Definitions of Dating Violence among African American College Students:
Their Relationships with Gender Role Beliefs

Tara Bremond, Joseph Cannatella, Bonnie Ahn*, Hyunsook Kang*
Southeastern Louisiana University

Key words: dating violence, gender role beliefs, African American college students


The purpose of this study was to further expand the understanding of how gender role beliefs influence African American college students' definition of dating violence. The research design employed a cross-sectional survey approach utilizing the purposive sample of 116 African American undergraduate students (62 men and 54 women) at a university in southern Louisiana. It was found that there is a significant difference between African American male and female college students in their gender role beliefs; no significant statistical difference in their definition of dating violence; and a significant relationship between gender role beliefs and definitions of dating violence. The researchers recommend macro-level public awareness campaigns targeting attitudinal changes by collaborative efforts of African American community leaders.


Violence in dating relationships is a widespread problem on college campuses (Murray & Kardatzke, 2007). According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2012), dating violence is defined as violence committed by a person who is or has been in a social relationship of a romantic nature with the victim. Strauss confirmed that "Dating violence is a pervasive and serious problem worldwide"(as cited in Chiung-Tao Shen, Yu-Lung Chiu, & Gao, 2012).

Research suggests that the percentage of men and women who admit to engaging in physically aggressive acts against their partners is high in college (Baker & Stith, 2008). Lewis & Fremouw (2001) found the prevalence rates of dating violence among college students to be between 20 and 50 percent. Additionally, studying college males in a relationship longer than one month, Baker & Stith (2008) found that 31.8 percent of them reported physical violence with their partner within the last year.

According to the 2010 Summary Report by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, most female and male victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner (69% of female victims; 53% of male victims) were subjected to some form of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) for the first time before reaching the age of 25 years (Black, et al., 2011). Additionally, Black et al. (2011) noted the different incident rate of rape victims across ethnicity. They reported that approximately 1 in 5 Black (22%), 18.8 percent white, non-Hispanic women, and 1 in 7 Hispanic women (14.5%) in the United States have experienced rape at some point in their lives.

Although a growing body of literature gives support to the high prevalence of dating violence, the studies conducted in the U.S. in particular have focused primarily on White, middle-class, college and university students (Walley-Jean & Swan, 2009). Nevertheless what is known about IPV in minority samples strongly suggests a need for greater attention from researchers.

Gender role, race, culture, and ethnicity influence how one perceives and defines dating violence. Barrs and Neville (2008) argued that gender role beliefs influence whether or not one will be involved in a violent relationship. The African American community and culture differs from other cultures. For many years the portrayal of African Americans was slavery and submission, violence from the more dominant.  Historically, African Americans as a whole have experienced racism, stereotypes, and oppression. They are also more likely than other races to not only have a lower socioeconomic status but also live in poor neighborhoods (Bryant, 2008; West & Rose, 2000). Therefore, the combination of these factors results in IPV among African American adults (Henry & Zeytinoglu, 2012). Children raised in these households are experiencing violence as an acceptable norm, experiencing aggressive behavior as normal behavior in their neighborhoods, and viewing negative relationship images in the media. Upon reaching adolescence, and the beginning of dating, aggressive behavior from psychological to physical abuse begins (Henry &Zeytinoglu, 2012).

The significance of this research is to gain awareness and understanding as to whether or not gender role beliefs is a viable measure in identifying violence in intimate relationships in African American college students. Past research suggested that violent relationships have been accepted and maintained based on societal views and gender role beliefs (Barrs & Neville, 2008).  In order to understand and deal appropriately with this wide-spread problem, more studies need to be conducted, particularly with the samples that have been overlooked. Due to the lack of empirical research on how African American college students define dating violence, we conducted this study to fill the empirical gap in African American dating violence.

The goal of this study was to examine how gender role beliefs relate to definitions of dating violence among African American college students. Specific questions included:

  1. Do African American males/females differ in their gender role beliefs?
  2. Do African American males and females differ in their definition of dating violence?
  3. What is the relationship between gender role beliefs and definition of dating violence among African American college students?



The research design employed a cross-sectional survey approach using a population of African American college students. The purposive sample was recruited in the liberal arts departments at a university in southern Louisiana. A total of 116 African American undergraduate students (62 men and 54 women) were surveyed. The participants had to have undergraduate standing, 18 years and older, and be self-identified as African American.


Two instruments were used for this research. The Attitudes Toward Women Scale shortened version (thereafter referred to ASW-S) includes 15 items with 4 point Likert scale developed by Spence, Helmrieich, and Strapp (1973) to measure gender role beliefs. The higher end scores reflect attitudes that reflect more liberal or egalitarian roles for women and the lower end scores reflect attitudes that are more traditional roles for women in society. The second scale used was the Definitions of Dating Violence Scale, comprised of nine closed-ended questions that measure the extent to which respondents agree or disagree whether physical, psychological, and sexual acts of aggression are dating violence (Yick, 1997). The remainder of the questionnaire included demographic information developed by researchers. The purpose of this information was to help researchers establish a clearer picture of the population surveyed. Information obtained was ethnicity, gender, age, age dating began, and class standing.

Procedure for Dating Collection

The African American dating violence project began in the fall semester of 2012. Upon the approval of the IRB, twenty-three students in research methodology class recruited a total of 116 African American undergraduate students in the liberal arts departments. The students in research class contacted the respondents and explained the nature of the research project by reading the prepared script and informed that completion of the survey would take approximately fifteen minutes. In addition, respondents were asked to sign an informed consent prior to taking the survey.  There was no incentive provided to complete the survey. Each respondent completed the survey was personally thanked for participating.

Data Analysis

Basic descriptive statistics and measures of central tendencies were used for the definition of dating violence, gender role beliefs, and demographic profiles. The t-test was used to examine for gender differences as to how undergraduates define gender role beliefs and dating violence. To examine the relationship between gender role beliefs and definitions of dating violence, Pearson's correlation was used.


The sample of 116 undergraduate students included 62 men and 54 women, all of whom were African American. The mean age of the sample was 23.1 years old. The class standing of the sample was as follow: 12 freshman, 26 sophomore, 38 juniors, and 40 seniors. The respondents mean age on their first date was 15.3.

Gender Role Beliefs

To summarize, the findings of the statistical analysis indicate that the mean score of gender role beliefs held among African American college students reflect more liberal views in their attitudes toward women. Scores reflect that there is a significant difference (t= -3.65, df=89, p=.001) found among African-American male (x=3.02) and female (x=3.26) gender role beliefs.

Definitions of Dating Violence

Overall, the findings indicate that there is no significant statistical difference in both male and female African American college students' definition of dating violence. The data from each subscale of the Yick's (1997) definition of dating violence scale suggest that there is a significant difference (t=-2.22, df=43.3, p=.005) in how males (x=5.21) and females (x=5.52) define physical violence. However, there is no significant difference in males (x=3.7) and females (x=4.0) definition of psychological violence (t=-1.78, df=103, p=.26). The third subscale, sexual violence, showed no significant difference in male (x= 5.9) and female (x=5.8) in their definition of sexual violence (t=.24. df 101, p=.89). (See Table 1)

Table 1: T-test for comparing gender differences in defining dating violence and attitudes toward women


Males (n=62)

Females (n=54)




Mean (sd)

Mean (sd)



Defining Dating Violence

4.11 (.30)

4.29 (.70)



Physical Violence

Punching face real hard

5.21 (.20)

 1.5 (.7)

5.52 (.49)

 1.3 (.9)





Threaten to use a knife

1.7 (1.0)

1.5 (1.3)



Pushing partner

Throwing objects at partner

2.3 (1.5)

5.31 (.82)

1.6 (1.1)

5.59 (.71)





Sexual Violence

Forcing partner to have sex

5.9 (.33)

 5.94 (.32)

5.8 (.31)

5.80 (.36)





Psychological Violence

3.7 (1.23)

4.0 (1.35)



Demand to know where P is all the time

2.9 (1.45)

3.3 (1.45)



Criticize P in front of others

3.5 (1.8)

2.9 (1.7)



Not let P make any decisions

3.7 (1.9)

2.9 (1.7)



Disregard feelings & option

3.1 (1.5)

3.1 (1.7)



  Attitudes Toward Women

3.02 (.33)

3.26 (.24)



Cursing by W more repulsive





Men should share housework





Obey in vows insulting to W





W free to propose marriage





W should worry less about right, and more about being good wives/mothers





W right to work with men





W less freedom of action





Gender-based work





Men intellectual leaders





Equal opportunity





Split cost on dates





Sons should go to college





Father authority, child rearing





Economic and social freedom





Male job preference over W





Relationship between Gender Role Beliefs and Dating Violence

Based on the findings from the three subscales, physical, psychological, and sexual definitions of dating violence, the statistical analysis suggested that a relationship existed between attitudes toward women and definitions of dating violence among African Americans.

A review of the Pearson Correlation statistical analysis indicated a significant positive correlation between the following relationships: How one defines dating violence and attitudes toward women (p=.03, r=.21); physical violence and attitudes toward women (p=.002, r=.31); psychological violence and physical violence (p=.06, r-.27); sexual violence and definitions of dating violence (p=.004, r=.27)); and sexual violence and physical violence (p=.011, r=.24). In addition, the Pearson's Correlation statistical analysis further indicated a strong positive relationship between physical violence and definitions of dating violence scale (p=0, r=.53) and psychological violence and definitions of dating violence (p=0, r=.95).


Collectively, the African American college population exhibited liberal viewpoints concerning women. However, a significant difference existed in the gender role beliefs between the men and women students. According to this study, African American male college students believed that men should hold positions of power in the work force and women should not succumb to the use of profanity and swearing. Existing literature corroborated this credence that patriarchal and traditional norms continue to influence gender role beliefs (Barrs & Neville, 2008). This study also found no significant difference in how African American male and female students define dating violence. In accordance with this finding, African American college students have been socialized to accept non-gender specific roles to facilitate their economic survival (Barrs & Neville, 2008). African American families have been predisposed to an egalitarian lifestyle to compensate for the limitations placed on them by the larger society. African Americans may dismiss the traditional male and female gender roles held by the dominant society because they reflect a world view perpetuated by white male and female culture.

Interestingly, in interpreting each subscale of the Yick (1997) definition of dating violence scale, data proposed a significant difference in the manner in which males define physical violence as opposed to females. An explanation for this can be that men, regardless of ethnicity, continue to hold patriarchal beliefs and view lesser forms of physical aggression, such as, pushing, slapping, and throwing objects as acceptable behaviors. Some researchers insisted that the stresses, strains, and oppression are factors that may contribute to African American men periodically losing their control (Taft, Bryant-Davis, Woodward, Tillman, & Torres, 2009). This could be a result of internalizing their feelings of inadequacies placed upon them by larger society. Another factor that may possibly explain why males and females differ in their definitions of physical violence is that African American men in general have been predisposed to excel in physical activities at an early age, which society promotes as acceptable behavior.

The psychological violence and sexual violence subscales did not show a significant difference between males and females. However, African American college students tend to perceive dating violence more in physical terms than in psychological terms. This conclusion is also supported by earlier research that indicated that there is a general tendency to classify physical forms of aggression as abuse especially among ethnic minorities (Yick, 1997). As a result of ignoring psychological abuse, verbal or other types of psychological aggressions are not viewed as a problem by African American college students. Consequently, abused African American college students, especially who are victims of psychological aggression do not perceive themselves as victim, which further prevents them from seeking appropriate help. It should be emphasized that seemingly nebulous indistinct psychological aggression can often develop into more distinct and dangerous physical violence.

There were significant relationships between various perceptions of dating violence and the attitudes toward women. In general, African American college students who were aware of the range of behaviors that constitute dating violence tended to be more egalitarian towards women. This finding supported the earlier findings that showed a direct relationship between attitudes toward dating violence and gender role beliefs (Sears, Byers, & Price, 2007).

Although this study has provided an in-depth analysis of how dating violence is defined by African American undergraduate college students, there are several limitations. Because our sample is limited to the African American undergraduate college population at a university in rural South and the sample was a nonprobability sample, this study cannot be generalized to all African American college student populations. The manner in which respondents define dating violence may have been influenced by factors such as the mean age of the students and to limiting the survey to African American college students in liberal arts classes. Due to this study being a cross-sectional design, attitudes may change over time and therefore may require a longitudinal design to measure whether or not attitudes change once they leave the college environment.

Changes in attitudes and perceptions are vital for changing behaviors. The researchers recommend macro-level public awareness campaigns targeting attitudinal changes. In addition to disseminating attitude-altering information, discussion should focus on traditional patriarchal ideologies that lie at the heart of the culture. The researchers recommend collaborative efforts to recruit African American community leaders such as religious leaders and notable professionals to educate regarding the seriousness of dating violence problems on campus. The extent to which African American college students are socialized in patriarchal belief systems will influence future attitudes and behaviors. It is the patriarchal ideologies that legitimize the use of violence in relationships, therefore the alternative egalitarian relationships should be encouraged.


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