“If I had only known then what I know now.”
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a bad boyfriend or girlfriend story that includes that line. When you’re young, you don’t recognize the red flags that are frantically waving in front of your face, screaming, “This person is not to be trusted.”
When I was 18, I believed my 23-year-old boyfriend when he said he was sleeping over at his ex’s house “as a friend.” I believed him when he said I had to answer the phone at 2 a.m. on a school night or he might start cutting again. I believed him when he said if I really loved him, I’d sneak out of my parents’ house to see him.
That relationship left me with a few sleepless nights and a minor heartbreak, but ultimately no worse for wear. I moved across the country to pursue my journalism degree and that was pretty much that.
A lot of teens aren’t so lucky.
That’s why Jen Scaccio, youth and family advocate at New Horizons, has joined with other nonprofit organizations in the area to host La Crosse Rising, the local arm of One Billion Rising.
The organization gets its name from the 1 in 3 women and girls who are abused or sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
“With 1 in 3, that globally becomes 1 billion rising,” Scaccio said.
That 1 billion goes the same for teens, who are grouped as a whole, rather than by gender.
“We could safely say there are probably just as many teens, if not more, being abused,” Scaccio said. “There’s more teens in abusive relationships, and that’s really sad. It’s scary.”
Scaccio has gone into schools and asked teens whether they know someone who has been abused or experienced abuse themselves.
“I can guarantee you 99 percent, if not a 100 are raising their hand,” Scaccio said.
New Horizons will be joined by Essential Health Clinic, The Good Fight, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge, the YWCA and other organizations for an event featuring a flash mob, face painting, a scavenger hunt and educational booths at Valley View Mall, aimed at arming those teens with knowledge to keep themselves safe.
“They’re involved in unhealthy relationships, because they don’t know those red flags,” Scaccio said.
Among the reddest of flags is forcing you into isolation. If your partner insists you can’t do anything without him or her, you should take a large step back.
“If (people) want to hang out with their own friends at their own events, they should be able to do that,” Scaccio said.
There are a lot of controlling behaviors that are red flags, like partners insisting on being able to go through your phone, that you always be available or that you run every little decision by them. Someone who romanticizes being your keeper or protector ala Joe in Netflix’s original series “You,” should be left very far behind.
“Realistically, with healthy relationships, we should have some boundaries. They should have their life and we should have ours,” Scaccio said.
It can delve into a coercive sexual relationship.
“People say, ‘if you really love me, we’re going to do these kinds of things. Kids don’t feel like they have a choice,” Scaccio said.
The scariest relationships are when a partner threatens suicide if the other person leaves.
“That’s a lot of pressure for a 13- or 14-year-old. Even for a 36-year-old person like me, that’s a lot of pressure,” Scaccio said.
Without anything to compare it to, teens don’t recognize those threats and red flags as the signs of abuse that they are.
“If they don’t know that, it becomes normal. It becomes their everyday. All of a sudden, stalking becomes normal. Sexual coercion becomes normal,” Scaccio said.
There aren’t a lot of places where teens can learn how abnormal those behaviors are.
“We just need more role models out there to have these kinds of conversations,” she said.
Scaccio admitted it could be seen as a little odd to have that conversation at an event featuring a scavenger hunt, giveaways and a flash mob at 3 p.m. However, she said those booths and events serve as an icebreaker.
“It’s educational, but we have to make it fun,” she said.
The La Crosse Dance Center will put on the dance, which Scaccio said was so important.
“Here’s a place you can go to if dancing is what you love, but also know you have someone to talk to,” Scaccio said.
Jourdan Vian can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @Jourdan_LCT.