The Zero Tolerance Trust, which surveyed 2,039 young people, found that one in five males and one in 10 females thought abuse or violence against women was acceptable in certain circumstances, for instance, if the woman had been unfaithful or nagged her partner.
Evelyn Gillan, Zero Tolerance's convener, said of the results: "Boys in particular are clueless about their own behaviour and have little sense of their own responsibilities."
The report, coupled with worries over poor behaviour and underperformance among males, provides further evidence that "the problem with boys" has now become one of the most pressing items on the educational agenda. The study was conducted in Glasgow, Fife and Manchester by the media research unit of Glasgow University and the child and woman abuse studies unit of London University.
More than half of those who took part were still at school and the younger the age group the more acceptable violence appeared to be. Thirty per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds and 27 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds thought it was all right to hit a partner if she had slept with someone else. Only 7 per cent of 19 to 21-year-olds held this attitude.
One in six males thought they might force a woman to have sex if they were married, while one in eight might force a long-term girlfriend to have sex.
The survey was carried out through questionnaires and focus groups. Young people in the groups said they wanted schools to address the problem. But they had reservations about discussing personal matters in class or even on a one-to-one basis with a teacher.
Damning comments were made about the ethos in some schools. The researchers said: "Any campaign would have to address abuses of power perpetuated in school. Some young people commented on the failure of teachers to intervene against violence and abuse. Indeed, some commented on teachers perpetuating abuse."
Final details of the young people's campaign are currently being drawn up. It will be built around slogans and advertising, but will be followed by work in schools and informal settings such as youth clubs, discos and shops. Peer education will also be used.
Jenny Kitzinger, a senior research fellow at Glasgow University who ran focus groups with 15 to 17-year-olds, said: "There is a huge potential for change. Towards the end of the focus groups you could see there was a shift in attitudes. Any work, however, would have to be in-depth and ideally would encourage males in particular to acknowledge their feelings."
She added: "There is a lot of confusion about sex. Boys at school get confused by girls who wear short skirts and say it's provocative. Girls say they have a right to dress like the Spice Girls if they want to."