One in 10 Young People Have Committed Sexual Violence

A recently published study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that nearly one in 10 youths self-reported that they had been a perpetrator of sexual violence in their lifetime. Researchers collected data from 1058 youths, 14 to 21. The data was collected online in 2010 and 2011 and recruitment of participants was balanced based on youths’ biological sex and age.

The results are stunning: 8% of participants reported they had kissed, touched or "made someone else do something sexual" when they "knew the person did not want to." Disturbingly, 32% argued or pressured another person into sex; 63% guilted them into it; 5% of the perpetrators threatened physical force; and 8% actually used it.

Male adolescents were found to begin perpetrating acts of sexual violence at younger ages than their female peers (98% of study participants who reported perpetrating sexual violence prior to age 15 were male), but by age 18 or 19 both sexes were almost equally represented as perpetrators: 52% were male and 48% were female. However, males were found to be more likely to coerce or force others into sex (i.e. commit rape) than their female peers. Of the 1participants, 10 adolescent females and 39 adolescent males admitted to attempting to or completing rape. 80% of the victims were girls, 18% were boys, and 5% were transgender. In every case the perpetrator knew the victim and 3 out of 4 (or 75%) explicitly targeted a boyfriend or a girlfriend.

Additionally, only 11% of those who were caught "got in trouble with their parents." In 66% of the cases "no one found out" about the incident and, thus, no punishment was served. And, the lack of punishment had consequences on the perpetrators’ view of where responsibility for the incident laid: 50% of the perpetrators believed the victim of the assault was "completely" responsible for what occurred.

In a similar study of male students at a mid-sized, urban commuter university the actions of 120 of the male students surveyed met the criteria for rape or attempted rape. And, of the 120 students 63.3% committed rape more than once because they were never held accountable for their actions. Without consequences, repeat offenses become more commonplace and responsibility is shunned. 

An important aspect of the JAMA Pediatrics study is the years during which the research was conducted: 2010 and 2011. In 2010, Congress eliminated two federal programs that funded abstinence-only sex education in schools: the Adolescent Family Life Act or AFLA (established in 1981) and the Community Based Abstinence Education program or CBAE (established in 2000) . And, by 2009, only half of the states in the U.S. continued to accept Title V federal funding (also known as Title V Maternal and Child Health Program), which requires the public education system of any state that accepts Title V funding to teach restrictive abstinence-til-marriage sexual education.

Given the ages of the study’s participants it is likely that the majority of the youth surveyed either participated in an abstinence-only sexual education program or did not receive any formal sexual education whatsoever due to the restrictions of Title V, AFLA, and CBAE.

While federally funded abstinence-only sexual education programs require youth be taught to resist and reject sexual advances, the programs do not teach youth about the importance of obtaining consent from potential sexual partners, respecting the boundaries of others, what acts constitute sexual violence, or the consequences of perpetrating sexual violence. The idea here is: why should we teach youth the importance of obtaining consent or the consequences of perpetrating sexual violence if they should not be engaging in sexual activity until marriage anyway?

Fortunately, the tides have begun to turn in favor of providing youth with fact based, comprehensive sexual education. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced S.372 or the "Real Education for Healthy Youth Act of 2013,"which, if passed, will require the Secretary of Health and Human Services "to award competitive grants to enable eligible entities to carry out programs that provide adolescents with comprehensive sex education to: (1) replicate evidence-based sex education programs, (2) substantially incorporate elements of evidence-based sex education programs, or (3) create a demonstration project based on generally accepted characteristics of effective sex education programs."

While the bill does not explicitly require grant recipients to include sexual violence prevention strategies in their programs, it does open the door for them to be incorporated. If we want to provide youth with the best chance of protecting their sexual health and instill in them a sense of responsibility towards the sexual well-being of others, then a comprehensive sexual education program should incorporate information on the importance of obtaining consent before initiating sexual contact (and continuing to obtain consent during consensual sexual activity), what acts constitute sexual violence, the consequences of perpetrating rape and sexual assault, bystander intervention tactics, risk-reduction strategies, and information on survivor resources.

Given the results of the study and the epidemic of sexual violence occurring on college campuses it is urgent that we begin to combat rape and sexual assault before college freshman orientation. By providing comprehensive sexual education programs in the K-12 educational sphere that include topics such as sexual violence prevention and the consequences of committing sexual assault we will better prepare youth and young adults to have healthy, respectful, violence-free sexual relationships.