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4.8: Sexual Violence

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  • Sexual Violence (SV) refers to sexual activity where consent is not obtained or freely given. Anyone can experience SV, but most victims are female. The person responsible for the violence is typically male and is usually someone known to the victim. The person can be, but is not limited to, a friend, coworker, neighbor, or family member.

    There are many types of SV. Not all include physical contact between the victim and the perpetrator (person who harms someone else) – for example, sexual harassment, threats, and peeping. Other SV, including unwanted touching and rape, includes physical contact.

    SV can impact health in many ways. Some ways are serious and can lead to long-term health problems. These include chronic pain, headaches, stomach problems, and sexually transmitted diseases.

    SV can have an emotional impact as well. Victims often are fearful and anxious. They may replay the attack over and over in their minds. They may have problems with trust and be wary of becoming involved with others. The anger and stress that victims feel may lead to eating disorders and depression. Some even think about or attempt suicide.

    SV is also linked to negative health behaviors. For example, victims are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, use drugs, and engage in risky sexual activity.

    Why is sexual violence a public health problem?

    SV is a significant problem in the United States:

    • Among high school students surveyed nationwide, about 8% reported having been forced to have sex. The percentage of those having been forced to ever have sex was higher among female (11%) than male (5%) students.
    • An estimated 20% to 25% of college women in the United States have experienced an attempted or complete rape during their college career
    • Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives.

    These numbers underestimate the problem. Many cases are not reported because victims are afraid to tell the police, friends, or family about the abuse. Victims also think that their stories of abuse will not be believed and that police cannot help them. They may be ashamed or embarrassed. Victims may also keep quiet because they have been threatened with further harm if they tell anyone.

    Certain factors can increase the risk for SV. However, the presence of these factors does not mean that SV will occur.

    Risk factors for perpetration (harm to someone else):

    • Being male
    • Having friends that are sexually aggressive
    • Witnessing or experiencing violence as a child
    • Alcohol or drug use
    • Being exposed to social norms, or shared beliefs, that support sexual violence.

    It is important to understand what factors protect people or put them at risk for experiencing or perpetrating violence. Why are risk and protective factors useful? They help identify where prevention efforts need to be focused.

    Risk factors do not cause violence. The presence of a risk factor does not mean that a person will always experience violence. Victims are never responsible for the harm inflicted upon them.

    • Risk Factor - Characteristic that increases the likelihood of a person becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence.
    • Protective Factor - Characteristic that decreases the likelihood of a person becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence because it provides a buffer against risk.

    How can we prevent sexual violence?

    The ultimate goal is to stop SV before it begins. Efforts at many levels are needed to accomplish this. Some examples include:

    • Engaging high school students in mentoring programs or other skill-based activities that address healthy sexuality and dating relationships.
    • Helping parents identify and address violent attitudes and behaviors in their kids.
    • Creating policies at work, at school, and in other places that address sexual harassment.
    • Developing mass media (e.g., radio, TV, magazines, newspapers) messages that promote norms, or shared beliefs, about healthy sexual relationships.

    Sexual Violence: Risk and Protective Factors

    Risk factors are associated with a greater likelihood of sexual violence (SV) perpetration. They are contributing factors and may or may not be direct causes. Not everyone who is identified as "at risk" becomes a perpetrator of violence.

    A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of becoming a perpetrator of SV. Understanding these multilevel factors can help identify various opportunities for prevention.

    Risk Factors for Perpetration

    Individual Risk Factors

    • Alcohol and drug use
    • Coercive sexual fantasies
    • Impulsive and antisocial tendencies
    • Preference for impersonal sex
    • Hostility towards women
    • Hypermasculinity
    • Childhood history of sexual and physical abuse
    • Witnessed family violence as a child

    Relationship Factors

    • Association with sexually aggressive and delinquent peers
    • Family environment characterized by physical violence and few resources
    • Strong patriarchal relationship or familial environment
    • Emotionally unsupportive familial environment

    Community Factors

    • Lack of employment opportunities
    • Lack of institutional support from police and judicial system
    • General tolerance of sexual violence within the community
    • Weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators

    Societal Factors

    • Poverty
    • Societal norms that support sexual violence
    • Societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement
    • Societal norms that maintain women's inferiority and sexual submissiveness
    • Weak laws and policies related to gender equity
    • High tolerance levels of crime and other forms of violence

    Sexual Violence: Prevention Strategies

    Sexual violence is a serious problem that can have lasting, harmful effects on victims and their family, friends, and communities. The goal of sexual violence prevention is simple-to stop it from happening in the first place. However, the solutions are just as complex as the problem.

    Prevention efforts should ultimately decrease the number of individuals who perpetrate sexual violence and the number of individuals who are sexual violence victims. Many prevention approaches aim to reduce risk factors and promote protective factors for sexual violence. In addition, comprehensive prevention strategies should address factors at each of the levels that influence sexual violence -the individual, relationship, community, and society.

    The most common prevention strategies currently focus on the victim, the perpetrator, or bystanders.

    • Strategies that aim to equip the victim with knowledge, awareness, or self-defense skills are referred to as risk reduction techniques.
    • Strategies targeting the perpetrator attempt to change risk and protective factors for sexual violence in order to reduce the likelihood that an individual will engage in sexually violent behavior.
    • The goal of bystander prevention strategies is to change social norms supporting sexual violence and empower men and women to intervene with peers to prevent an assault from occurring.
    • Other prevention strategies may target social norms, policies, or laws in communities to reduce the perpetration of sexual violence across the population.

    Effective and Promising Programs

    Unfortunately, little is known about what works to prevent sexual violence. To date, only one prevention program, Safe Dates, has been shown in a randomized controlled trial to prevent or interrupt sexual violence perpetration. Other programs are accumulating evidence for effectiveness and are moving towards or are currently conducting rigorous evaluations. Until more is known about what works and for whom, program planners can use prevention principles to strengthen their approach and evaluation to determine the effectiveness of new or existing programs.