This week, public health researchers published the results from a sweeping study that sought to examine the “youth perpetrators” of sexual violence. The results of their research are sobering. Among the participants, who were all between the ages of 14 and 21 years old, one in ten reported that they had perpetrated sexual violence in their lifetime. Researchers defined “sexual violence” as any type of forced sexual contact, coercive sex, attempted rape, or penetrative rape.
The research was conducted within the context of a larger study that seeks to examine the potential link between violent media and violent behavior, a topic that’s fairly controversial. Even aside from the authors’ goal to examine that type of media association, however, there are some other big takeaways about sexual assault in their findings. Here’s what the new study tells us:
1. Sexual violence takes root at a young age. This is the point that the whole study was predicated upon. While most research examines the sexual assaults that occur among adults, and often focuses on college campuses, the uncomfortable truth is that this pattern of violence actually starts much younger. According to the researchers, 16 was the most common age that participants reported first perpetrating sexual violence. A recent international study on male rapists in Southeast Asian countries also echoed this finding. Most sexual crimes recorded in that study occurred when men were between the ages of 15 and 19.
2. Victim-blaming also starts young. One of the most concerning findings in the new study is the fact that most youth don’t take responsibility for committing sexual violence. One in seven perpetrators said they were “not at all responsible for what happened.” And 50 percent said they believed the victim was actually at fault for what happened. It’s not hard to see how these attitudes manifest themselves in our broader society. Rape culture — the attitude that victims provoke the crimes perpetrated against them by wearing skimpy clothing, attending parties, walking alone at night, or drinking alcohol — is incredibly pervasive throughout the country.
3. Many adolescents use emotional manipulation to pressure their partners into sex. Many people may think of rape as something that is always accompanied by physical violence, or something that always happens in a dark alley. But that’s not actually true for many incidences of sexual violence. About 75 percent of respondents said that the last person they had perpetrated sexual violence against was a dating partner, not a stranger. And most times, that incident involved disrespecting their partner’s consent and using “coercive verbal and emotional tactics” to pressure them into sex. Sixty three percent of perpetrators said they “became angry or made the victim feel guilty” in order to convince them to engage in sex. On the surface, that may not seem like sexual violence. But it certainly is.
4. The teens who violate other people’s consent are getting away with it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, just two of the study’s participants reported ever being involved with the criminal justice system after committing a sexual crime. The vast majority never faced any consequences for their actions. That’s true for U.S. adults, too. 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, only about three percent of U.S. rapists end up serving jail time. The lack of punishments for sexual violence ultimately helps feed into rape culture — because if sexual violence doesn’t come with any consequences, it must not be that big of a deal, right?
5. We need more education efforts to prevent American youth from growing up with these attitudes about sexuality. The researchers ultimately conclude that there’s an “urgent need for school programs that encourage bystander intervention as well as implementation of policies that could enhance the likelihood that perpetrators are identified.” Bystander intervention programs, which are gaining ground as a tool to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, teach participants how to discourage negative behavior among their peers as well as how to stop before they engage in that type of behavior themselves. Experts also believe that comprehensive sex ed could go a long way in this area. Teaching young children about their bodies, including how to accurately identify their genitalia, helps instill a sense of self-confidence and ownership in them. Then, they’re more likely to understand and respect the lines of consent — and they’ll perhaps be more willing to speak up when someone tries to violate theirs.
One of the issues with sexual violence is that it still remains largely taboo in American society. Another recent study found that even though the majority of Americans know someone who has been the victim of some type of intimate partner violence, most of them don’t actually talk about the topic. And when victims do speak up about their experiences, they’re often shamed or ostracized — if they’re even taken seriously at all. This issue could be exacerbated among U.S. teens, since society’s abstinence-based approach to teen sexuality tends to shy away from recognizing that youth are having any type of sexual activity whatsoever.