9% of Young People Admit to Sexual Violence

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Nearly 1 in 10 U.S. teens and young adults say they have forced or coerced another person to perform sexual acts, such as kissing, sexual touching or intercourse, a new study suggest.

In the study, which surveyed 1,058 people ages 14 to 21, 9 percent reported they had perpetrated sexual violence — a broad term that refers to acts ranging from sexual harassment to rape.

Eight percent said they had "kissed, touched or made someone else do something sexual knowing the other person did not want to," the researchers said. Three percent admitted to coercive sex — or getting someone to have sex when he or she does not want to — and 2 percent forced someone to have sex. Another 3 percent attempted rape, but were not able to force the other person to have sex. [4 Ways Women Can Protect Themselves from Predators]

Most perpetrators of attempted or completed rape used coercive tactics, such as arguing, pressuring, or making someone feel guilty rather than physical force.

Most crimes went unreported to authorities: Just 1 percent of perpetrators reported contact with the police, and 1 percent reported arrest. About two-thirds (66 percent) said that no one found out about the act, and they did not get into trouble.

About half of the perpetrators said the victim was responsible for the sexual violence.

"Because victim blaming appears to be common while perpetrators experiencing consequences is not, there is urgent need for high school (and middle school) programs aimed at supporting bystander intervention," the researchers said, referring to programs that encourage community members to intervene before, during or after an assault to prevent future assaults.

Male and female difference

Among perpetrators of any sexual violence, 58 percent were male, as were 89 percent of those who attempted rape, 68 percent of those who completed rape, and 75 percent of those who committed coercive sex.

On average, perpetrators were 16 when they committed their first act of attempted or completed rape. Those who committed their first act when they were 15 or younger were nearly all male. But by age 18 or 19, the percentage of male and female perpetrators of attempted and completed rape was nearly equal, the researchers said.

Females tended to report victimizing older individuals, while males reported victimizing younger individuals.

Females were also more likely act in groups when they attempted or committed rape. Two out of 10 female perpetrators said they acted in a group compared to 1 out of 39 male perpetrators.

The researchers note that gender biases can make it hard to study sexual violence in which women victimize men.

"It is not uncommon to believe that a man cannot be raped by a woman," the researchers write. However, "physiological data suggest that men can be raped; an erection does not necessarily mean sexual arousal and can be reflexogenic.

Another study published last month found that about 25 percent of men in Asia and the Pacific said they had committed rape at least once in their lives.

Future work

Perpetrators in the new study were also more likely to report being exposed to violent X-rated media.

While the study cannot tease out cause-and-effect "links between perpetration and violent sexual media are apparent, suggesting a need to monitor adolescents’ consumption of this material," the researchers said.

Because people may be reluctant to identify themselves as sexual perpetrators in a survey, the study may underestimate the prevalence of sexual violence in teens and young adults, the researchers said. Future studies are needed to confirm the results.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif., and the University of New Hampshire is published in today's (Oct. 7) issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.