Nearly one in ten young Americans has committed an act of sexual violence, a new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics reports. Of the 1,058 teenagers and young adults, ages 14 to 21, who participated in the online study, 8 percent reported that they had kissed, touched, or “made someone else do something sexual” when they “knew the person did not want to.” Three percent of teens verbally coerced a victim into sex; 3 percent attempted to physically force them into sex; 2 percent perpetrated a completed rape.
It’s long been apparent that teenagers face an elevated risk for sexual abuse. One 1998 study found that 12 percent of high school girls and 5 percent of boys have been sexually abused; a 1997 study found that girls ages 16 to 19 are “four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.” But this new report sheds light on the demographics, tactics, and attitudes of young sex offenders. One finding in particular stands out: The prototypical teen sexual abuser is a white male from a higher-income family.
Here’s what else the study found:
Demographics: Most perpetrators committed their first act of sexual violence at age 16. Boys are more likely to coerce or force others into sex than girls are (though girls offend, too). White kids and higher-income kids are slightly more likely to rape than their peers. Eighty percent of victims were girls; 18 percent were boys; 5 percent were transgender.
Pornography use: Teens who had watched porn were more likely to be perpetrators, but the discrepancy was “almost entirely explained by whether the material was violent in nature.” Teens who had seen non-violent pornography were equally likely to have committed sexual violence as teens who had seen none, but those who had watched material that “depicted one person hurting another person while doing something sexual” were more likely to be offenders (the study doesn’t address causality).
Relationships: In every case, the victim was known to the perpetrator. Fifty-two percent met their victim at school. Three out of four perpetrators targeted a “boyfriend or girlfriend.” Two percent met online.
Tactics: Thirty-two percent of perpetrators argued or pressured another person into sex; 63 percent guilted them into it; 5 percent threatened physical force, and 8 percent used it. Fifteen percent employed alcohol.
Consequences: In 66 percent of cases, “no one found out” about the incident, and the perpetrator faced no consequences. Twenty-nine percent of perpetrators were found out, but were not punished. Eleven percent “got in trouble with their parents.” Just 2 percent—one perpetrator found by the study—was arrested. Seven percent of offenders said they felt “not at all responsible” for the sexual violence; 35 percent felt “completely” responsible; 48 percent felt “somewhat” responsible. Fifty percent felt that their victim was “completely” responsible. (Yes, the overlap confuses us as well.)
The study challenges several popular assumptions about teen sexual violence. Girls can be abusers, and boys can be victims. The study’s authors suggest that in light of the findings on race and income, healthcare professionals “assess and perhaps challenge our assumptions about sexual violence as an ill solely conscripted to underprivileged populations.” And given the significant proportion of crimes that were discovered but not reported—and the percentage of parents who took care of punishment in their own homes—the study speaks to the opportunity for peers, educators, and caretakers to take action when they discover that a young person in their lives has victimized another. The low percentage of punishment and the high percentage of perpetrators who blame their victims is not a heartening mix.