, 13% of women reported physical violence by a partner during the study. These relationships represented 6% of reported relationships. Of those relationships with any physical violence, 3.6% were physically violent every week, 5.4% switched on (became violent) and remained violent, 4.8% switched off (started violent and became non-violent), and the vast majority had either one discrete violent period or on-again, off-again physical violence throughout the relationship.

Kusunoki has submitted several grant applications that build on the research she was able to carry out through her Faculty Seed Grant, including an R03 to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which she was awarded this year. She also recently submitted an R03 to NICHD with several IRWG colleagues (Quyen Epstein-Ngo (PI), Carol Boyd, and Phil Veliz), “Understanding Adolescent Sexual Violence: A Longitudinal Examination of Gender and Associated Risk Factors.” This proposed secondary data analysis of Carol Boyd and Sean McCabe’s Secondary Student Life Survey (SSLS), will inform adolescent sexual violence prevention and intervention development by using this rich, community-based sample of adolescents to identify longitudinal trajectories of peer sexual violence perpetration and victimization among male and female adolescents.

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