Nearly one in 10 young people report being a perpetrator of sexual violence — either coercing or forcing some type of sexual contact upon another, according to a new national study that suggests a connection between such behavior and being exposed to violent X-rated material.
The research, published online Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, is based on data from 1,058 young people ages 14-21 collected in 2010 and 2011 by the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, a non-profit organization based in San Clemente, Calif. About half the participants, 53%, were ages 18-21, and 47% were ages 14-17.
"Sexual violence can be perpetrated by anybody – a dating partner, a friend or somebody you don't know," says Michele Ybarra, the center's president and director of research. "We asked perpetrators about their relationship with their most recent victims, and one in four said it was not a dating partner."
Ybarra says this study is important because most research about sexual violence has focused only on dating partners and on college-age individuals who don't require parental consent. Participants in this research are part of the center's ongoing Growing up with Media study, which began in 2006. The study notes that it's "one of the first reports of national rates of sexual violence in adolescence." It says "findings should be interpreted cautiously" and urges that they be replicated.
Still, Ybarra says the results reflect a "concerning number."
"To recognize that almost one in 10 young people by age 21 have perpetrated some sort of sexual violence is significant, and it's a call to action to do more — more in the schools, more in the family," she says.
Among the findings:
• 9% of participants reported perpetrating some type of sexual violence.
• 8% kissed, touched or made someone else do something sexual knowing the other person didn't want to.
• 3% got someone to have sex when they knew the other person didn't want to.
• 3% attempted forced sex (attempted rape).
• 2% forced someone to have sex (completed rape).
Although the survey offers a more in-depth set of questions, federal data compiled every two years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of its National Youth Risk Behavior Survey reflect similar findings. The CDC report, released in 2011 and compiled in the same time period as the new study, is based on responses from U.S. students in grades 9-12 from public and private high schools.
Of the 15,425 teens, 9.4% say they've been "hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend during the 12 months before the survey." That breaks down to 9.3% of girls and 9.5% of boys. In addition, the survey found that nationwide, 8% of high school students have been "physically forced to have sex when they did not want to." That statistic includes 11.8% of girls and 4.5% of boys.
The CDC's longitudinal data from that survey show that dating violence has remained in the 9% range since 1999.
And that 9% figure is reflected in another survey about dating violence and sexual assault conducted online last December and released in March. The survey, commissioned by the AVON Foundation for Women, asked 750 young people, ages 15-22, whether they were a victim of sexual assault -- defined in the survey as a sexual act without consent.
Ybarra's data suggest a relationship between the reported perpetrators and how much contact they've had with violent and X-rated material. Of the 9% who reported being perpetrators compared with the rest who weren't, Ybarra says 17% of the perpetrators had looked at violent or X-rated material in the past year, compared with 3% of the non-perpetrators.
Regarding age, Ybarra's survey found the most common age for someone to first coerce or force sex was 16; males were overwhelmingly more likely to have their first episode at 15 or younger.