United Nations researchers just published a sweeping study on the roots of sexual violence, spanning six countries and two years. The survey, which they say represents the world’s largest scientific project into the subject so far, aimed to investigate the “under-researched” area of male-perpetrated rape. On average, about one in four men included in the study said they had raped someone at some point in their lives. One in ten had raped someone who wasn’t their romantic partner.
The UN study surveyed over 10,000 men from Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. The researchers caution that some regional attitudes about sexuality in Southeastern Asia may contribute to the results that they gathered across those six countries. Still, though, there are some big takeaways from their findings. Here’s what the new research can tell us about the landscape of sexual violence as a whole:
Many people have the wrong idea about what “rape” actually is. The researchers intentionally didn’t use the word “rape” in any of their questionnaires about Asian men’s sexual histories. Instead, they asked men whether they had ever “forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex,” or if they had ever “had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it.” That likely helped researchers gather more accurate information about the nonconsensual sexual acts that men had engaged in. Since many people don’t learn the lines of consent, many sexually active adults may not understand when they’re violating someone else — and they may not believe they have actually raped someone. “Rape doesn’t just involve someone with a gun to a woman’s head,” Michele Decker, a public health professor who co-wrote the commentary that accompanied the new study, pointed out to CBS News. “People tend to think of rape as something someone else would do.”
Rape occurs within marriages, too. Along those lines, many people think about rape as something that occurs between strangers, when women are accosted by criminals in dark alleyways. But that’s not the reality of sexual assault. The UN survey found that rape between married partners was more prevalent than rape among people who were not in a romantic relationship. Studies conducted within the United States have revealed similar results about the prevalence of intimate partner violence in this country. When it comes to educating people about sexual assault, it’s important to emphasize that consent never carries over — that is, even when it comes to spouses who have had consensual sex many times before, neither of them have consented to every instance of sexual contact their partner may demand in the future.
Repeat offenses are very high among rapists. Nearly half of the respondents who said they had raped at least once went on to rape multiple victims. Nearly 23 percent said they had raped two to three people, 12 percent say they had raped four to ten people, and about 4 percent said they had raped more than ten people. Here in the United States, some research has drawn similar conclusions about repeat rapists at the college level. A Harvard University study found that the young men who commit a rape in college are likely to become serial offenders — and many of them do, since lenient sexual assault policies on college campuses often allow them to evade punishment.
Unhealthy attitudes about sexuality take root at a young age. More than half of the study’s respondents who admitted they had violated someone’s consent were teenagers when they first raped someone. Most sexual crimes recorded in the study occurred when men were between the ages of 15 and 19. The authors point out this finding “reinforces the need for early rape prevention.” Sexual violence prevention advocates in the U.S. say that this type of education can begin with comprehensive sex ed. Teaching kids about the bodies from an early age helps instill a sense of self-confidence and ownership in them. Then, they’re more likely to avoid violating another person’s consent, or be more willing to speak up when someone tries to violate theirs.
Men rape because they have been taught that they have a right to claim women’s bodies. One of the fundamental concepts at the heart of “rape culture” is the idea that rape is inevitable, men can’t help themselves, and women must therefore work to protect themselves against it. Within the context of rape culture, the idea that men are entitled to sexual experiences is deeply entrenched. The UN researchers found that this attitude is pervasive among the rapists they surveyed. Among the men who acknowledged they had sexually assaulted someone else, more than 70 percent of them said they did it because of “sexual entitlement.” Forty percent said they were angry or wanted to punish the woman. About half of the men said they did not feel guilty.
Rape typically goes unpunished in Southeast Asia. Just 23 percent of the men who said they had raped someone had actually been imprisoned for their crimes. That trend holds true outside of the Southeast Asian countries that were included in the study. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that, after factoring in the extremely high number of rape cases that go unreported to the police, about three percent of U.S. rapists end up serving jail time. This has been a particularly contentious issue on college campuses lately, where many rapists receive extremely light punishments, like being assigned essays and placed on social probation, instead of being expelled.
“It’s clear violence against women is far more widespread in the general population than we thought,” Rachel Jewkes, a member of South Africa’s Medical Research Council and the leader of the new study, said in a statement about her results. Previous research that Jewkes also oversaw found that one in three women worldwide has experienced some type of intimate partner violence, prompting the World Heath Organization to declare it an “epidemic” global health problem.
Jewkes and her fellow researchers hope that their new study — one of the first to focus on male perpetrators of sexual assault, rather than female victims — will help encourage concrete policy changes to reverse some of the dynamics that contribute to rape culture. “Prevention of rape is essential,” they conclude. “Interventions must focus on childhood and adolescence, and address culturally rooted male gender socialization and power relations, abuse in childhood, and poverty.”