Study examines teen sexual violence

By Janine Weisman
February 1st, 2014

Nearly one in 10 young people between ages 14 and 21 say they have committed sexual violence, often toward a date, in a national study that found links to exposure to violent pornography.

The study published online last Oct. in JAMA Pediatrics highlights how sexual violence may be different for older and younger adolescents and for males and females: 98 percent of those reporting sexual perpetration before age 16 were male but at ages 18 and 19, males and females are equally represented as perpetrators.

Females were more likely to target older victims while males were more likely to go after younger victims. Youths who initiated sexual violence at an earlier age were more likely than older youths to get in trouble with parents or caregivers. But the older a perpetrator was when they started, the more likely no one found out. Only one percent of perpetrators reported having contact with police. Females also appeared more likely than males to engage in perpetration as part of a group.

“It does suggest that there might be a different developmental trajectory for men and women,” says Michele L. Ybarra, MPH, Ph.D., president and research director at the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif. She co-authored the study with Kimberly J. Mitchell, Ph.D., research assistant professor of psychology at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

They examined data collected in 2010 and 2011 from 1,058 participants in the national Growing Up With Media Study, which examined associations between exposure to violent media and violent behavior. Youths were asked if they had ever done the following: “tried, but was not able, to make someone have sex with me when I knew they did not want to;” “made someone have sex with me when I knew they did not want to” and “gotten someone to give in to sex with me when I knew they did not want to.”

“We got some criticism that we weren’t specific about the ‘made’ part, about how they made somebody do something,” Ybarra says. “The point is that it doesn’t have to be physical; it can also be psychological. It’s really about the forcing of yourself rather than the how.”

Ybarra presented her findings last summer at a teen dating violence symposium at the American Psychological Association’s 121st Annual Convention. Three in four victims were a romantic partner, but all perpetrators in the study had some form of a relationship with their victims. Half of perpetrators in the study believed the victim was completely responsible while more than four in five perpetrators said the victim was at least somewhat responsible.

Dating violence, Ybarra says, includes physical, psychological and sexual violence while sexual violence is “forcing someone to do something sexual no matter what their relationship is to you.”

Exposure to media depicting sexual situations was common for perpetrators and non-perpetrators, but the study found perpetrators had more exposure to violent pornographic material. Clinicians recognize that youths will search out pornography out of curiosity, but Ybarra emphasized the need to distinguish between violent and nonviolent content.

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