A New Conception of Sexual Violence

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign raises, yet again, the ugly issue of sexual violence.  By the time of the election, the New Yorker identified 24 women, including his former wife, Ivana Trump, who’ve claimed that they were victims of his aggressive – and non-consensual!– sexual advances.  His reported incidents of misogyny and sexual aggression took many forms, from verbal put-downs and insults, to groping and fondling, to outright rape.  It remains a secret as to how many women he might have paid for sexual services – and what phantasies he played out.  One can only wonder if the president-elect will follow in the footsteps of that earlier paragon of virtue, the other Clinton, and inflict his ego-maniacal sexual rage in the Oval Office.

Trump epitomizes one of the two forms of sexual violence lived out by males – of being the predator or the prey.  Guess which one he appears to be?

Males can be both the perpetrators and/or the victims of sexual violence.  Men have, stereotypically, committed the vast majority of sexual violence, most of it against females, whether adult, youth or child.  However, recent reports of sexual violence suggest that males represent a significant proportion of those victimized by sexual violence.


Sexual violence in the U.S. is as old as the country.  America’s patriarchal custom legitimized domestic sexual violence from the nation’s earliest days and slavery institutionalized the rape of African and later African-American women.  It was not until 1871, in the case of Fulgam vs. the State of Alabama, that the prevailing right of “chastisement” was overturned.

George Fulgham, an emancipated slave, was charged with whipping his children and wife, also an emancipated slave.  The wife brought suit against her husband, challenging a husband’s ability to physically discipline his wife and family as well as his ownership of her person, the value of both her paid and unpaid labor, and any property that accompanied their marriage.  The court ruled, “The privilege, ancient though it may be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor or to inflict upon her other like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law.”

Other states followed the Alabama decision, including Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia.  In the late-1890s, a husband’s rape of a wife was recognized as crime in Louisiana, Texas and other states.  However, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Thompson (1910) that a husband and wife were regarded as one, thus refusing to allow a wife to sue her husband in an assault and battery charge against her.  Changing this precedent, the Court ruled, “would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other and bring into public notice complaints for assault, slander and libel.”
Nevertheless, numerous husbands were arrested and charged with “wife beating,” their name, address and occupation printed in local newspapers.  Their punishment often included jail terms, hefty fines and even whipping or flogging.


More recently, sexual violence has been classified as intimate partner violence (IPV) and includes rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend as well as being made to penetrate or engage in sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences like stalking.

From 1994 to 2011, according to federal data, the rate of “serious” IPV declined 72 percent for females and 64 percent for males.  Between 2002-2011, more than a third of IPV consisted of “nonfatal serious violence,” but about 4 percent of females and 8 percent of males who were IPV victims were shot at, stabbed or hit with a weapon.

However, nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.

More than half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and two-fifths (40.8%) by an acquaintance; for male victims, more than half (52.4%) reported being raped by an acquaintance and one in six (15.1%) by a stranger.

Local police departments reported in 2005 that two-fifths (40%) of female homicide victims ages 15–50 were killed by either a current or former intimate partner and that among male victims 15–50 years of age, only 2 percent were killed by either a current or former intimate partner.

Most troubling, sexual violence is widely perpetrated on young people.  The CDC finds that among female victims of completed rape, nearly 4 out of 5 (78.7%) were first raped before age 25 years and two-fifths (40.4%) before age 18 years; among male victims who were made to penetrate a perpetrator, more than two-thirds (71%) were victimized before age 25 years and one-fifth (21.3%) before age 18 years).  A similar pattern was found for victims of stalking with both half of females (53.8%) and males (47.7%) were first stalked before age 25 years and nearly one-fifth (16.3% of females and 20.5% of male victims) before age 18 years.

Compounding this traditional notion of sexual violence, the UCLA’s Williams Institute recently released a provocative study, “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America,” by Ilan Meyer and Lara Stemple, that reframes the notion of interpersonal violence.  The study asserts, “The CDC data reveal that both women and men experienced nonconsensual sex in alarming numbers.”  Most surprising, it found that both women and men experienced 1.3 million incidents of nonconsensual sex within the 12 months preceding the study, but underwent their sexual victimization very differently.

As the researchers note, “the study also included the 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey, which found that 38% of all rape and sexual assault incidents were committed against males, an increase over past years that challenges the common belief that males are rarely victims of this crime.”

The passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 and the results of the Justice Department’s National Inmate Survey of 2011-2012 revealed that among non-heterosexual prison inmates, 12.2 percent reported being sexually victimized by another inmate and 5.4 percent reported being sexually victimized by staff.  Researchers are beginning to use a wider definition of sexual violence to, in the Williams Institute words, “eliminate gendered and heterosexist bias.”  These findings have led to a revision in the picture of U.S. sexual violence.


During the tumultuous 1960s, H. Rap Brown prophetically observed, “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.”  While considering the need for African-American self-defense, Brown’s words were part of a broader statement, “I say violence is necessary. … We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary. We will be free, by any means necessary.” However, looking at the issue of sexual violence in the U.S., one can sadly say it is as American as cherry pie.

The expanded definition of sexual violence employed in the Williams Institute study by Meyer and Stemple sets the stage for a further revision to include bisexual, gay and trans people.  In a 2012 study, Williams Institute researches found very high incidents of reported IPV among bisexual women (95%) and gay men.  The report notes, “Binge drinking and a history of psychological distress predicted intimate partner violence, but these factors did not explain disparities between bisexual and heterosexual women or between gay and heterosexual men.”

The study confirms a 2010 Justice Department report, “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey,” that found that “bisexual women experienced significantly higher lifetime prevalence of rape and other sexual violence by an intimate partner when compared to heterosexual women” and “significantly higher lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner when compared to lesbian and heterosexual women.”  It also reports that between 20 and 35 percent of LGBTQ couples experience domestic violence; 50 percent of transgender people surveyed had been hit by a primary partner after coming out as transgender; and LGBTQ youth report a 30 percent incidence of dating violence, compared to 9 percent for heterosexual students.

Sexual violence also involves transgender youths.  The 2011 report, “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey” found that 12 percent of transgender youth report being sjually assaulted in K–12 settings by peers or educational staff; 13 percent of African-American transgender people surveyed were sexually assaulted in the workplace; and 22 percent of homeless transgender individuals were assaulted while staying in shelters.

Most distressing, during the first 10 months of 2016, 23 transgender people were reported murdered, compared to 21 killings in 2015.  Almost all of the victims were people of color and, as the Human Rights Campaign notes, all “victims were killed by acquaintances, partners and strangers.”

Sexual violence is a form of social terror whether perpetrated against an intimate partner or a prison inmate, perpetrated by a male or a female against a male or female, an adult or a child, be s/he gay, straight or trans.  Based on CDC estimates, more than 2.5 million people are victims of some form of sexual terror annually.  Efforts to combat it, whether in prisons, college campuses or in ordinary households, will only help make the U.S. a more humane country.

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David Rosen is the author of 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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