In a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, nearly 1 in 10 youths in the United States reported committing an act of sexual violence.
As part of a larger Growing Up With Media study on media consumption and exposure, the researchers surveyed 1,058 girls and boys ages 14 to 21 about their experience as perpetrators of sexual violence and their exposure to violent sexual media.
Rather than ask participants if they had ever raped or sexually assaulted anyone, the researchers asked more nuanced questions, including if they had tried to make someone have sex with them when they knew the other person didn’t want to, and if they had succeeded at doing so.
The participants were also asked if they had kissed, touched, or done anything sexual with an unwilling partner. Among the findings:
- 9 percent of youths surveyed reported some type of sexual violence perpetration in their lifetime;
- 8 percent kissed, touched, or made someone else do something sexual when they knew the other person did not want to (ie, forced sexual contact);
- 3 percent got someone to give into sex when he or she knew the other person did not want to have sex (hereafter referred to as coercive sex);
- 3 percent attempted – but were not able – to force someone to have sex (ie, attempted rape);
- 2 percent forced someone to have sex with him or her (ie, completed rape).
- About 3 in 4 victims were a romantic partner.
There was a good amount of overlap: 12 percent reported two different behaviors, 11 percent reported three, and 9 percent reported all four types.
When asked about the most recent time they tried to force or were able to force someone to have sex, tactics were mostly coercive. Arguing or pressuring the person (32 percent) or getting angry or making the person feel guilty (63 percent), were more commonly used than threats (5 percent) or physical force (8 percent). Alcohol was a factor in 15 percent of these situations.
It’s important to keep in mind that survey research like this — even when conducted via the internet — may underestimate true rates of actions like sexual assault, because perpetrators are motivated to avoid reporting their own crimes.
The authors note this as a limitation, adding, “Nonetheless, rates are much higher than the lifetime rate of 0.15% yielded in a national study of adults that was conducted face to face.”
Perpetrators & Victims
Women were much more likely to be the victim of an attempted or completed rape; perpetrators reported that about 80 percent of victims were female. The researchers also found that about 5 percent of victims were transgender.
White youths were more likely than nonwhite youths to report perpetrating coercive sex, and youths living in higher-income households were more likely to report attempted rape.
Perpetrators of any type of sexual violence were significantly more likely to have consumed any type of X-rated material, especially violent materials.
The authors note that while media consumption and violence could not be causally linked by their study, “it seems appropriate to suggest that frequent consumption of sexual and violent material and especially sexually violent material should be a marker for concern for adolescent health care professionals.”
Looking at the gender of assailants, researchers found that boys and young men accounted for almost all rapes and attempted rapes committed before age 18. The study notes that 98 percent of perpetrators whose first act occurred at ages 8 to 15 were male, as were 90 percent of perpetrators involved in an assault at ages 16-17.
Among 18- and 19-year-olds, women accounted for slightly more than half (52 percent) of attempted/completed rape perpetrators (seven women out of 13 total). The authors note that their broad definitions may result in finding an unexpectedly high amount of female perpetrators. They add, however, that it’s important to challenge the widespread notion that women cannot coerce men.
Some may argue that the definitions of rape and sexual assault in our investigation are too broad. Indeed, this may be why the perpetration rate among females is higher than might be posited. Rape includes acts beyond those in which the victim is physically overpowered, however. Restrictive definitions have potentially led to undercounting of sexual assault experiences.
For example, in the National Violence Against Women Survey, respondents were asked whether anyone had ever made them engage in a sexual activity “by using force or threat of force.” Psychological coercion was not clearly specified even though there are multiple coercive strategies other than physical force that can be used in a rape. To ensure that comprehensive rates of sexual assault and rape are identified as well as to begin building the research base on female perpetrators, research needs to include a fuller spectrum of rape scenarios.
Few Criminal Consequences
The findings on attitudes and punishment are chilling.
“Sixty-six percent of perpetrators reported that no one found out about the perpetration. Contact with the justice system was uncommon: 1% of perpetrators reported police contact and 1% an arrest,” note the authors.
They also found that half of perpetrators said that the victim was completely responsible for the incident. Only 1 in 3 said that they, the perpetrator, were completely responsible for the incident.
The authors recommend that more effort should be made on education that avoids victim blaming and emphasizes perpetrators taking responsibility for their own actions. They also suggest further research on factors related to taking responsibility, such as motivations behind the sexual violence and feelings of remorse or regret.
Incidents like this recent one in Maryville, Mo., in which a family moved due to harassment after the daughter was sexually assaulted, highlight the cruelty of victim-blaming and the need for prevention programs that put responsibility on the assailant.
The authors also commend bystander intervention programs, but note that most of that research has been done at the college level, and more work is needed at the high school level.
Plus: To learn more about consent, including essential rules, ways to talk about it, and examples of the enthusiastic consent model, check out Scarleteen’s Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent.