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The Prevalence of Abusive Relationships on College Campuses: An Open Letter and Analysis

Dear Readers,

The mention of “college relationships” often conjures up feelings of nostalgia among those who have aged out of their twenties. It’s certainly not uncommon for me to hear relatives, bosses, and older acquaintances alike reminiscing about the pure, passionate, and youthful romances they enjoyed during their college years. These rose-tinted memories, in turn, carry over into media representations of college relationships. As a result, the pervasive societal conceptualization of young love is chock-full of paradisiacal expectations.



What this popularized understanding of youthful relationships fails to acknowledge is the high rates of unhealthy and abusive partnerships among young persons, particularly those on college campuses. According to Loveisrespect.org, 43% of dating college women have reported experiencing violence or abuse. Additionally, 16% of dating college women have reported that they have been sexually abused in a dating relationship.

So, what’s the missing link? Why are abusive relationships so prevalent on college campuses, yet so rarely discussed? In the end, it boils down to two factors: a lack of education and awareness on the patterns of behavior that constitute abuse, and a culture of entitlement and privilege that leads many people, especially cisgender and heterosexual white males, to forcefully extract from partners what they believe that they deserve.

Let’s take a closer look at the first factor. It’s undeniably true that most people aren’t experts on the intricacies of abusive relationships. Not only are these relationships glossed over in popular media representations, but also, according to Loveisrespect.org, 57% of responding college students say that abuse is difficult to identify. Taking these two facts in tandem, it makes sense to conclude that a lack of widely available information and representations of abusive relationships is related to a lack of understanding and knowledge about abuse. Indeed, even when popular media DOES depict abusive or unhealthy relationships, it often fails to attribute negativity to these partnerships, instead romanticizing jealousy, volatility, and possessiveness. We don’t need to look farther than the famed “The Notebook” movie in order to see an example of the romanticization of toxic relationships. Although neither protagonist in this movie necessarily rises to the level of abuse, their relationship is characterized by constant fighting, failed communication, and instability. At one point, Noah, the male lover, even says, “Well that’s what we do, we fight… You tell me when I am being an arrogant son of a bitch and I tell you when you are a pain in the ass. Which you are, 99% of the time. I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings. You have like a two-second rebound rate, then you’re back doing the next pain-in-the-ass thing.” Unfortunately, this movie is widely regarded as one of the most epic modern romance tales. This conflation of unhealthy patterns with romance, in addition to the lack of accessible information about abusive relationships, has led to an overall diminished knowledge-base on abusive qualities and attributes.



But surely faulty media representations and a lack of information aren’t the only reasons that abusive relationships abound with fervor on college campuses. I myself would like to believe that most people are not inherently disposed to abuse others, even if they don’t understand or are not exposed to the definitions and manifestations of abusive relationships. There have to be other factors at play—which leads me to discuss our culture of entitlement and privilege. In this culture, white “cis-het” men are, to put it simply, used to getting what they want. I’m sure none of you are hard pressed to remember how the white, confident, masculine, and straight cis-white boys “ruled the school” during our teenage years. And it doesn’t stop there: according to Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist and big data specialist, the “costs” of living as a straight cis-white boy, in terms of lifetime career and monetary opportunities, are drastically lower than the “costs” associated with living as a non-straight-cis-white boy (and you can check out her analysis here).

So, in a sense, this privileged group is used to getting everything they want handed to them on a platter. It’s not surprising that this expectation spills over into their romantic relationships. It is, of course, not an excuse for the prevalence of abusive behaviors on college campuses, but it is a viable explanation. Straight white men make up a significant portion of college students, and, when you put them all together in one place when they’re in their late teens and early twenties, it’s likely to create a cesspool of privilege and entitlement.



This whole analysis leaves me with one final question: Now what? We know that abuse is abundant on college campuses, and we know that there’s not a lot being done to stop it. Before sending you on your merry way after reading this delightful letter and analysis, I’ve decided to leave you with five useful tips, compiled from personal experience and three years of life on a college campus, on how to spot potentially abusive relationships.


  • A desire from the abuser for hasty commitment, i.e., promises of marriage, “forever”, and/or extorted declarations of love within the first few months of a relationship
  • Excessive nitpicking and analysis of the intended target’s mundane behaviors, i.e., “why don’t you say hi to my friends in the dining hall? Is it a reflection on how you feel about me?”
  • Over the top declarations at the beginning of the relationship, i.e., “I can’t picture a happy life without you”, “You’re the only person in the world who understands me”
  • ANY disrespect for bodily autonomy-including “fun” poking and prodding without consent-i.e., picking you up and carrying you across the room while you’re working instead of either asking you to move or asking for permission to move you
  • Demands or coerces the intended target to prioritize spending time together over finishing homework and/or working towards the completion of one’s degree


Stay safe and deconstruct everything,

~Hayley Yussman


Image Credit: 1, 2, 3


Hayley is a senior English and Political Science double major at Kenyon College, and an avid napper.  When she's not sleeping, you can usually find her writing and organizing around leftist political campaigns, making music, and/or surrounding herself with animals.
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