Violence and Victims, Volume 23, Number 1, 2008
66 © 2008 Springer Publishing Company
A T e s t o f E x p l a n a t i o n s f o r t h e
Effect of Harsh Parenting on the
Perpetration of Dating Violence and
Sexual Coercion Among College Males
Leslie Gordon Simons, PhD
Callie Harbin Burt , MS
Ronald L. Simons, PhD
University of Georgia
This study uses structural equation modeling (SEM) with a sample of 760 college males
to test various hypotheses regarding the avenues whereby harsh corporal punishment and
a troubled relationship with parents increase the risk that a boy will grow up to engage in
sexual coercion and dating violence. We found that three variables—a general antisocial ori-
entation, sexually permissive attitudes, and believing that violence is a legitimate component
of romantic relationships—mediated most of the association between negative parenting and
our two outcomes. In addition to this indirect influence, we found that harsh corporal pun-
ishment had a direct effect upon dating violence. The findings are discussed with regard to
various theoretical perspectives regarding the manner in which family of origin experiences
increase the chances that a young man will direct violence toward a romantic partner.
K e y w o r d s : parenting; harsh corporal punishment; transmission of violence; intimate
p a r t n e r v i o l e n c e ; a n t i s o c i a l o r i e n t a t i o n
ne of society’s major social problems is violence toward women. Social scientists
concerned with this issue have focused largely upon two issues: spouse abuse and
rape. Although much of this research has concentrated upon the victimization of
adult women, in recent years researchers have begun to investigate dating violence and sex-
ual coercion among high school and college students. Research on dating violence among
these age groups is important because the evidence indicates that between 10% and 40% of
girls are the victims of physical violence at the hands of a dating partner (Bergman, 1992;
Malik, Sorenson, & Aneshensel, 1997; O’Keefe, 1997). Research also suggests that perpe-
tration of such acts is often a precursor to engaging in marital violence (Murphy & O’Leary,
1989). Thus, in addition to being a topic worthy of attention in its own right, research on
dating violence may enhance our understanding of the etiology of spouse abuse.
I n v e s t i g a t i n g d a t e r a p e a m o n g t h e s e a g e g r o u p s i s i m p o r t a n t b e c a u s e f i n d i n g s i n d i -
cate that it is the most common form of rape (Felson, 2002). Studies indicate that sexual
coercion committed by dating partners exists on a continuum where perpetrators usually
begin with less intimidating strategies (e.g., cajoling, plying the date with alcohol) and
gradually escalate the level of force (e.g., verbal threats, physically overpowering) when
Dating Violence and Sexual Coercion 67
these tactics fail (Felson, 1993, 2002). This being the case, studies of sexual coercion
among dating partners may add to our understanding of how some individuals come to use
force to obtain sex. There is evidence that as many as 14% of wives have been raped by
their husbands (Marshall & Holtzworth-Munroe, 2002), and it may be that men develop a
pattern of sexual coercion during dating relationships.
R e s e a r c h o n d a t i n g v i o l e n c e a n d s e x u a l c o e r c i o n h a s d e v e l o p e d l a r g e l y i n d e p e n d e n t l y o f
each other. Studies usually treat the two events as very different phenomenon, each requir-
ing its own explanation. In most cases, however, men who engage in marital rape have also
engaged in physical aggression toward their wives (Marshall & Holtzworth-Munroe, 2002).
Several theories described below might be interpreted as suggesting that physical violence
and sexual coercion in dating relationships would be correlated. Thus the first research
question addressed in the present article is the nature of the association between these two
abusive behaviors. More importantly, however, we are concerned with an examination of
the various theoretical explanations regarding the factors that increase a young man’s risk of
directing violence toward romantic partners. We used structural equation modeling (SEM)
with a sample of 760 college males to evaluate these theoretical arguments.
Past research has emphasized the potential link between family of origin experiences and
a young man’s risk for perpetration of dating violence and sexual coercion. Most of this
work has investigated the consequences of exposure to abusive parenting. In addition to
abusive parenting, however, the present study also focuses on the level of trust and sup-
port provided by the parents. We draw on various theoretical perspectives to develop
hypotheses regarding the manner in which parental behavior might increase the chances
of victimizing dating partners.
Two sets of arguments are suggested by social learning theory. First, it may be that
harsh physical discipline teaches a child that physical coercion is an effective strategy in
interpersonal relationships (Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992). Children who experience
corporal punishment learn first-hand that violence changes behavior. Whatever the long-
term consequences, the short-term effects of corporal punishment almost always produce
behavior change (Simons, Lin, & Gordon, 1998). Thus harsh corporal punishment teaches
that hitting someone is an effective strategy for influencing their behavior. Both dating vio-
lence and sexual coercion involve the use of coercive measures with dating partners. To the
extent that this social learning argument is valid, there should be a rather strong correlation
between dating violence and sexual coercion as they indicate the same underlying inter-
personal style. Further, one would expect our path analysis to show a direct effect from
parental abuse to involvement in both dating violence and sexual coercion. Several studies
have reported an association between exposure to abusive parenting and subsequent com-
mission of dating violence (Segelman, Berry, & Wiles, 1984; Simons et al., 1998; Wolfe,
Wekerle, Reitzel-Jaffe, & Lefebvre, 1998; Wolfe, Wekerle, Scott, Straatman, & Grasley,
2004). We are not aware, however, of any research that has examined the relationship
between abusive parenting and sexual coercion.
As a variant on this social learning argument, Straus and his colleagues (Straus, Gelles, &
Steinmetz, 1980; Straus & Smith, 1990) have argued that harsh physical discipline teaches
children that it is legitimate, indeed often necessary, to hit those you love. Victims of parental
violence develop the view that coercion and force is a component of intimate relationships
68 Simons et al.
and often an indication of love. This argument suggests that the effect of abusive parenting
on risk for victimizing romantic partners is indirect through beliefs legitimating such behav-
ior. Although past research has shown that high school and college students often interpret
a partner’s violence as an expression of love (Henton, Cate, Koval, Lloyd, & Christopher,
1983; Roscoe & Callahan, 1985), it is not clear whether such beliefs mediate the association
between abusive parenting and either dating violence or sexual coercion. We will investigate
the extent to which this is the case.
A t t a c h m e n t t h e o r y ( A i n s w o r t h , B l e h a r , W a t e r s , & W a l l , 1 9 7 8 ; B o w l b y , 1 9 6 9 ; L y o n s - R u t h ,
1996) argues that the parent–child relationship provides the child with an internal working
model of relationships that is used in interaction with others. The theory consists of a rather
complex set of assertions regarding the association between styles of parenting and types of
child attachment. For our purposes, however, the theory might be reduced to the following
propositions. Children who grow up with a caring, nurturing caregiver acquire an optimistic,
trusting model of relationships and tend to engage in warm, cooperative interactions with
other people (Bretherton, 1985). The theory views these children as “securely attached.”
Those exposed to harsh, rejecting parenting, on the other hand, are at risk for developing
some form of a hostile, distrusting model of relationships. These children are considered to
be “insecurely attached.” The theory contends that the cynical internal working models char-
acteristic of insecurely attached children discourage close, trusting relationships and increase
the probability of approaching others with suspicion and fear of rejection.
This perspective suggests that a childhood family environment characterized by harsh
parenting or the absence of a close, trusting parent–child relationship often gives rise to
a jealous, distrusting model of relationships that increases the chances of engaging in
violence toward intimate partners. Consistent with this view, several recent studies have
reported that men who batter their partners frequently were maltreated as children and dis-
play an insecure attachment style (Dutton, 1998; Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994). We
do not have a measure of attachment style in the present study. Attachment theory would
seem to suggest, however, that a childhood history characterized by either parental abuse
or the absence of parental support increases the risk of committing dating violence.
A d d i t i o n a l l y , p a s t r e s e a r c h h a s s h o w n t h a t p e r m i s s i v e s e x u a l a t t i t u d e s i n c r e a s e t h e
chances of engaging in sexual coercion (Malamuth, 1998; Tyler, Hoyt, & Whitbeck, 1998),
and that insecurely attached individuals are more likely than securely attached persons to
be committed to such an orientation (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002). We expect that there are
two reasons for this set of relationships. First, a troubled relationship with parents may fos-
ter a model of relationships where the individual craves love but fears rejection. This may
lead to promiscuity in an attempt to achieve intimacy and the use of sexual coercion when
fears of rejection are realized and sexual advances are thwarted. Second, it may be that a
troubled relationship with parents promotes a distant, emotionally uninvolved approach to
relationships, where sex is considered a casual enjoyment rather than an expression of love
and intimacy. Individuals who view sex as “no big deal” may be more likely than those who
consider it a distinctive expression of intimacy to respond with frustration and sexual coer-
cion when partners refuse their advances. Regardless of which explanation may be valid,
both predict that either lack of parental trust and support or parental abuse will lead to a per-
missive orientation that, in turn, increases the probability of engaging in sexual coercion.
Besides social learning and attachment theory, the criminological literature suggests
a third developmental pathway by which poor parenting increases the chances of dat-
ing violence and sexual coercion. We call this the antisocial orientation perspective.
Criminological research indicates that deviant acts tend to be correlated so that individu-
als who engage in one type of deviant behavior tend to participate in other types as well
Dating Violence and Sexual Coercion 69
(e.g., Donovan & Jessor, 1985; Farrington, 1991; Jessor & Jessor, 1977; Osgood, Johnston,
O’Malley, & Bachman, 1988). There is also evidence that antisocial behavior is rather
stable over the life course (Caspi & Moffitt, 1992; Loeber & LeBlanc, 1990; Sampson &
Laub, 1993). Although individuals who initiate delinquent behavior during mid-to-late
adolescence usually discontinue involvement within a few years, those who manifest high
levels of antisocial behavior at an early age are at risk for chronic delinquency during ado-
lescence and continued reckless and irresponsible behavior during adulthood (Farrington,
1991; Loeber & LeBlanc, 1990; Patterson & Yoerger, 1993). Thus, antisocial behavior
shows the characteristics of a behavior trait, that is, a pattern of behavior that is expressed
across time and situations (Allport, 1937).
Studies have also linked a child’s early involvement in antisocial behavior to expo-
sure to inept parenting. Parents who fail to provide warmth and support, or who engage
in harsh and rejecting parenting practices, place their children at risk for antisocial
behavior (Burt, Simons, & Simons, 2006; Simons, Simons, & Wallace, 2004). These
findings suggest that antisocial involvements represent a general behavior trait that
develops, at least in part, in response to inept parenting practices. This perspective
would view dating violence and sexual coercion as expressions of a general antisocial
orientation that has its roots in ineffective parenting, including abuse and absence of
support. The aggressiveness, impulsivity, risk taking, and low self-control that give rise
to a general pattern of delinquent and antisocial behavior is viewed as also responsible
for an individual’s involvement in dating violence (Sellers, 1999) and sexual coercion
(Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Larragoite, 1994).
This perspective suggests that dating violence and sexual coercion will be strongly cor-
related as both are expressions of the same underlying behavior trait. Further, both should
be also be related to a history of antisocial behavior involving delinquency, substance use,
and analogous behaviors. Indeed, controlling for antisocial orientation would be expected
to dramatically reduce the correlation between dating violence and sexual coercion as their
association is assumed to be a function of the fact that both variables are an expression of
this underlying trait. Finally, this perspective views the effect of parental behavior on risk
for dating violence and sexual coercion as indirect through its impact on the development
of an antisocial orientation. Parental abuse and low support foster a general pattern of anti-
social behavior, with dating violence and sexual coercion being expressions of this pattern.
Therefore, controlling for general involvement in antisocial behavior should eliminate the
association between parental behavior and either dating violence or sexual coercion.
This perspective is supported by studies showing that many men who abuse their
spouses (Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994; Jacobson & Gottman, 1998; Simons &
Johnson, 1996) or dating partners (Simons, Lin, Gordon, Conger, & Lorenz, 1999) also
have a history of involvement in other types of antisocial behavior. The few studies that
have examined the issue have found that in large measure childhood exposure to harsh
parenting increases a man’s risk for perpetrating violence toward women by fostering
an antisocial lifestyle characterized by high levels of delinquent and criminal behavior
(Simons & Johnson, 1996; Simons, Wu, Johnson & Conger, 1995; Simons et al., 1999).
Unfortunately, these studies did not control for the beliefs and attitudes included in the
present study, nor did they consider sexual coercion in their analyses. Despite the theo-
retical arguments that sexual coercion is the expression of a general antisocial orientation
fostered by ineffective parenting (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Larragoite, 1994), we are
not aware of any studies that have investigated this hypothesis. There is evidence, however,
that rapist offenders often also have a history of involvement in a wide variety of criminal
activities (Henn, Herjanic, & Vanderpearl, 1976; Larragoite, 1994).
70 Simons et al.
THE PRESENT STUDY
Summarizing, social learning, attachment, and criminological perspectives all predict that
negative parenting practices during childhood increase the chances that a male will grow
up to engage in dating violence or sexual coercion with romantic partners. These various
perspectives disagree, however, regarding the avenues whereby parental behavior produces
this effect. The primary disagreements involve the extent to which an antisocial orientation
or various beliefs regarding sex and intimacy mediate the influence of ineffective parenting
practices on risk for violence toward women. Specifically, social learning theory suggests
a strong correlation between dating violence and sexual coercion. It also suggests that
harsh corporal punishment can result in the belief that violence is sometimes legitimate
in close relationships. If this theory is correct then in addition to the direct effect of harsh
parenting on dating violence and sexual coercion, we should also see an indirect effect on
the outcomes through the belief that violence is sometimes acceptable in romantic relation-
ships. Attachment theory, on the other hand, would predict that a parent–child relationship
characterized by either abuse or low warmth/support increases risk for perpetration of
dating violence or sexual coercion though permissive sexual attitudes. Finally, the anti-
social orientation perspective proposes that dating violence and sexual coercion are part
of a generally antisocial pattern of behavior that is fostered by poor parenting. Therefore,
the relationship between parenting and the outcomes would be mediated by an antisocial
orientation. These competing explanations are examined in the present article.
We chose to focus on male perpetration because, while females are more likely to
engage in less severe forms of common couple violence, due to relative size and strength
the consequences of their perpetration tend to be more serious. From both policy and inter-
vention perspectives, it is the more extreme forms of abuse that are of concern in terms of
physical and mental health outcomes. Hence, we use the more severe forms of violence in
the Conflict Tactics Scale in order to address our research questions. Further, sexual coer-
cion, especially forms that involve physical force, is largely a male phenomenon. Several
studies utilizing college student samples have found that sexual coercion by males occurs
at approximately two to three times the rate of females (Baier, Rosenzweig, & Whipple,
1991; Zweig, Barber, & Eccles, 1997). The gender differences in victimization are much
greater when violent physical coercion is involved (Zweig et al., 1997). For these reasons,
the present study focuses on male-perpetrated violence and coercion.
Sample and Procedures
Data were collected from 2,108 undergraduates enrolled in sociology courses at two large
state universities during the 2001–2002 academic year. Questions focused on family of
origin, current and past relationship experiences, attitudes and behaviors regarding sex,
marriage, substance use, and delinquency. The study was explained to prospective subjects
several days in advance of the administration of the survey instrument. They were told that
the survey would focus on issues associated with dating, sex, and family relationships and
that some items were of a personal nature. It was explained that they could discontinue tak-
ing the survey at any time if they became uncomfortable with the questions. Participation
was voluntary and there were no identifiers on the survey instrument. Pencil and paper
surveys were administered and, because of the sensitive nature of some items, completion
Dating Violence and Sexual Coercion 71
of the survey was proctored like an exam. Participants were made aware that the data
would be used at the aggregate level in the preparation of manuscripts for the purposes of
presentation at professional meetings and publication in research journals. The response
rate was nearly 100%. Data was obtained from 760 males and 1,317 females. Only data
from the males are used in the present analyses.
Approximately 90% of the respondents were White with an average age of 19.5 years.
The majority were in their sophomore or junior year of college. In terms of living situation,
48% of the respondents lived off campus, 30% lived in dorms, and 22% were fraternity or
sorority members. Seventy-five percent of the respondents indicated that their parents were
married to each other. Median family income was between $50,000 and $70,000.
Dating Violence. Our measure of dating violence was adapted from the Conflict Tactics
Scale (Straus et al., 1980). The respondents were asked to indicate the most extreme form
of violence that they had engaged in with a dating partner. The response categories were:
(a) Have never engaged in any form of threat or violence; (b) Threatened to hit them; (c)
Pushed or shoved them; (d) Slapped them; and (e) Punched or hit them with an object.
Sexual Coercion. Respondents completed the Sexual Coercion Scale developed by
Tyler, Hoyt, and Whitbeck (1998) based on the work of Christopher (1988). The scale asks
respondents to indicate the most intimate sexual outcome achieved with each of several
behaviors initiated with a date despite her wish not to participate. The behaviors were: (a) I
got my date drunk or stoned; (b) I threatened to terminate the relationship; (c) I threatened
to disclose negative information about my date; (d) I said things to make the person feel
guilty (e.g. “if you really loved me”); (e) I made false promises about the future of the
relationship (e.g. “we’ll get engaged”); or (f) I physically held my date down. Respondents
were asked to indicate the most extreme outcome that occurred for each of these coercive
strategies. The outcomes for each were: (a) not applicable (did not engage in the behavior),
(b) breast fondling, (c) genital fondling, (d) oral sex, and (e) sexual intercourse. Results
from the measurement model presented in Table 1 show that the various sexual coercion
items load on a common latent construct. All of the loadings are above .5.
Harsh Parenting. Six items from the Conflict Tactics Scale (Straus et al., 1980) were
used to assess abusive parenting. Respondents were asked to report how often during their
childhood that a parent, stepparent, or foster parent: (a) threw something at them in anger;
(b) pushed, shoved, or grabbed them; (c) slapped with their hand; (d) spanked with their
hand; (e) hit with an object; or (f) beat them up. The response format for each item ranged
from 1 (never) to 4 (often). As shown in Table 1, the items load on a common latent factor
with all of the loadings being above .47.
Low Trust/Support. This construct was assessed using the Parental Support Scale devel-
oped for the National Youth Survey (Elliott, Huizinga, & Ageton, 1985; Elliott, Huizinga,
& Menard, 1989). Respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which the following
three statements describe their parents’ past attitudes and behaviors: (a) My parents really
trusted me; (b) My parents were unhappy with many of the things I did; and (c) My parents
often found fault with me even when I didn’t deserve it. The response format ranged from
1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). The first item was reverse coded. Table 1 shows
that the items loaded on a common construct with loading of .6 or higher.
Antisocial Trait. Two instruments were used as indicators of the latent construct antisocial
trait. The first was a delinquency self-report scale adapted from the National Youth Survey
(Elliott et al., 1985, 1989). The respondents were asked to indicate how often during the pre-
72 Simons et al.
TABLE 1. Confirmatory Factor Loadings on Latent Constructs
1. Throw something at you in anger .47
2. Push, shove, grab you .81
3. Slap you with their hand .78
4. Spank you with their hand .60
5. Hit you with an object .82
6. Beat you up .71
7. My parents really trusted me .60
9. My parents were unhappy with many of the things I did .73
10. My parents often found fault with me even when I didn’t deserve it .69
11. Delinquency Scale (self-report, alpha = .77) .59
12. Substance Use Scale (self-report, alpha = .82) .78
13. Sexually Permissive Attitudes Scale (alpha = .92) .72
14. Sexually Permissive Behavior Scale (alpha = .78) .68
Belief That Loving Relationships Involve Violence
15. Envision a situation that slapping dating partner is appropriate .74
16. Slapping a dating partner may be a sign of love .66
17. I got my date drunk or stoned .92
18. I threatened to terminate the relationship .58
19. I threatened to disclose negative information to others .62
20. I said things to make him/her feel guilty .56
21. I made false promises about the relationship .72
22. I physically held my date down .67
(82) = 252.419; RMSEA = .038; CFI = .953 .
ceding year (0 = never, 4 = 6 or more times) they had engaged in each of 13 deviant acts. The
list included actions such as: beat up someone, broke into a building, took something worth
more than $25, and sold illegal drugs. Coefficient alpha for the instrument was .77.
The second measure consisted of a five-item self-report measure of substance use
developed by Elliott et al. (1985) as part of the National Survey of Delinquency and
Substance Use. Respondents were asked to report how often (1 = not at all, 5 = 4 or more
times a week) they drink alcoholic beverages during a typical month; how often (1 = never,
5 = more than once a week) they have 4 or more drinks in a single night; how often (1 =
never, 5 = 6 or more) during the past year they have been intoxicated in public; and how
often (1 = never, 5 = 6 or more) during the past year they have used illegal drugs such as
pot, methamphetamine, LSD, cocaine, or other drugs. Coefficient alpha for this instrument
was .82. Figure 1 shows that the delinquency and substance use measures loaded on a
common construct with loadings of .59 and .78, respectively.
Sexually Permissive Attitudes. T w o i n s t r u m e n t s w e r e a l s o u s e d a s i n d i c a t o r s o f t h e
latent construct sexual permissiveness. The first was the Sexually Permissive Attitudes
Dating Violence and Sexual Coercion 73
Figure 1. Fully recursive model ( n = 760) .
Note. Standardized coefficients displayed. χ
= 328.1 ( df = 184), p < .001. CFI = .962, RMSEA =
* p < .01. ** p < .001.
Scale adapted from Reiss and Lee (1988). The instrument asked respondents to report their
level of agreement (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree) with four statements: (a) Oral
sex is acceptable on a first date; (b) Oral sex is acceptable for a couple that has been casu-
ally dating for less than 1 month; (c) Intercourse is acceptable on a first date; and (d) Sexual
intercourse is acceptable for a couple that has been casually dating for less than 1 month.
Coefficient alpha for this scale was .92. The second measure consisted of a two-item scale
concerned with sexual behavior. The two items were: (a) With how many partners have you
had premarital sexual intercourse (1 = none, 5 = 6 or more) and (b) How old were you at
the age of your first experience with sexual intercourse (1 = 12 or younger, 2 = 13–14 years,
3 = 15–17 years, 4 = 18 or older, 5 = never have experienced sexual intercourse). The latter
item was reverse coded. Coefficient alpha for this two-item scale was .78. These attitude
and behavior scales loaded on a common factor with loadings of .72 and .68, respectively.
Belief That Loving Relationships Include Violence. T w o i t e m s w e r e u s e d t o a s s e s s
this construct. Respondents were asked to indicate their agreement (1 = strongly disagree;
4 = strongly agree) with the statements: (a) Getting so upset with a dating partner that
one resorts to grabbing, slapping, or shoving may be seen as a sign of love or commit-
ment and (b) I can envision certain circumstances where grabbing, shoving, or slapping
a dating partner is appropriate. The factor loadings for the two items are .66 and .74,
T a b l e 2 d i s p l a y s t h e i n c i d e n c e o f d a t i n g v i o l e n c e . A p p r o x i m a t e l y 2 0 % ( n = 1 5 2 ) o f t h e s e
males reported that they had engaged in some form of dating violence. Most of these
individuals indicated that they had threatened, pushed, or shoved a romantic partner. Only
3.6% ( n = 2 7 ) a d m i t t e d t o h a v i n g s l a p p e d , p u n c h e d , o r h i t t h e i r p a r t n e r w i t h a n o b j e c t .
Table 3 presents the frequencies of the males’ use of seven sexual coercion tactics.
Slightly more than 49% of the respondents admitted to engaging in at least one form of
sexual behavior with a date despite her wish not to participate. Thirty-four percent reported
coercing a date into oral sex or sexual intercourse. The most common form of coercion
used to obtain sexual intimacy was “trying to turn date on by touching” (32.9%), followed
74 Simons et al.
by “getting date drunk or stoned” (29.5%), “making false promises about the future of
the relationship” (14.6%), and “saying things to make date feel guilty” (12.3%). A much
smaller proportion admitted to threatening to terminate the relationship (4.5%), and even
fewer reported threatening to disclose negative or personal information about a date (2.8%)
or forcibly holding a date down (2.2%).
S E M ( A M O S 5 . 0 ; A r b u c k l e , 2 0 0 3 ) w a s u s e d t o i n v e s t i g a t e t h e c o m p e t i n g t h e o -
retical predictions. To assess goodness-of-fit, Steiger’s Root Mean Square Error of
Approximation (RMSEA; Browne & Cudeck, 1993), the comparative fit index (CFI;
Bentler, 1990), and the chi-square divided by its degrees of freedom (fit ratio) were
used. The CFI is truncated to the range of 0 to 1, and values close to 1 indicate a very
good fit (Bentler, 1990). An RMSEA smaller than .05 indicates a close fit; an RMSEA
between .05 and .08 shows a reasonable fit (Browne & Cudeck, 1993). Preliminary
analyses indicated that neither age nor family income was related to dating violence or
sexual coercion. Hence, these variables were not included in the analyses. We began our
SEM analyses by estimating the measurement model. Table 4 displays the resulting cor-
relations between the latent constructs, and Table 1 presents the factor loadings for the
observed indicators. All of the correlations between the latent constructs are statistically
TABLE 3. Frequencies for Sexual Coercion ( n = 760)
“For the following behaviors, indicate the most intimate sexual outcome of behaviors
that you initiated with a date despite his/her wish not to participate”:
Fondling Oral Sex
Got date drunk or stoned 70.5% 4.5% 4.7% 5.5% 14.9%
Threatened to terminate the
relationship 94.5% 1.0% .9% 1.3% 2.3%
Threatened to disclose
negative information 97.2% .5% .8% .9% .6%
Said things to make the
other person feel guilty 87.7% 1.5% 1.9% 3.4% 5.4%
Tried to turn date on by
touching even though he/
she wasn’t interested 67.1% 9.1% 7.0% 4.7% 12.1%
Made false promises 85.4% 2.2% 1.8% 3.3% 7.4%
Physically held my date
down 97.8% .6% .5% .1% 1.0%
Note. Percentages may not add up to 100.0 because of rounding.
TABLE 2. Frequency of Dating Violence ( n = 760)
No use of violence 80.2%
Pushed or shoved 10.1%
Punched or hit with an object 1.4%
Dating Violence and Sexual Coercion 75
TABLE 4. Correlations Among Latent Constructs
1. Abusive parenting —
2. Low trust/support 0.23* —
3. Antisocial trait 0.14* 0.39* —
4. Sexually permissive attitude 0.16* 0.28* 0.72* —
5. Violence legitimate 0.18* 0.23* 0.19* 0.17* —
6. Sexual coercion 0.12* 0.19* 0.48* 0.43* 0.20* —
7. Dating violence 0.32* 0.14* 0.16* 0.23* 0.39* 0.28*
* p < .01, two-tailed.
significant at p < . 0 1 . I n s t r u c t i v e l y , t h e bivariate correlations of abusive parenting with
dating violence and sexual coercion are .32 and .12, respectively, while the association
between low trust/support and the two victimization measures is .14 for dating violence
and .19 for sexual coercion. The correlations between the mediators range from .17 for
sexual permissiveness and violence legitimate to .72 between sexual permissiveness and
antisocial trait. Finally, the bivariate association between dating violence and sexual
coercion is .28.
As a next step, we estimated the fully recursive SEM model. The results are shown in
Figure 1. Several of the paths were near zero and had low t-values. In an effort to obtain
a more parsimonious model, paths with a t statistic of 1.0 or below were deleted, and the
model was re-estimated. The results for the reduced model are presented in Figure 2. The
difference in chi-square (χ
= 1.69, df = 4) between the reduced and fully recursive model
did not approach statistical significance ( p = .793). Thus, the reduced model appears to
provide a more parsimonious fit to the data. Importantly, the model trimming did not
modify the relative valence of the remaining paths in the model. The magnitude and
significance levels for the paths shown in Figure 2 are comparable with those obtained
in the fully recursive model. Moreover, the model fit statistics all indicate that the model
adequately fits the data. The RMSEA is .033 and the CFI is greater than .96.
T h e r e d u c e d m o d e l s h o w s p a r t i a l s u p p o r t f o r a l l o f t h e t h e o r e t i c a l p e r s p e c t i v e s
d i s c u s s e d e a r l i e r . C o n s i s t e n t w i t h S t r a u s ’ s s o c i a l l e a r n i n g a r g u m e n t , t h e f i g u r e s h o w s t h a t
abusive parenting is positively related to believing that violence is a legitimate compo-
nent of romantic relationships (γ = .12), and this belief, in turn, has a significant, positive
association with both dating violence (β = .33) and sexual coercion (β = .11). However,
in addition to abusive parenting, Figure 2 shows that low trust/support from parents is
also related to believing that violence is a legitimate component of romantic relationships
(γ = .20).
The SEM results show that abusive parenting has a direct effect on dating violence
(β = .15) in addition to its indirect effect through beliefs about violence in romantic
relationships. This direct effect is consistent with the social learning idea that harsh
physical discipline teaches a child that physical coercion is a legitimate and effective
strategy in interpersonal relationships.
E a r l i e r w e c o n t e n d e d t h a t a t t a c h m e n t t h e o r y m i g h t b e i n t e r p r e t e d a s s u g g e s t i n g t h a t
low parental trust/support would also have a direct effect on dating violence. However,
there is no significant path between these two constructs. Consonant with attachment
76 Simons et al.
theory, low trust/support from parents is associated with sexually permissive attitudes
(γ = .27; p < . 0 0 1 ) , a n d s e x u a l p e r m i s s i v e n e s s a t t i t u d e s , i n t u r n , a r e r e l a t e d t o s e x u a l
coercion (β = .16). Unexpectedly, sexually permissive attitudes are associated with dating
violence (β = .14).
The results provide mixed support for the antisocial orientation perspective. There is a
strong path from low trust/support to antisocial orientation (γ = .38), but the path from abu-
sive parenting is not significant. As expected, antisocial orientation predicts perpetration
of sexual coercion (β = .34). There is also a very strong correlation (.66) between the
residuals for antisocial orientation and sexually permissive attitudes. This suggests that a
sexually permissive attitude tends to be a component of an antisocial orientation. However,
the results also indicate that a general antisocial orientation is more strongly associated
with sexual coercion than simply possessing sexually permissive attitudes. Contrary to
the antisocial orientation perspective, however, there is no significant path from antisocial
orientation to dating violence.
Finally, it should be noted that the association between dating violence and sexual coer-
cion shown in Figure 2 is 61% smaller than the bivariate correlation between the two con-
structs reported in Table 4. At first glance, this might be seen as support for the antisocial
trait perspective’s contention that controlling for antisocial orientation will dramatically
attenuate the correlation between dating violence and sexual coercion as both phenomena
are expressions of an impulsive, self-centered lifestyle. It is not controlling for antisocial
orientation, however, that reduces the association between the two outcomes as there is no
significant relationship between antisocial orientation and dating violence. The modeling
perspective suggests that controlling for abusive parenting will significantly reduce the
relationship between dating violence and sexual coercion as both are manifestations of a
coercive approach to relationships learned in response to harsh parenting. However, con-
trolling for abusive parenting is not responsible for the reduced association between dating
violence and sexual coercion because it is not related to sexual coercion. Rather, Figure 2
Low trust /
Figure 2. Reduced structural equation model ( n = 760) .
Note. Standardized coefficients displayed. CFI = .964, RMSEA = .033. χ
= 329.8 ( df = 188),
p < .001.
* p < . 01. ** p < .001.
Dating Violence and Sexual Coercion 77
indicates that it is taking into account the effects of both sexual permissiveness and beliefs
about the legitimacy of violence in intimate relationships that diminishes the association
between dating violence and sexual coercion. The paths depicted in Figure 2 suggest that
dating violence and sexual coercion are related, in part, because they are expressions of
similar attitudes and beliefs.
With the exception of the social learning perspective, the various theories that informed
our SEM model suggest that the childhood experiences in family of origin indirectly
increase risk of perpetrating sexual coercion and dating violence by fostering a gener-
ally antisocial orientation, sexually permissive attitudes, and the belief that aggression is
legitimate in intimate relationships. In large measure, our findings support this idea. All
of the effect of low parental trust and support on sexual coercion is indirect through the
mediating variables, and this indirect effect is significant at the .01 level. Similarly, all of
the effect of abusive parenting on sexual coercion is indirect, and this indirect effect is sig-
nificant at the .01 level. Consistent with the social learning perspective, abusive parenting
has a direct effect on dating violence. However, 21% of the effect of abusive parenting on
this outcome is indirect, most of it through the belief that violence is legitimate. This indi-
rect effect is significant at the .01 level. Our results suggest that level of parental trust and
support has little impact on risk for dating violence as this parenting factor shows neither
a significant direct nor indirect effect on this outcome.
P a s t r e s e a r c h h a s e s t a b l i s h e d t h a t a s u b s t a n t i a l p r o p o r t i o n o f y o u n g w o m e n a r e t h e
victims of dating violence and sexual coercion. Studies usually treat the two events as
distinct phenomena, each requiring its own explanation. The evidence suggests, however,
that men who engage in marital rape have also engaged in physical aggression toward
their wives (Marshall & Holtzworth-Munroe, 2002). Further, several theories might be
i n t e r p r e t e d a s s u g g e s t i n g t h a t p h y s i c a l v i o l e n c e a n d s e x u a l c o e r c i o n i n d a t i n g r e l a t i o n -
ships would be correlated because of a common cause. Thus the present study investi-
gated the nature of the relationship between these types of violence toward women. Our
primary focus was the extent to which there is overlap in the factors that explain the two
phenomena. Past research suggests that exposure to abusive parenting during childhood
increases the probability of dating violence and sexual abuse. We extended this research
by investigating various avenues whereby family of origin experiences might increase a
young man’s risk for perpetrating these behaviors. Further, our selection of variables in
the present study was informed by social learning, attachment, and antisocial orientation
perspectives on aggressive behavior. The results provided at least limited support for all
of three points of view.
F i r s t , w e f o u n d s u p p o r t f o r t h e c o n t e n t i o n s o f t h e s e v a r i o u s t h e o r i e s r e g a r d i n g t h e
unintended negative consequences of harsh corporal punishment. Both assertions of the
social learning perspective were supported. Straus and Smith (1990) argue that physical
discipline teaches that there is an association between love and violence. Since children
are generally only hit by their parents, they learn that those who love them the most are
also those who hit. Further, since parents generally engage in corporal punishment out of
(ostensible) concern for the child, such discipline conveys the message that hitting those
you love is a morally acceptable expression of caring. Straus and Smith suggest that these
beliefs, in turn, increase the chances that the child will grow up to engage in violence
78 Simons et al.
toward romantic partners. Our findings corroborated this contention, as much of the effect
of harsh corporal punishment on risk for involvement in dating violence was mediated by
the belief that violence is a legitimate component of romantic relationships. In addition,
we found that Straus and Smith’s arguments also extend to sexual coercion. Harsh cor-
poral punishment indirectly increased the chances of sexual coercion through its impact
on beliefs about the legitimacy of violence in intimate relationships. This suggests that
exposure to high levels of corporal punishment during childhood fosters the perception
that aggression is a normal aspect of romantic relationships, and this belief increases the
use of aggression in response to various types of conflict with partners, including disagree-
ments about having sex.
In addition to this indirect effect through beliefs about the legitimacy of violence in
romantic relationships, we found that harsh corporal punishment also had a direct effect
on dating violence. This is consistent with the view that children who experience cor-
poral punishment often learn to use violence as a strategy for inducing behavior change
(Patterson et al., 1992; Simons et al., 1998). Corporal punishment may produce residual
feelings of anger or rejection, but it often produces at least a temporary change in behavior.
Given this fact, children who experience harsh corporal punishment might be expected to
conclude that physical violence is sometimes a necessary and effective strategy for achiev-
ing behavior change in family and intimate relationships. Consonant with this argument
and with our results, several studies have reported that harsh corporal punishment contin-
ues to be related to dating violence after controlling for a variety of potential mediators
(Segelman, Berry, & Wiles, 1984; Simons et al., 1998; Wolfe, Wekerle, Reitzel-Jaffe, &
Lefebvre, 1998; Wolfe, Wekerle, Scott, Straatman, & Grasley, 2004).
While harsh corporal punishment was directly related to dating violence, this was not
the case for sexual coercion. This is probably a function of the fact that sexual coercion can
entail a variety of deceptive ploys and pressures, many of which do not involve violence.
Although harsh corporal punishment would be expected to foster the use of aggression
to influence others, there is little reason to expect that it promotes the use of nonviolent
coercive measures. Such interpersonal strategies, however, would be consistent with the
approach of persons with a generally antisocial orientation. Our findings corroborate this
view, as we found involvement in a wide range of antisocial behaviors to be associated
sexual coercion. Further, involvement in antisocial behavior appeared to be rooted, at least
in part, in a family environment characterized by low parental trust and support. Thus
our results support the criminological perspective that poor parenting fosters a generally
antisocial orientation that includes deviant acts such as sexual coercion (Gottfredson &
Hirschi, 1990; Larragoite, 1994).
Although a general antisocial orientation predicted sexual coercion, it was not associ-
ated with dating violence. Past studies of spouse abuse indicate that severe violence is
often a component of a generally antisocial approach to life but that this is not the case
for common couple violence (Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994). The vast majority of
the dating violence reported in a college student survey is apt to be of the common couple
variety (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000). According to Johnson and Ferraro’s (2000) definition
of common couple violence, this type of behavior is infrequent, less severe than the more
extreme form of abuse known as intimate terrorism, and does not escalate over time.
Consistent with this definition, our findings indicate that common couple violence is not
usually part of an aggressive and deviant lifestyle. Holtzworth-Munroe and Stuart (1994)
find, however, that a generally antisocial orientation is characteristic of perpetrators of
Dating Violence and Sexual Coercion 79
I n a d d i t i o n t o a n t i s o c i a l o r i e n t a t i o n , o u r r e s u l t s i n d i c a t e d t h a t s e x u a l l y p e r m i s s i v e a t t i -
tudes are also associated with sexual coercion. This is consistent with findings reported
by others (Malamuth, 1998; Tyler, Hoyt, & Whitbeck, 1998) and consonant with the
assertions of attachment theory. Further and, unexpectedly, sexually permissive attitudes
were also associated with dating violence. Thus, just as believing in the legitimacy of
violence in intimate relationships turned out to be a predictor of sexual coercion and
not just dating violence, so sexually permissive attitudes was found to be a predictor of
dating violence as well as sexual coercion. Our results indicated that low parental trust
and support increases risk for developing sexually permissive attitudes. Consonant with
arguments rooted in attachment theory (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002), this pattern of findings
is consistent with the view that a troubled relationship with parents promotes a distant,
emotionally uninvolved approach to relationships where sex is considered a casual enjoy-
ment rather than as an expression of love and intimacy. It may be that this nonchalant
perspective on sex increases the chances that young men will respond with frustration and
sexual coercion when partners refuse their advances (i.e., they are baffled and become
angry when partners treat sex as such a “big deal”). Further, it is unlikely that men who
possess a promiscuous view of relationships feel much love or caring for their partners.
Rather, dating relationships are simply considered as a means to an end. It seems reason-
able that this calloused perspective might increase the risk of engaging in dating violence
when conflict occurs.
In summary, our findings provide support for the idea that sexual coercion and vio-
lence in dating relationships are rooted, at least in part, in family of origin experiences.
Troubled relationships with parents may provide lessons that increase the chances that a
boy will grow up to be aggressive toward romantic partners. These lessons include beliefs
about the acceptability of sexual permissiveness and violence in intimate relationships.
Past research has linked beliefs about the legitimacy of violence to perpetration of dating
violence, but we found that it is also associated with use of sexual coercion. Conversely,
sexual permissiveness has been shown to increase sexual coercion, but our results suggest
that it increases the chances of dating violence as well.
Although our findings point to various mechanisms whereby parental behavior may
foster a son’s involvement in aggression toward romantic partners, the study contained
several limitations that need to be acknowledged. First, our design was cross sectional, the
sample was fairly homogenous, relied on retrospective reports of childhood events, and
utilized self-report measures for all constructs. Second, we had only a single-item measure
of dating violence. Our measure of parental trust and support was also limited. It involved
only four items and did not get at the complexities and subtle features of parent–child
interaction. Third, because the survey was administered during a 1-hour class period,
we were constrained in the number of items that we could include on the survey. Time
limitations prevented us from including lengthy instruments such as the complete Conflict
Tactics Scale. While other, less severe forms of intimate partner violence are important, we
chose to focus on the more extreme forms. Fourth, we do not know the type of romantic
relationships in which the violence and sexual coercion occurred. Finally, given the stigma
associated with such actions, it is undoubtedly the case that our subjects underreported the
extent of their involvement in dating violence and sexual coercion. Because of the fact that
measurement error usually reduces the correlation found between variables, there is reason
to believe that the true impact of the explanatory variables on our study outcomes is even
stronger than our results suggest. Thus it is important that our findings be replicated with
longitudinal data that include more sophisticated assessments of parental behavior and
80 Simons et al.
dating violence. Ideally, such assessments would include multiple reporters, incorporating
victim reports of dating violence and sexual coercion.
Although our study suffered from the weaknesses described above, it also represents a
contribution in several respects. First, we investigated the impact of both dating violence
and sexual coercion, whereas most research focuses on either one or the other. Our find-
ings suggest that the two phenomena are related and that much of their association is due
to the fact that they are a product of similar factors.
S e c o n d , w e i n c l u d e d b o t h d i s t a l f a m i l y o f o r i g i n v a r i a b l e s a n d m o r e p r o x i m a l c o n s t r u c t s
involving the cognitive and behavioral characteristics of our respondents. This enabled us to
test hypotheses regarding the avenues whereby family experiences increase a young man’s
risk of violence toward women. We found that most of the effect of the parenting variables
was mediated by the cognitive and behavioral constructs included in our analyses.
T h i r d , o u r s a m p l e o f o v e r 7 0 0 r e s p o n d e n t s p r o v i d e d a l a r g e n u m b e r o f i n d i v i d u a l s
who admitted to engaging in one or both types of romantic partner violence. Studies with
smaller samples often include only a handful of perpetrators. Our large sample allowed
us to perform multivariate analyses with multiple indicators of constructs, to correct for
measurement error in most of our instruments, and to test the significance of indirect
Finally, studies of dating violence and sexual coercion usually collect data from the
victim and therefore have no information about the perpetrator. We had the advantage of
data on the perpetrator, but it undoubtedly came at the cost of less reliable assessments of
sexual coercion and dating violence. However, as noted above, measurement error associ-
ated with underreporting of these two phenomena would have the effect of reducing their
relation with other constructs. The fact that we found several significant effects is therefore
theoretically important and deserving of further investigation.
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