Sadhbh Sullivan realised in her 20s the reality behind a relationship she had in her teens
I was twenty-two when I first learnt what the term ‘coercive control,’ meant. Motoring from my family home to visit my boyfriend in West Cork, Drivetime on RTÉ was the background to my journey at Twilight, and a short radio ad was all it took to shake up my world.[restrict]
By definition, coercive control is a “persistent and deliberate pattern of behaviour by an abuser over a prolonged period of time designed to achieve obedience and create fear.” In reality, it looks like a behaviour pattern that creates an unequal power dynamic, making it difficult for the victim to leave.
I was overcome by sadness, shame, confusion and hopelessness as I relayed the relationship that I shared with my ex-boyfriend during my teenage years in my head. Was it even possible for a fifteen-year-old to be abused by someone the same age? Tears quickly welled up and spilt out of my eyes before I pulled the car in and watched the sunset. For the first time since the relationship ended, I took a moment to mourn for myself. My lost innocence, my youth, the ‘best years of my life,’ were taken from me right before my eyes, and I didn’t even notice.
When I think of coercive control, I imagine an older woman too scared to leave her partner, for whatever reason. An emotionally stunted adult who has endured too many traumas in their life to fight another one. An abuser who is so concerned with society’s notion that men should have whatever they want that they take it into their own hands. I don’t imagine that it’s something that could happen to a teenager, at the hands of another teenager.
That’s the problem.
According to Women’s Aid, one in six young women have suffered coercive control by a partner or ex-partner. According to the Young Life and Times survey of 2,069 people in Northern Ireland, just one in six report even knowing what the term coercive control means to begin with. When I learnt about this, I was equal parts relieved that I wasn’t alone as I was disheartened to learn that, despite this, efforts are few and far between to educate young people on what unhealthy relationships look like.
So, who’s responsible?
Grieving for my younger self, this is a question I continue to struggle with even now, years after the relationship has ended. Some days, I remind myself that I was just a child to absolve myself from the shame I’m feeling in the aftermath. Other days, I try to convince myself that the whole situation is something that my mind conjured up, warped by time and fuelled by a broken heart. On those days, I have to remind myself of what love is and what it’s not.
As society continues to open conversations about relationships, both in the media and at school, I can’t help but feel that teenagers are constantly and consistently let down by both when it comes to learning about what healthy relationships really look like.
With most teenagers across Ireland and the UK tuning in to Love Island almost every night of the Summer, it’s difficult to be surprised that it’s possible for abuse to occur at such a young age. This year, the show lasted forty-five episodes, with millions tuning in to its final to see who really succeeded at finding love, according to the public. In one of the show’s most explosive weeks, ITV was hit with over 3,000 complaints and a public statement from Women’s Aid slamming the misogynistic actions of some of the islanders on the show.
According to Teresa Parker, Head of Communications for Women’s Aid, “a programme based around the formation of romantic relationships must have guidelines on what behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable in those relationships.” The charity began talks with ITV, who shared information with them on their inclusion training, but it became apparent that the broadcaster was missing any specific information on abusive relationships and an understanding of controlling behaviour in relationships.
Although the charity is in talks with ITV about how they can improve their practices, I can’t help but feel like it’s already too late. When I spoke with my teenage sister after the show ended about the shock that I expected many couples would face when they left the villa and discovered that they had either experienced or performed this behaviour, she seemed bewildered. She hadn’t seen any of the news related to Women’s Aid, nor had she spotted the behaviour as being particularly toxic.
Despite the fact that more and more resources are becoming available to educate young adults on what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, it seems like the organisations who are trying to make a real change simply aren’t reaching them in the right way. They simply don’t live in the same online spaces as older generations, nor do they consume the same content or follow the same influencers.
Earlier this year I learned of the Women’s Aid campaign, Too Into You, which is a great resource targeted specifically at young women. The platform even includes a quiz to help girls understand if behaviours in their relationships are unhealthy. It’s something that I know I needed when I was a teenager. Reading about the campaign on the RTÉ website, I worried that most teenagers probably don’t even know this platform exists.
A successful PR effort, the Too Into You campaign hit all major national and regional news outlets and ambassadors shared poignant stories on Instagram, linking their followers to the Women’s Aid resource. Despite this perceived success, this just isn’t where most teenagers consume content. Instead, they can typically be found scrolling through TikTok, home of controversial opinions, misinformation and major misogynist, Andrew Tate, who seems to specialise in teaching young boys to be violent misogynists.
In the age of social media, when young people spend a large portion of their time learning from content creators and influencers across the globe, we have to do more to provide them with information that is actually true. This is why I was so excited to learn about the reform of sex education in Ireland. The updated curriculum is designed to reflect today’s reality. Some items that have been proposed include the influence of social media and pornography on young people’s understanding, expectations and social norms in relation to sexual expression, healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships, human sexuality, consent and the importance of safer sexual activity including contraception.
I know that these changes won’t happen overnight, but I feel an overwhelming sense of relief in knowing that schools are taking responsibility for educating young people about what real relationships look like. As these changes are worked out, for me it feels like the education system is holding its hands up to say ‘it’s my fault. I have failed you and I will do better.’
Finally, I feel like it’s not my fault.[/restrict]