When it comes to assessing the prevalence of sexual assault, there’s still a lot we don’t know. We do know, for instance, that sexual assault is underreported, but we don’t know by how much — and that’s particularly true for incidents that fall in the “grey area” of sexual assault, such as coercive sex or partner rape. A new study, however, is attempting to shed light on the prevalence of one specific type of sexual assault, and in doing so underscores just how little we know about sexual assault rates in general.
According to the study in JAMA Internal Medicine — which surveyed more than 13,300 women between the ages of 18 and 45 across the United States, from 2011 to 2017 — approximately one in 16 women, or about 6% of women surveyed, reported that their first sexual encounter was not consensual (which the study refers to as “forced sexual initiation”). Of the women who said their first sexual encounter was not consensual, 56% said they were verbally pressured into having sex, while 25% said they were subject to violence. The study also indicates that women who reported their first encounter was nonconsensual were more likely to report issues with ovulation or menstruation, unwanted first pregnancy, and drug abuse. Perhaps most devastatingly, most of these women were quite young: of the women who said their first time was not consensual, the average age at the time of the encounter was just 15.
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In an interview, Dr. Laura Hawks, the head author of the study and a research fellow at the Cambridge Health Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that the study was prompted by a paucity of research on the pervasiveness of sexual assault. “There’s been a lot of increased conversation in the last few years about the prevalence of sexual violence in our country, but [existing studies] don’t always have a large number of participants and the data isn’t always nationally representative,” she tells Rolling Stone. Regarding forced sexual initiation specifically, as well as its relationship to subsequent health effects, Hawks says one study in the 1990s specifically examined the issue, but this is the first study since then that has assessed the impact of this particularly traumatizing form of sexual assault.
The data, which was culled from an annual survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is not totally surprising in itself; indeed, much of it tracks with most of what we already know about sexual assault. While there is some dispute over the nationwide prevalence of sexual assault, the National Sexual Violence Research Center (NSVRC) estimates that at least one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives; so it makes sense that some of these assaults would have occurred at the time of first encounter. Generally speaking, the idea that sexual assault survivors are at increased risk of developing mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, as well as struggles with substance abuse, is also widely borne out by other data, though the study is unique in pointing out that forced sexual initiation could also be linked to painful pelvic or gynecological conditions later in life.
It’s also not shocking that a first-time nonconsensual sexual encounter could be associated with its own particular form of trauma. “We live in a culture that glorifies the concept of virginity,” Hawks says. “While sexual violence is traumatic at any point, you can imagine because of these societal pressures that women who experience rape as their first sexual encounter could experience amplified risks later on in life.”
Indeed, in some ways, what’s most compelling about the study is not its results, but how it underscores the unique issues related to studying sexual assault. For starters, the sample in the study was limited to women between the ages of 18 and 45 — a fairly limited sample, says Hawks, who estimates that the numbers would “probably be at least twice as high” had the sample included women over the age of 45. Hawks adds that the worldwide numbers for forced sexual initiation range widely and are much higher than those found in her study, with one estimate suggesting that as many as 40% of rape survivors in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa, were raped during their first sexual encounter.
Hawks also points out that the data was collected prior to the #MeToo movement, which is widely credited with raising the national awareness of sexual assault. Had the subjects been interviewed post-#MeToo, she says, it’s likely that they would have been more comfortable disclosing information about their assault, or whether they had even been assaulted in the first place. “From other studies I’ve heard of, and from my own opinion about this, women are feeling more empowered to identify their own experiences as non-consensual assault or rape,” she says.
When viewed through this lens, in some ways the study is not so much an assessment of the prevalence of forced sexual initiation, as it is underscoring the role that stigma and shame have traditionally contributed to sexual assault reporting rates. As that stigma recedes over time, thanks to heightened cultural awareness and the power of the #MeToo movement, it remains to be seen whether sexual assault reporting rates will increase — but as Hawks notes, it’s crucial for us to confront the possibility that the current numbers we have available may not even come close to reflecting the extent of the problem.
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