Rape and Sexual Violence

The term "sexual violence" refers to a specific constellation of crimes including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. The perpetrator may be a stranger, acquaintance, friend, family member, or intimate partner. Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers agree that all forms of sexual violence harm the individual, the family unit, and society and that much work remains to be done to enhance the criminal justice response to these crimes.

Sexual Violence Takes Many Forms

Sexual harassment ranges from degrading remarks, gestures, and jokes to indecent exposure, being touched, grabbed, pinched, or brushed against in a sexual way [1]. In employment settings, it has been defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct that enters into employment decisions or conduct that unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment" [2].

Sexual assault covers a wide range of unwanted behaviors—up to but not including penetration—that are attempted or completed against a victim's will or when a victim cannot consent because of age, disability, or the influence of alcohol or drugs. Sexual assault may involve actual or threatened physical force, use of weapons, coercion, intimidation, or pressure and may include—

  • Intentional touching of the victim's genitals, anus, groin, or breasts.
  • Voyeurism.
  • Exposure to exhibitionism.
  • Undesired exposure to pornography.
  • Public display of images that were taken in a private context or when the victim was unaware.

Rape definitions vary by state and in response to legislative advocacy. Most statutes currently define rape as nonconsensual oral, anal, or vaginal penetration of the victim by body parts or objects using force, threats of bodily harm, or by taking advantage of a victim who is incapacitated or otherwise incapable of giving consent. Incapacitation may include mental or cognitive disability, self-induced or forced intoxication, status as minor, or any other condition defined by law that voids an individual's ability to give consent.

Not surprisingly, rates of rape also vary widely among studies according to how the crime is defined, what population is studied, and what methodology is used. Estimates range from as low as 2 percent [3], as quoted in The Epidemic of Rape and Child Sexual Abuse in the United States [4], to 56 percent [5]. The most recent and methodologically rigorous studies show that sexual assault still occurs at rates that approximate those first identified more than 20 years ago when Koss, Gidycz, and Wisiewski [6] found that approximately 27.5% of college women reported experiences that met the legal criteria for rape.

Sexual assault and rape are generally defined as felonies. During the past 30 years, states have enacted rape shield laws to protect victims and criminal and civil legal remedies to punish perpetrators. The effectiveness of these laws in accomplishing their goals is a topic of concern.

Estimates also vary regarding how likely a victim is to report victimization. Traditionally, rape notification rates differed depending on whether the victim knew the perpetrator — those who knew a perpetrator were often less likely to report the crime. This gap, however, may be closing.

Notes

[1] Hill, C., and E. Silva. Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women, 2006.

[2] Rubin, P, 1995. Civil Rights and Criminal Justice: Primer on Sexual Harassment . Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, October 1995, NCJ 156663.

[3] Gordon, T., and S. Riger. Female Fear. New York: Free Press, 1989, NCJ 118492.

[4] Russell, D.E.H., and R.M. Bolen. The Epidemic of Rape and Child Sexual Abuse in the United States. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000: 247.

[5] Goodman, L.A. "Prevalence of Abuse Among Homeless and Housed Poor Mothers: A Comparison Study." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 61(4)(October 1991): 489–500.

[6] Koss, M.P., C.A. Gidycz, and N. Wisiewski. "The Scope of Rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55(2)(1987): 162–170, NCJ 108037.

 

 

Date Modified: October 26, 2010