Sex Assault: A Crime Against the Young & Attractive?

lonely girl in a dark room
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The main factors driving sexual assaults may be the attractiveness and vulnerability of young people of both genders, rather than negative attitudes toward women, a new study suggests.

More than half of sexual assault victims in the study were under 20. The group at greatest risk of being assaulted was 15- to 19-year old females, and the most common age of all victims of rape (of both genders) was 15. Homosexual men were as likely as heterosexual men to commit sexual assault.

"The results show that sexual assault is as much a crime against young people as it is against women," said study researcher Richard Felson, a professor of criminology and sociology at Penn State University.

The researchers wrote in their study that adolescents' higher risk of sexual assaults could be explained by their attractiveness, their vulnerability, and their active social lives, which increase contact with potential offenders.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 200,000 rapes and sexual assaults happen each year. Many scholars and activists believe that sexual assaults stem from hatred of women, patriarchy or the desire to control and dominate. But the researchers say that the similarity between the rates of assaults committed by gay and straight men suggests that attitudes toward women are not likely playing a strong role in sexual assaults.

In the study, 11 percent of sexual assaults committed by males were homosexual assaults, a number that is higher than the estimations for rates of homosexuality in males.

The study was based on 300,000 sexual assaults reported to the FBI's National Incident-Based Reporting System between 2000 and 2007.

The researchers said the results revealed strong age and gender patterns.For example, the study showed that 10- to 14-year-old girls were at greater risk of rape than women in their 20s. In the study, 15-year-old girls were about nine times more likely to be raped than 35-year-old women, and 15-year-old boys were more likely to be victims than 40-year-old women.

Although criminal violence is more prevalent among young men, sexual assault was committed by men of any age. The most common age of victims of 50-year-old offenders was 15.

Older people and women rarely commit sex crimes, but when they do, they also attack young people. "What surprised me was that while women don’t commit crimes as much as men, they, too, attacked young people when they did," Felson said.

The researchers said these patterns suggest that the tendency for sexual assaults to involve male offenders and female victims reflects male sexuality rather than attitudes toward women. "Most offenders are men and most men are heterosexual,"the researchers wrote.

Scott Berkowitz, president & founder of RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization, said, "There are many motivations for any crime."

"We are talking about hundreds of thousands of different criminals, it's implausible that they all are motivated by the same thing — hatred of women," Berkowitz said. The finding that young people are at the highest risk is consistent with previous surveys, he said.

People in this age group are more likely to be in social situations such as parties, and around alcohol, which may contribute to their higher risk, he said.

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Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.