Voices of Youth: Gen Z teens approach dating cautiously

This article is part of Rapid Growth's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Kent County youth in partnership with Rapid Growth staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Vanely Bastardo Guzman reports on how the gender gap affects women and includes insights from her peers.

Fear of harassment, sexual assault, and violence is making Gen Z women more cautious about dating.

For young women, the harassment often is verbal — catcalling, rude advances, ugly name-calling. But it can escalate into physical abuse, making teenage girls targets of intimate partner violence.

Romantic relationships have become more dangerous, regardless of age. Intimate partner violence fatalities have increased all over the nation, and that includes Michigan.  

In 2021, Michigan women reported 70,564 cases of IVP (intimate partner violence) to the police. While that number is down from the 101,171 reported cases in 2010, IPV fatalities have increased within the same time, from 89 to 101.

Kent County is seeing increased domestic fatalities as well. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of domestic fatalities doubled — five in 2021, compared to 10 in 2022. 

The University of Michigan wanted to study whether the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders caused domestic abuse to increase, so the university surveyed more than 1,000 women and transgender/nonbinary people in Michigan. Of those who replied, 15% reported being victims of IPV, and of that 15%, 64.2% said the IPV was new to the relationship. 

Among youth, one out of every 12 high school students reports having experienced physical and/or sexual abuse in a relationship, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same report says that women are much more likely to experience teen dating violence than their male peers. 

Photo by Tommy AllenVanely Bastardo Guzman

In my experience, I’ve witnessed young girls judged and ridiculed for the way they choose to dress and present themselves. While walking through my high school halls, I often hear guys making comments about girls trying too hard and wanting to attract attention because of their clothes. When these teenage girls get approached and catcalled, their initial reaction is to reject the disrespectful advancements, although this comes at a price — when rejected teenage boys start labeling these young women "b***h" and w***e."

“In relation to boys in high school saying things towards women in a sexually harassing way I would say it's likely always been an issue and probably always will continue to be an issue,” says Lee High School teacher Peter Foote.

I see this behavior most prominently when breakups occur. After breakups, I’ve heard teenage boys engage in “boy talk” and verbally disrespect women while doing so because they seem to have the idea that they can be as disrespectful as they want if they are no longer in that relationship. When they get called out, I’ve heard these boys accuse teenage girls of being too sensitive and not understanding a simple joke. Making fun of women has become a trend amongst teenagers and It’s extremely disheartening to witness. 

Foote, though, sees a change over time.

“What's considered acceptable these days is much different than it was 10 years ago than it was 20 years ago and so on,” he says. “But I think the developing mind in boys will continue to make mistakes and hopefully, the important part would be learning from those mistakes and doing better in the future.”

Change is arising

One of the reasons why Gen Z women are more cautious about dating is due to harassment and sexual assault — they fear for their safety, both physically and emotionally.

“I’ve seen people get into relationships with individuals they thought they could trust, and it has made me cautious of getting into romantic relationships,” says high school student Annette Vázquez. 

Teens like Annette have reason to feel like this, as 850,000 high school girls experienced sexual assault in 2019, and that increased to more than 1 million in 2021. This abuse can lead girls to feel feelings of stress, anxiety, and numerous negative mental health impacts. 

Within high school students, there has been a significant decrease in sexual activity, with birth rates significantly decreasing by 77% within the past 30 years. While contraceptives are a big reason behind the falling rates, this generation of teens is becoming more focused on respect, loyalty, and open-mindedness in partners and less on partaking in sexual intercourse. 

Young women have raised their standards with dating and the men they generally engage with. Dating, in general, has become a big topic amongst the teen community, with studies suggesting that the majority of teens who don’t date are doing better emotionally and find that they possess higher social skills. 

“You don’t have to stress yourself out worrying about other people's feelings and can focus on yourself,” says high school student Fabiola Andres. “You don’t have to spend your days worrying about what you did wrong and how you can improve yourself to meet your partner's expectations.” 

To learn more about Rapid Growth's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here. This series is made possible via underwriting sponsorships from the Steelcase Foundation, Frey Foundation, and Kent ISD.

Vanely Bastardo Guzman is a senior attending Lee High School with aspirations of becoming a nurse. She’s passionate about topics such as psychology and women's rights. She hopes to one day influence others to use their voices and “never let their fears decide their future.”
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