How Common Is Sexual Violence?
Some speak as though sexual violence is a rarity, overhyped by sensationalist news stories and prejudiced notions of male sexuality. Others assert that we are immersed in a misogynist rape culture that invites men to engage in relentless sexual persecution of women.
When faced with such extreme discrepancies in opinion, it is often valuable to look to research to clarify. However, statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence are quite varied. Thus, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) can claim that a negligible number of women are raped, while their interlocutors could cite studies showing that two thirds of women experience serious sexual violence at some point in their lives. Although few would disagree that rape, child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence should be prevented, such strategic use of research can skew the perceived urgency of the issue. MRAs pronounce that we are criminalizing male sexuality and blindly accepting false accusations of rape. Feminists argue for urgent, sweeping cultural and legal changes to impede the persistent and commonplace acts of violence against women (and, less commonly, men).
Efforts to determine rates of sexual violence are relatively new, but have proliferated since the 1990s. Today, enough studies exist that results can be compiled to yield overarching, aggregate data in the form of meta-analyses or systematic reviews. This allows for a somewhat broader and more stable estimate of sexual assault prevalence across different populations. However, despite a wealth of data, inconsistent results continue to muddy the issue.
One major cause of incongruity in the research is that sexual violence can be defined differently from study to study. If a researcher defines sexual violence as any unwanted sexual contact, it is likely that more participants will endorse experiences of sexual victimization. Alternatively, if a study only asks participants if they have been raped or experienced forced penetration, numbers will likely go down. The political leanings of researchers can influence results before the questions are even asked. Is all unwanted sexual contact violent – or does this line of questioning vilify normative (albeit awkward) attempts at intimacy? Is it only violence if there is penetration or if the victim feels she has been raped – or do we, as a culture, fail to recognize and respond to sexual aggression in all of its forms?
Another complicating variable in sexual violence research is the source of the data. Many prevalence statistics are derived from criminal justice institutions, such as the FBI or Bureau of Justice Statistics in the United States or the RCMP in Canada. The problem with these sources is that rape and other forms of sexual violence are notoriously underreported crimes (approximately 68% of sexual crimes in the U.S. are never reported to the police). With this in mind, it is difficult to put much faith in statistics drawn from police reports or criminal proceedings. Alarmingly, even self-reports of sexual violence can be minimized, as many study participants seem reluctant to label experiences “sexual abuse” or “sexual assault”, even though their description of the event seems an obvious instance of victimization to the external observer.
Furthermore, the sample population used in many academic studies is not always representative of everyone’s experiences. Out of convenience, many researchers use university students as test subjects. This practice has the unfortunate result of excluding many, if not most, of the world’s population (less than 7% of people worldwide hold a post-secondary degree).
Some good work is being done to overcome these limitations and derive more accurate and inclusive data on prevalence. One such innovation is the development of standardized questionnaires that ask participants about sexual experiences in behavioural terms. For example, the Sexual Experiences Survey, developed by Dr. Mary Koss (et al.), asks the respondent specific questions about non-consensual sexual experiences without using words like “rape” or “sexual assault”. Instead, questions are related to behaviours, such as, “A man put his penis into my vagina, or someone inserted fingers or objects without my consent by [t]hreatening to physically harm me or someone close to me.” Each question in the SES focuses on a different kind of sexual behaviour, from non-contact, to attempted sexual assault, to forced oral, anal or vaginal sex. Sub-questions for each category ask the respondent about how the offender forced the behaviour – from verbal pressure, to intoxication, to threats of or actual violence. Such explicit and clear questions make it difficult to debate whether or not a person is accurately reporting an experience of sexual victimization. It also allows study participants to acknowledge a non-consensual sexual experience without using terms like “rape” or “sexual assault” or facing the potential shame, repercussions or roadblocks that can come with reporting to the police.
Some of the questions on the SES relate to the use of verbal, rather than physical, coercion. The study authors clearly state that these verbal acts of coercion are not always regarded as crimes. Nevertheless, they view any forced or coerced sexual activity as within the “sexual assault spectrum”. For the most part, this approach makes sense – insults, dishonesty and threats of social repercussions are coercive, cruel behaviours and cannot be considered part of healthy, consensual intimacy. The only questionable items on the SES ask about attempted (i.e., not completed) sexual coercion via the expression of “displeasure”. Most of us are likely to express some kind of displeasure after being sexually rejected without necessarily becoming coercive. It is unclear whether or not responses to these questions are categorized as sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in prevalence studies.
Researchers have now begun to look beyond North American college campuses to investigate the prevalence of sexual violence in more diverse populations. Enough of these broader studies have been published to allow for systematic reviews of sexual assault prevalence amongst visible minorities, homeless youth and other under-researched populations. Systematic reviews of worldwide sexual violence rates have also emerged. Unfortunately, these studies still suffer from some limitations, such as the use of non-standardized measures of sexual assault. International data is limited by the fact that the definition of sexual violence varies from country to country; for example, some countries do not legally acknowledge that a woman can be sexually assaulted by her intimate partner. Some governments have even refused to participate in any assessment of sexual violence rates.
Massive meta-analyses and systematic reviews compiling responses of tens of thousands of participants demonstrate that sexual violence is not at all a rare phenomenon. Larger (although less diverse) reviews show that approximately 13% of women have been raped (that is, had their vagina penetrated by a penis through the use or threat of force). Close to a quarter of women describe experiences of sexual coercion, assault or unwanted contact. In many cases, experiences of sexual violence occur in childhood. Between 8 and 31% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.
In international studies, prevalence rates appear to vary, although they typically remain in the high teens for women. Sub-Sarharan Africa showed the highest estimates of nonpartner sexual violence (17-21%), while southern Asia showed the lowest (3.3%). Rates of victimization also appear to be higher amongst visible minorities, homeless youth and economically disadvantaged populations. In Canada, Aboriginal women generally experience more frequent and more severe forms of victimization.
Although rates of victimization amongst men have been studied far less extensively, some reliable data suggests that between 3 and 7% of males experience some form of sexual victimization in their lifetime. Bisexual and homosexual men appear to be victimized more often than heterosexual men.
The outcry that sexual violence has been overestimated to advance a political agenda does not fit with the overwhelming body of evidence. Some might argue that false allegations of sexual assault have skewed the statistics, yet it seems absurd for someone to invent experiences of sexual violence on an anonymous self-report survey that has no bearing on the alleged perpetrator. Prevalence rates demonstrated in these studies constitute a major, worldwide public health concern for both women and men.
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