Earlier this year in a crowded elevator at a Manhattan high school, a boy reached out and grabbed the buttocks of his girlfriend. “She turned and told him to stop,” recalled Claire Wolinsky, 15, a high school junior. “But he continued to grab her rear end. It was more liked he groped her — it wasn’t just a little pinch. After a while she became more accepting of it because everyone was watching, but she clearly did not want him to do it.”
This is just one example of teenage sexual abuse that will be discussed Sunday during a day-long Teen Relationship Abuse Conference to be held at the headquarters of UJA-Federation of New York at 130 E. 59th St.
The conference will deal with all types of relationship abuse by boys and girls, encompassing both mental and physical abuse, according to Kathy Rosenthal, coordinator of community and family services at the Federation Employment and Guidance Service.
Rosenthal, who will lead a workshop on how to handle violence, said the conference is designed to give teenagers an “overview of the issue of family and relationship abuse. It will explain signs of abuse and how to help oneself or someone else who might be in an abusive relationship.”Organizers of the event estimate that 60 percent of teenagers have experienced some form of abuse in a dating relationship.
A student organizer of the event, Randy Cohn, 17, a senior at Valley Stream South High School, said that although the conference is organized by the UJA-Federation Task Force on Family Violence and Jewish Women International, it is open to all high school students.
“A lot of people don’t know what violence or abuse is,” said Cohn. “Abuse does not just involve violence, but anything in which a person is pressured into doing, something he is uncomfortable with, or something that happens without the person’s consent.”
Wolinsky said she sees examples of physical, sexual and mental abuse every day.
An example of physical abuse, she said, is the student who “twists people’s ears until they are red. People tell him to stop, but he’ll then twist the hair on their arms and rip it out.” An example of mental abuse occurs frequently when boys call girls “bitch” or “slut,” she said.
“Every day there are crude, nasty names being used,” Wolinsky added. “This conference is just trying to increase students’ awareness.”
Rosenthal said that aside from being organized by and for teenagers, the conference is unique because it is preventative.
“In most of our work we are reacting to issues of domestic violence, including rape and knock-out drug use in dating,” she said. “In those cases, we try to help after the fact by doing rape counseling or putting [battered women] in shelters.”
Wolinsky, a student at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, said she became involved in this conference after watching other students distribute gift baskets of cosmetics to women living in a domestic abuse shelter in Manhattan.
“It was a very emotional thing for me to watch them get the baskets,” she recalled. “They took them and thanked us and spoke to us about how they were going to use it. … This was simple makeup that we had been donated. It took us such little time to prepare those baskets, yet they were so thankful for them. After that, I wanted to get more involved.”
Wolinsky said she has since learned that when these women are abused, their self-esteem declines. Giving them makeup that allows them to “look prettier, raises their self-esteem, which had been crushed so low from the violent treatment they received. Some of them had bruises.”
Rosenthal said the conference is particularly important for Jewish teens because a study in Los Angeles in 1980 found that Jewish women were more likely to take abuse from spouses than non-Jews because they “felt more of a responsibility to keeping the family intact.”
Although only about 100 teenagers had signed up for the conference by the beginning of the week, both Wolinsky and Cohn said they expected the number to increase because participants will receive nine hours of community service credit. The conference runs seven hours — from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. — and students will receive two hours of credit for travel time.