The World Health Organization (WHO) stated in 2013 that overall, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence . Later, in 2014, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights released the ‘Violence against women: an European Union (EU)-wide survey’ report , stating that an estimated 13 million women in the EU had experienced physical violence in the course of 12 months before the survey interviews. The same year, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights  revealed that in relation to minors, one in three had experienced physical and or sexual violence since she was 15 years old, and out of all women with a (current or previous) partner, 22% had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner since the age of 15. Regarding non-partner violence, 22% has experienced physical violence by someone other than their partner since the age of 15. This data reflects that gender violence is still a problem in the EU and worldwide , affecting an important number of young women, and having huge consequences on the victim and also on the social networks of both the abuser and the victim.
In the attempt to investigate the roots of this problem, previous studies evidence that one of the causes of the increasing numbers of gender-based violence victimization is found in the dominant discourse that coerces adolescents and youth and which links attractiveness to men with violent behaviors. This is known as dominant coercive discourse , the discourse which, shaped by an imbalance in power within relationships, influences socialization into linking attractiveness to people with violent attitudes and behaviors, while non-violent people and relationships are -because of this coercive dominant discourse- mostly perceived as convenient but not exciting. This model can be identified either in stable or sporadic relationships . This line of research has shed light on the role played by social media, adolescent and youth literature, movies, TV series, etc., in teaching the coercive discourse [5,6,7]. As Gomez  demonstrates through an extensive analysis of young magazines, boys with violent behaviors and attitudes are presented as more attractive and sexually exciting; thus, passion is associated with risk. In so doing, this coercive discourse leaves less option to experience a relationship that is, at the same time, egalitarian and passionate and implies the separation between what is considered as convenient in the long run, and what is seen as passionate and exciting in the short run, a fracture which is reflected in the daily life of many youth . Quoting the words of a 15-year-old girl from a teenage magazine, Ragazza: “My parents tell me to marry a good boy, and I really listen to them. Until I have to get married, I’m having fun with bad boys” (p.170).
Yet all women are able, if they freely choose to do so, to critically reflect upon the coercive discourse and, from such critical consciousness, make choices and develop preferences free from coercion. Women’s agency to counteract dominant and coercive discourses has been well documented throughout history in feminist literature . Also, along the lines of agency and the topic discussed here, interventions of preventive socialization of gender violence, such as the dialogic feminist gatherings, implemented in the context of the Free Teen Desire research project, have well evidenced the importance of women being aware of and discussing the coercive discourse in order to counteract it and exercise their agency in deciding upon their preferences and partner selection, if the participant women freely choose to do so.
Studies conducted from the field of social psychology  shed light on how this dominant discourse operates. In an experiment, female participants responded that in relation to different descriptions regarding a soldier’s experience after coming back from war, their preference for the ‘warrior’ was higher when asked for short-term relationships against long-term relationships. In a different investigation , researchers observed that female individuals who declared themselves as wanting to avoid boredom and looking for exciting social activities preferred a dominant partner. Thus, those perceived as dominant were considered by that type of female participants as more interesting, attractive, funny, and appealing. Likewise, women who defined themselves as liking new and exciting social activities, such as parties, social drinking, and casual sex, also preferred a dominant partner . Research in evolutionary psychology focused on effects of sexual dimorphism on facial attractiveness has provided complementary data. Studies on this topic  have shown that enhancing masculine facial characteristics increased both perceived dominance and negative attributions, such as coldness or dishonesty, being those attributions associated with participation in deceptive behavior in stable or long-term relationships and paternal investment.
This evidence is of concern from the point of view of violence against women. Data on prevalence of gender violence in dating relationships has been collected in the US for decades [13,14,15], and some specific surveys on adolescent dating violence (ADV) have been conducted in Europe [2, 16]. Nonetheless, existing figures on dating violence worldwide is limited. In a literature review conducted by Leen and colleagues , authors point out that the tradition of collecting data relating to ADV prevalence is not as well established in Europe as in North America, what according to them explains the scarcity of statistics in many European countries and the subsuming of dating violence measures within broader measures of peer violence (pg. 172). That is the case of Spain. For the case of the US, the US national survey Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System  shows that the prevalence of physical dating violence among females was in 2013 of 13%, and that the prevalence of sexual dating violence was 14.4% . Other important data are collected in the US National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence for 12- to 18-year-olds focused on Adolescent Relationship Abuse (ARA) perpetration and victimization . The results indicate that 37% report current or past-year dating and 69% report lifetime ARA victimization (63% lifetime ARA perpetration). Although psychological abuse was most common for these youths, the rates of sexual abuse victimization (18%), physical abuse victimization (18%), and physical abuse and/or sexual abuse perpetration (12%) are substantial. For the case of Germany, Brzank and colleagues  conducted a cross-section survey in 2012–2013 with 462 pupils aged between 14 and 17 aimed at capturing teen dating violence prevalence, risk factors and prevalence, in which indicated that 77% of them had had experiences with dating and intimate relationships . This survey revealed that 66% of female and 60% of male persons at risk reported for at least one kind of Teen Dating Violence (TDV), and the most common type of TDV was emotional violence.
The consequences of teen and young-adult dating violence victimization and adverse health-outcomes have been largely documented. To fall victim of dating violence can be a precursor for intimate partner violence (IPV) victimization in adulthood, which is most notable among women, as they are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior, unhealthy dieting behaviors, substance-and alcohol-abuse, depressive symptomatology, and suicidal ideation/attempts [20, 21]. The consequences are also adverse for the brain and other organs. Women who are victims of IPV may be characterized by alterations in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning, which can manifest in anxiety disorders, digestive problems, fatigue, and insomnia among other symptoms . Generally, victims of dating violence in adolescence are associated with self-reports of poor physical health and more concerns about health .
Although at the international level steps are being made in order to implement evidence-based programs for the prevention of both domestic violence and other types of gender-based-violence , in Spain, despite the existing evidence about dating violence, most of the publications at the national level and most of the gender violence prevention programs start from the premise that violence against women mainly happens in stable relationships. The same idea persisted at the legal level. The existing legislation, The 2004 Spanish Act against Gender Violence , the first of its kind in Europe, did not take into account dating violence, but it solely acknowledged that gender violence is the one that is perpetrated against women by her partners or ex-partners. Consequently, most of the adolescent training in Spain for preventing gender violence is focused on questioning stable relationships and avoiding falling in love, associating and entangling both ideas (stable relationships = romantic idea of love or ideal love) and thus considering falling in love as a road to victimization [25, 26]. Thus, instead of pointing at the influence of the aforementioned coercive discourse in youth socialization processes, most discourses in the media, interventions and prevention programs in Spain indicate that is the notion of romantic ideal of love the cause of gender violence [26,27,28,29,30]. For example, some of those gender violence prevention programs addressed to female youth have employed the motto “Love kills”, which in Spanish (“El amor mata”) has about 85.000 entries in Google on May 14th, 2020. Such association between romantic/ideal love and violence against women also finds its expression in training programs in Spain addressed to teachers and psychologists.
There is no scientific evidence supporting that socializing into “ideal love”, −which is always free of violence, and doing so from diversity of options and individual freedom, causes gender violence . The lack of solid scientific evidence in mainstream prevention campaigns about gender violence in Spain has serious consequences, especially for young women, who end up being victims, as these campaigns have as main goal to dismantle the conception of searching for the ideal of love, instead of informing about the risk factors that can lead to violence in any kind of relationship, and how the coercive discourse operates and shapes young women’s coerced preferences.
Summarizing, in Spain, there is no tradition of evidence-based campaigns to prevent gender violence, so it is important to be aware of: 1) While the international scientific community has shown that gender violence exists in both stable and sporadic relationships, prevention campaigns in Spain are based on the fact that gender violence occurs mainly in stable relationships, in the same way, the 2004 Spanish Act against Gender Violence does not take dating violence into account; 2) prevention campaigns that have as their motto, for example, “love kills”, have been promoted instead of identifying that it is not love that kills but rather violent men; 3) as a consequence, the focus of theses campaigns has not been placed on stopping the dominant coercive discourse that associates attraction to men with violent attitudes and behavior. Therefore, in Spain, evidence-based gender violence prevention campaigns are needed to dismantle the assumptions that gender violence occurs mostly in stable relationships and that love kills, as well as to break down the dominant coercive discourse of attraction to violent men. Evidence-based prevention campaigns could be directed at promoting a discourse that shows the violent as undesirable, promoting that women could freely choose if they wish for their relationships, both sporadic and stable, non-violent men, thus contributing to reducing the risk of victimization of women.
This study aims to provide new evidence on how the dominant coercive discourse that associates men with violent behavior with attractiveness coerces the values, likes and preference of 191 young women in Spain, which is a risk factor for gender-based violence victimization.
This study was part of experimental research carried out under the framework of the Free Teen Desire research project led by the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020, Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant in 2015. In line with the preventive socialization of gender violence approach developed at the Community of Researchers on Excellence for All , the project’s main goal was to contribute to better understand how the coercive discourse which associates attractiveness with men with violent behavior and attitudes [5, 32] coerces young women’s values, likes and preferences, and how such coercion can later constitute a risk factor for violence victimization. This investigation was conducted in secondary schools in four European countries (UK, Spain, Finland and Cyprus) and in universities in Spain.
This article reports results from the study with female college students. In this investigation a quantitative, mixed-design vignette study was conducted in Spain in 2015 with 191 female university students to explore young women’s preferences for different types of sexual relationships, hooking up and stable relationships. In this examination as well as in the discussion of the findings, we considered results from prior research [5, 8] that indicate the power of the coercive discourse in sexual-affective socialization. This article solely discusses data about participants’ responses for men with violent attitudes and behavior. The reason for this choice is that this article focuses on the evidence showing how the dominant coercive discourse, which associates attraction to men with violent attitudes and behaviors, impacts the preferences of 191 young women in Spain. This decision has behind it the researchers concern about the impact on young women that the prevention campaigns for gender violence in Spain are not evidence-based and do not put the focus on identifying and rejecting these violent attitudes and behaviors in all types of relationships, both stable and sporadic. Other articles in progress put the focus on other factors that the Free Teen Desire research project has analyzed. Also, following the scientific literature on gender and masculinities , it was assumed in the study that not all dominant traditional masculinities or hegemonic masculinities are violent, yet all violent masculinities are dominant. In our study, the violent male behaviors and attitudes of dominant men presented to participants were illustrations of what the international scientific literature has detailed as constituting psychological, physical or sexual violence against women .
This research is undertaken at a promising moment. Since the end of 2016, the 2004 Spanish Act against Gender Violence has been again in the public debate because of the reopened discussion about its mistake of ignoring violence perpetuated against women by other actors different that the partner or ex-partner. Steps are being made by different actors in order to achieve that the Spanish Parliament amend the 2004 Act along the lines of widening its definition of what constitutes gender violence, in line with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), ratified by Spain. This will involve considering gender violence in other domains, besides domestic violence, including dating violence. If this amendment materializes, it will be a crucial milestone in the fight against gender violence. At the time of writing this article that debate is stalled and there has not yet been any modification of the 2004 Spanish Act against Gender Violence. Research data can be central to support and inform this change in the law, as well as to base in scientific evidence related policies and strategies both already in place and future ones that will result from the extension of what is understood as gender violence in the law. The research conducted in the Free Teen Desire research project, and reported partially in this article, is a contribution in this regard.