Dr. Jon Conte is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. He has testified as an expert on mental health issues related to child abuse and trauma in state and federal courts across the country. Dr. Conte has also been the Editor of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence for the past 30 years. This interview discusses trends in the research of interpersonal violence, emerging areas of the law related to interpersonal violence, and the influence of technology and social media on interpersonal violence.
I sat down with Dr. Conte to get his insights into this field.
What is the study of interpersonal violence?
Interpersonal violence is a term that has changed over time. Initially it referred to any kind of person-on-person violence, but not, for example, war or terrorism. It would be domestic violence, child abuse, rape, and even violent crime. And, it would include not only physical violence, but also psychological maltreatment. But over the past twenty years, another field has emerged within the study of interpersonal violence, which is the trauma field. What we’ve learned is that there is a clear overlap. Those who have suffered trauma as a child are more likely to develop symptoms later with subsequent trauma. Interestingly, there’s also an overlap between those who commit violent acts and those who have experienced trauma as a child.
So, if you’ve suffered trauma in one way earlier in your life, you’re more likely to be symptomatic if another traumatic event occurs?
Yes. It’s a risk. It’s not an absolute certainty, but it’s a risk. For example, people who suffer a natural disaster, if they have prior experiences with interpersonal violence, are at greater risk to suffer emotional consequences from that natural disaster. Another trend over the past ten years with regard to the study of interpersonal violence has been to recognize that there is a range of adversities that can impact human development. Adversities can include things like poverty, being subject to racism, or having a mentally ill parent. Those adversities, one of which is interpersonal violence, impact subsequent reactions to events. So, if you have a lot of adversities, there’s a very clear link to emotional, psychological and even health related problems. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control has documented that, in a review of their research, the larger number of adversities that someone is exposed to, the greater the health and mental health impacts. Physical and sexual child abuse, even when controlling for other adversities, have their own small but statistically significant impact over the other adversities. While we are studying adversities, we recognize that at least physical and sexual child abuse also have an effect above and beyond other adversities.
Do the more adversities that one experiences make the effects of other trauma more extensive?
Yes. There is a greater negative impact. And it’s not just emotional-psychological, it’s also a health behavior. The more adversities you have, the more you will have physical health problems, and the more you will engage in unhealthy practices—whether that’s overeating, drug and alcohol use, or other behaviors.
This sounds like an extension of the tort law idea of the "eggshell plaintiff," where someone has already been damaged, and the tortfeasor accepts the plaintiff as she or he is at the time of the traumatic incident. Is that a scientific way of looking at this concept?
Absolutely. In a very real way, it is the proof of the eggshell plaintiff. There’s significant research that says the more adversities one suffers, the greater the harm and the more likelihood that a subsequent event will produce a greater harm on somebody who has more adversities, or is in fact an eggshell plaintiff, than somebody else who does not have the same experiences. There are always variations. Some people can have a lot of adversities and also have a lot of resiliency factors, so it’s not an absolute relationship, but certainly this body of research proves the eggshell plaintiff scientifically.
Are there particular populations or demographic groups that are more likely to suffer interpersonal violence episodes during their lives?
The question of what populations are at greater risk depends a little bit on the type of interpersonal violence you are talking about. Oppressed groups, poor populations, populations that are subjected to racism, discrimination, samples of people where there’s substance abuse in the parent, who have a lack of resources… they are at greater risk to experience one or more types of interpersonal violence. Having said that, we also know that very privileged people can also be subjected to interpersonal violence.
Are there statistics about how large of a population is directly affected by interpersonal violence?
We know, for example, that approximately 1 in 3 females and 1 in 5 males are sexually abused. But there’s a research problem, in that researchers don’t often ask about all types of exposure, because they are interested in one type of interpersonal violence or another. Also, we know that most acts of violence go unreported; we know that in terms of rape, and we know that in terms of domestic violence. Although there may not be exact numbers, if you look at all types of interpersonal violence, it’s probably one of the most common negative experiences that people have.
What are the emerging areas of the law where you see issues of interpersonal violence discussed more often?
A new area in the interpersonal violence field is bullying. There’s now quite a bit of research that is going on that demonstrates that bullying has profound psychological consequences on the bullied individual. We’re seeing more lawsuits against institutions that don’t protect kids from bullying.
What role, if any, do new technologies, especially social media, have in emerging areas of interpersonal violence?
As cell phones and other devices that allow kids to communicate, often in what they think are somewhat secret ways become more prevalent, it increases the ways in which aggressive children can reach out and bully other children. And we are seeing this in younger and younger kids. New technologies also add dimensions like sexting; with the exchange of images, if a child gets discovered, they feel humiliated and shamed; that’s also increased. The ways in which people are exposed to one type or another of interpersonal violence have greatly expanded in the digital age. We are also seeing that in cases where a child is abused in an institution, like a school, social media allows the victimization to become a subject of rumor, and often people will take sides. If the accused teacher or coach is a very popular figure, then many kids will rally around the teacher or coach, not the victim. So, it adds a whole level of stigmatization and victimization, which, before the Internet, only existed in direct exchanges between people. Now the stigma can spread much more quickly and widely because of social media and the Internet.
What is the responsibility or duty of a school, or other groups and institutions, to make sure that new social media are not perpetuating interpersonal violence?
I think what we’ve learned generally about prevention of violence, whether it’s sexual abuse or bullying, is that there really needs to be a zero-tolerance policy. What often happens now, however, is that schools and youth-serving organizations tend to treat it as an interpersonal problem. They then try to have the violent person, the bully, apologize and ask the victim to forgive the bully. Unfortunately, it is not really an interpersonal problem. It is in terms of the victim’s perspective, but in terms of prevention, what really has to happen is that there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy. The bully or group of bullies needs to be moved away from the victim. What sometimes happens is the victim gets moved to a different class, and that further punishes the victim. What should happen instead is that the violent person, whatever form of violence it is, needs to have the behavior seriously dealt with, and a zero-tolerance policy be put in effect.
It seems that the view of bullying has gone from an overlooked occurrence, often in school settings, to something that scientific research has found definitively to be an act of interpersonal violence, in and of itself. Is that accurate?
Yes, and it has profound emotional and behavioral consequences on the development of the child, especially when the child is not protected by the adults in authority from whom the child has every expectation of getting help with a problem that is taking place in that environment.
Are schools and universities doing enough to prevent interpersonal violence?
Bottom line, no. It depends a little bit on the school. Another new area of research in interpersonal violence that takes place largely at college campuses is work with bystanders: encouraging bystanders to sexual harassment or bullying to step forward and take steps to protect the victim. And that research is somewhat encouraging as a way of responding to violence that other people know about. That certainly could be a model that schools could adopt. There are programs in schools that teach about relationships and non-coercive relationships, but that’s not enough. The one thing that would be easier to implement is a zero-tolerance policy.
Are there any other areas of emerging research with regard to interpersonal violence that you anticipate we will see in courtrooms?
I believe an area of the law that has been ignored is the impact on children of a parent who is a victim of interpersonal violence. The research is increasingly clear that when a parent is physically or sexually abused, it often has a direct impact on their parenting. I think the person or entity who is committing interpersonal violence, or allowing it to happen to a parent, is in fact directly harming the child.
What are signs and symptoms of interpersonal violence on a parent which have a direct impact on the child?
The direct effects on the child are the damages which have occurred to the parent. It can be depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual dysfunction, compulsive gambling, use of drugs or alcohol, really any of the emotional sequelae that are identified as a parent’s damages. To the extent that those behaviors impact a parent, which obviously they do, then it’s impacting the child. If you’re a child, for example, and your parent "checks out" at times because she is dissociative or is overwhelmed with post-traumatic images of what happened to her, then that parent is not available to you. Children are acutely aware when a parent is not present, and they will blame themselves. So if you have a parent who suffers from PTSD and is emotional, crying and upset because she is reexperiencing the trauma, then she is not available to you as a parent, and kids will often blame themselves for that. To me, that’s a direct result. Thus, the symptoms in the parent have a direct impact on the capacity to parent. The child suffers because of something the parent experienced years before.
What are the other manifestations in parents that directly impact the child?
It can be neglect, hypervigilance, and also overprotection. It can be not allowing your child to have a sleepover or go to a church youth group. It can be limiting or protecting the child to the point that she doesn’t participate in activities which support normal growth and development. It can also be more pronounced, like suffering mental health symptoms that impact parenting, or exhibiting extreme and bizarre behavior that the child sees and doesn’t understand. It can be controlling a child, so that he doesn’t have normal developmental experiences. I have seen acute cases where a parent has a son and is not able to relate to the son because the son has a penis. And so there is always a distance. The child senses it, but has no idea that the mother has this problem because she was abused by a male. In terms of the law, if a partner of a victim has a claim for the effects on the relationship, then the child has an equally significant claim.