The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have released the results of a 2010 comprehensive study on the prevalence of sexual violence in the U.S. The results of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reveal an increase in the rate of such incidents; over 50 million people each year are estimated to be victims of some form of sexual or intimate partner violence. Sexual and intimate partner violence has become an epidemic, making it a major public health issue that will require preventative measures at both the public policy and community level. The study looks at the characteristics of sexual and intimate partner violence as well as the long-lasting effects of violence on the mental and physical health of the victims.
Several key findings from the survey highlight the increase in rates of sexual violence victimization among men, as well as an epidemic of abusive relationships among adolescents and young adults. Teen dating violence, intimate partner violence among young adults, is becoming a more prominent issue as young people struggle to form healthy relationships. February has been designated Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month to shed light on the growing problem.
The CDC uses expansive definitions of sexual and intimate partner violence that extend beyond rape to include other forms of sexual aggression, such as sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences. Included in their definition of Intimate Partner Violence is sexual violence generally as well as domestic violence, psychological aggression, stalking, and control of reproductive health. The rate of violence among intimate partners is explored separately, highlighting the complexity of interpersonal relationships as they relate to violence.
Women are more likely than men to be victimized by sexual and intimate partner violence. It is estimated that in 2012, 1.3 million women reported experiencing rape—53.2 million women will be raped in their lifetime—this translates to one in five women in the U.S. Among female rape victims, over half report that the perpetrator was an intimate partner, and the majority report experiencing rape in their teenage and early adult years—30% between the ages of 11 and 17 years and 37% between the ages of 18 and 24. As mentioned, these numbers reflect a growing problem among adolescents and young adults. Many of the dynamics of intimate partner violence among teens mirror abusive adult relationships, but because of the unique nature of adolescent relationships, addressing teen dating violence requires specific measures for prevention.
In regards to other forms of sexual violence the numbers remain high for female victims: one in six women are stalked, and one in four women report experiencing severe physical violence from a partner. In recent years we have learned more about stalking and how it relates to intimate partner violence—nearly three in four stalking victims know the perpetrator. The Internet has emerged as a new medium for violence; “cyberstalking” is on the rise as a serious form of intimidation and aggression. The popularity of social networking sites has made it easier for some perpetrators to harass victims; this type of online abuse is particularly prominent among young people. While “cyberstalking” may be virtual, the consequences for victims are very real. Those victimized by stalking were more likely to report both short- and long-term physical and mental trauma—post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injuries, asthma, diabetes, etc. January has been deemed Stalking Awareness Month, an effort to inform the public of this crime and hopefully prevent it.
Although the results show a high rate of victimization among women, significant numbers of men were also shown to be victims. The survey shows that 1.2 million or one in 71 men will experience rape in their lifetime—these numbers are significant when compared with previous data on sexual violence against men. Like female rape victims, over half of men reported previously knowing the perpetrator. Men are also being victimized in other ways: one in seven men reported experiencing severe physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner while one in nineteen men reported being stalked. These significant numbers warrant specific responses and interventions to address the needs of male victims.
Beyond gender, the study looks at the prevalence of sexual and intimate partner violence by race and ethnicity. Women of color in particular reported experiencing high rates of violence: one in five African-American and one in seven Latina women will experience rape in their lifetime. Among Native American women, over 26% were rape victims. Some of the highest numbers of sexual violence victimization were among those women who identify as multiracial, with over half (53.8%) experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Men of color experienced sexual violence at higher rates than white men; the highest percentages were among Latino men (26.2%) and men who identified as multiracial (31.6%).
Local statistics on sexual and intimate partner violence showed that in Illinois nearly 40% of the female population and 25% of the male population will experience some type of sexual violence in their lifetime.
Physical and mental health outcomes for victims of sexual and intimate partner violence are shown to be both long term and severe. Victims surveyed report physical outcomes such as high blood pressure, persistent headaches, asthma, and diabetes. Victims were also two to three times more likely to report having poor mental health.
In order to address widespread sexual and intimate partner violence, both prevention and intervention-based approaches are necessary. There needs to be a collective response from federal, state, and local governments to crimes of sexual violence where perpetrators are held accountable and victims are given options. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a change in the federal definition of rape, a change long overdue. The new, more accurate definition will allow for better reporting of rapes and a more appropriate response to victims seeking justice. The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), currently pending in Congress, would step further in the right direction to help victims of sexual violence. Improvements to VAWA that are contained in Senator Leahy’s bill, S.1925, would build the capacity of local communities to maintain critical victim services already in place as well as increase outreach to traditionally underserved populations. Learn more about VAWA reauthorization and the list of senators not yet signed on as co-sponsors. If your senator is not yet a co-sponsor (both senators from Illinois are), please contact your senators and ask them to sign on as a co-sponsor of S.1925, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
In addition to policy changes, there need to be changes in the way communities approach and understand sexualized violence. You can increase awareness of violence in your own community—do your part to make your voice heard.