The Unspoken Epidemic


In early October, two male teenagers at the Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, Riverside County, CA, were arrested on suspicion of raping a female student, a freshman.  One of the alleged perpetrators was a junior and on the football team.  Sadly, this will not be the only act of sexual violence committed upon and/or by young people this year.

Almost at the same time this alleged rape was reported, a very alarming study was released by the prestigious JAMA, “Prevalence Rates Of Male And Female Sexual Violence Perpetrators In A National Sample Of Adolescents,” authored by Michele Ybarra and Kimberly Mitchell.  Among its principle findings are that “nearly 1 in 10 youths (9%) reported some type of sexual violence perpetration in their lifetime; [and] 4% … reported attempted or completed rape. Sixteen years old was the mode age of first sexual perpetration.”

While these findings are scary enough, they take on a still more troubling significance when compared to the findings of a June 2013 Justice Department report, “Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012.”  It found that 9.5 percent of jailed juvenile offenders, incarcerated at both privately and publicly-run facilities, reported being sexually victimized in the previous 12 months. It found that about 2.5 percent of youths reported victimization involving another youth while and 7.7 percent reported an incident involving facility staff.

Sexual violence among young people is reaching epidemic proportions and, sadly, little is being done about it.  The U.S. Dept. of Education estimates that in 2010 there was 34.1 million youths aged 14 to 21 years; this equates to about 3.1 million (at 9%) who are annually victims of some form of sexual violence.  (In comparison, “only” 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with the HIV infection that many consider an epidemic.)  Sexual violence affecting young people is a real social failure, the shame of a nation.

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The JAMA study by Ybarra and Mitchell is equally revealing and disturbing.  Using an online survey, the researchers queried 1,058 young people from across the country between the ages of 14 and 21.  Participants were asked what types of sexual activity they engaged in, including kissing, touching and more.  They were also asked if they coerced or forced a partner to do something sexually unwanted.

Two findings are of particular note.  First, African-American and Latino youths as well as youths from low-income households were less likely to sexually coerce a partner to engage in sex than were whites from higher-income families.  Second, perpetrators of sexual violence were reported to consume more X-rated materials (i.e., media images depicting sexually related violence) then young people who did not report engaging in coercive or forced sex.

The study found “sexual violence perpetration appears to emerge earlier for males than females.”  Males being aggressive sexually at age 15 and, by ages 18 or 19, both males (52%) and females (48%) are nearly equal perpetrators.  Girls were more likely to perpetrate violence against older victims, while boys were more likely to perpetrate violence against younger victims.  The study found: “Youths who started perpetrating earlier were more likely than older youths to get in trouble with caregivers; youths starting older were more likely to indicate that no one found out about.”

The study distinguished between “forced sexual contact” (i.e., when a partner made the other person do something sexual when they knew the person did not want to) and “coercive sex” (i.e., when a partner got the other person to give in to sex when the perpetrator knew the other person did not want to).

It identified a wide range of coercive tactics used by young people to intimidate, terrorize and harm one another.  They ranged from arguing, pressuring, getting angry or making someone feel guilty as well as outright violence and attempted or completed rape.  These tactics all-too-often work.

It found that 8 percent of respondents reported engaging in “forced sexual contact,” including kissing and touching.  In addition, another 3 percent reported they had engaged in “coercive sex,” including attempting rape, while another 2 percent said they had forced another person to have sex when they knew the person did not want to, including rape.  It reports that three-fourths (75%) of the cases of sexual violence occurred in the context of a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and that rape and oral sex were the leading forms of forced or coerced sex.

Equally reveal, the study found self-denial was widespread among perpetrators.  One in seven insisted that s/he was “not at all responsible for what happened.”  In fact, two-fifths (40%) claimed that the victim was responsible.  A tiny fraction (2 of the 1,058 respondents) reported being arrested for an act of sexual violence.

The DOJ study of sexual violence in American prisons was prepared by Allen Beck, of the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, and associates.  It was based on reports from 8,707 youths interviewed in 326 incarcerated in state juvenile facilities and state contract facilities nationwide.  It found that some 1,720 young people (9.5%) reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another youth or staff member during the preceding 12 months.  Sadly, incidents of victimization involving facility staff were more than three times higher — 7.7% vs. 2.5% — than involving fellow youths.

The study identified two youth facilities that had the highest sexual victimization rates in the country, 30 percent or greater.  They are Georgia’s Paulding Regional Detention Center and Ohio’s Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility (Ohio).  Another 26 facilities had no reported incidents of sexual victimization, and 14 had rates lower then 30 percent.  Most surprising, nearly nine out of 10 victimized youth (89.1%) were males engaging in sexual activity with female staff; a tiny proportion (3.0%) of the males reported engaging in sexual activity with both male and female staff.  It should be noted that the rate of sexual victimization at state juvenile facilities declined from 12.6 percent in 2008-09 to 9.9 percent in 2012.

With regard to youth on youth violence, four-fifths (82.1%) claimed no long-term physical injury.  However, two-thirds (69.6%) reported being victimized more than once and nearly two-fifths (37.2%) reported being victimized by more than one perpetrator.

In addition, more than two-thirds (67.7%) of those reporting claimed to experienced physical force or threat of force; one-quarter (25.2%) reported capitulating due to being offered favors or protection; and the remaining about one-fifth (18.1%) did so after being given drugs or alcohol to engage in sexual contact.

Alex Friedmann, writing in Prison Legal News, unravels the failure of the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to effectively address the problem of sexual violence against youths in the nation’s prisons, jails and other institutions.  The Act was unanimously passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003.  After dragging its heals for a decade, the DOJ finally issued PREA standards in 2012.  As Friedman points out, “the proposed PREA standards did not require agencies to discipline or sanction employees who fail to report knowledge, suspicion or information regarding an incident of sexual abuse.”  He notes that such requirements are common for teachers, doctors and others who work with young people.  Sadly, he adds, “the proposed PREA standards did not extend similar penalties to corrections staff who are aware of or suspect sexual abuse of prisoners; this is especially troublesome given the ‘code of silence’ prevalent among prison employees, who are reluctant to report coworkers guilty of misconduct.”

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The findings from the JAMA and DOJ studies are deeply disturbing not only in terms of the picture they paint of the youth sexual violence widespread throughout the country, but how little is being done about it.  Perhaps most troubling, the kids who engage in this conduct, whether in public, social life or in prison, seem to be inured from taking personal responsibility for their action, let alone seeing their conduct as wrong.  Does this foreshadow a long-term moral crisis?

Of equal concern, while offering invaluable insight into a troubling phenomenon, the authors of the reports offer little as to recommendations to deal with the widespread violence.  Maybe it’s the nature of bureaucratic reports, whether involving public health or the legal system, but neither study calls the nation to action.  Youth sexual violence seems like an epidemic and no one seems to care.

The Ybarra and Mitchell report offers one programmatic solution:  “bystander” training and intervention programs.  They write: “There is therefore urgent need for school programs that encourage bystander intervention as well as implementation of policies that could enhance the likelihood that perpetrators are identified.”  Currently, “bystander” programs are being used as part of anti-bullying campaigns in high schools and colleges throughout the county.  They involve a “perpetrator’s” peers intervening to minimize or halt a confrontation escalating into violence.  Some programs call for peers to inform school administrators or police about a suspected perpetrator.  These programs target sex-related engagements that might occur at school as well as after school, at a party or a bar.

The DOJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that each year there is an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault.  They represent a tiny fraction of the nation’s 300 million population.  Nevertheless, it is a frightening statistic.  One in 10 young Americans, whether in normal social life or prison, is a victim of sexual violence.

Sexual violence among young people is widespread.  Most disturbing, the overwhelming incidents involve white, more-upper-scale males victimizing younger white women.  The unasked – and unanswerable – question is how this sexual violence among young people, especially white males, reflects the rearguard battle to preserve patriarch.

David Rosen regularly contributes to the AtlerNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and Huffington Post.  Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

David Rosen is the author of the forthcoming, Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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