Sexual Violence: Who Perpetrates It, Who Suffers

Sexual violence takes many forms, from revenge porn to stalking, from date rape to sex trafficking, from pedophilia to lust murder.  It is perpetrated by both men and women – and the victims are both men and women, too-often children and youths.

Perpetrators can be parents, partners, siblings, teachers, prison staff, cell mates, strangers, military personnel, baby-sitters, and preachers.  Most sexual violence is 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 or internet revenge porn.

Federal data shows the rate of “serious” IPV declined 72 percent for females and 64 percent for males in the decade-and-a-half between 1994 to 2011.  Sadly, 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 1 in 6 (15.1%) by a stranger.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.

In the 1990s, more than half of lesbian respondents to a federal study reported sexual victimization by a female partner.  A study by UCLA’s Williams Institute published in 2012 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.”


Two recent studies by researchers associated with UCLA Law School and the Williams Institute help revise conventional beliefs about thevictims and perpetrators of sexual violence.  In 2014, Ilan Meyer and Lara Stemple published, “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America,” and recently Stemple, Meyer and Andrew Flores (Mills College) released, “Sexual Victimization Perpetrated by Women.”  In both studies, the scholars undertook rigorous analyses of federal and other data to challenge popular stereotypes relating to sexual violence.

In the 2014 study, the scholars noted, “The CDC data reveal that both women and men experienced nonconsensual sex in alarming numbers.”  Most surprising, federal data showed that both men and women were each victim of 1.3 million incidents of nonconsensual sex within the 12 months preceding the CDC study.  The researchers’ study cites a 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey that found that “38% of all rape and sexual assault incidents were committed against males.”  The authors point out that this is “an increase over past years that challenges the common belief that males are rarely victims of this crime.”

In their latest study, the researchers push their analysis one step further, arguing, “While in no way seeking to minimize the very real phenomenon of male perpetration, we examine female perpetration so as to explore the gender dynamics at play and to understand sexual victimization more fully.”  They insist, “In so doing, we argue that new attention to female sexual perpetration serves important feminist goals.”  Perhaps most challenging, they note, “Viewing women only as passive or harmless problematically constructs women as one-dimensional, thereby lacking in the negative traits that complex human beings embody. It can also deny women agency and the responsibility for their actions that empowered persons ought to have.”  They conclude, “Moreover, the drive for power is now understood to inform sexual violence.”

Sexual violence is as all-American as apple pie.  The patriarchal customs of the earliest European settlers legitimized sexual violence as part of the nation’s social culture; sexual terror was perpetrated against the Native people and slavery institutionalized rape and other forms of sexual violence against 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.

Chastisement involved 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.  In Fulgam, 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 inThompson 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.”

A half-century later, the feminist movement of the 1970s led to important advances in the prosecution of perpetrators — mostly men — who committed acts of sexual violence.  The establishment of laws abolishing marital rape, rape shield laws protecting victims and Title IX requiring a school to address sexual harassment complaints helped bring rape out of the great American closet of shame and denial.  These efforts culminated in the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

The U.S. still has no national rape law and sexual violence remains a wink-and-a-nod crime as indicated by the recent case – one among all-too-many — involving Brock Turner, a former Stanford student, convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault and the judge, Adam Persky, who sentenced him to six months in jail and probation.


The two studies by Stemple et al present a radical critique of conventional assumptions about sexual victimization and how its addressed.  Traditionally, men were simply seen as aggressive perpetrators of violence and women were characterized as passive victims.  A change in this model is long overdue and needs to be revised so that, in the authors’ words, to “eliminate gendered and heterosexist bias.”

The studies illuminate two underreported topics involving sexual violence – male victims and female perpetrators.  Looking at male victims, the researchers based their findings on five federal surveys conducted, independently, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 2010 through 2012.  They note that previous analyses were based on household survey data and did not include incarcerated individuals who are overwhelmingly male.

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.

In their 2016 study, the researchers found a “surprisingly significant prevalence of female perpetrated sexual victimization, mostly against men and occasionally against women. The findings are sufficiently robust so as to compel a rethinking.”  They make two critical distinctions in terms of sexual victimization.  First, they differentiate between a woman who acts as a co-perpetrator (often with a man) and those who act on their own; and second, they distinguish between women who victimize men and those who sexually assault women and children/youths.  Female perpetrators were more likely to abuse males and do so alone.

Citing CDC data, they reveal that nearly four out of five (79.2%) of victimized men reported female perpetrators.  Drawing on Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), they found that female perpetrators acting on their own were reported involved in more than a quarter (28.0%) of rape/sexual assault incidents involving male victims and only 4.1 percent of incidents involving female victims. They also found that sexual risk-taking, alcohol abuse, verbal coercion and force were often involved.

“Female perpetrators reportedly bit, slapped, and hit male victims,” the researchers report.  “In some cases female college students got on top of aroused men and forced the men to penetrate them.”  One female perpetrator described her actions as follows, “I locked theroom door that we were in. I kissed and touched him. I removed his shirt and unzipped his pants. He asked me to stop. I didn’t. Then, I sat on top of him.”

Looking at female sexual violence in prisons, the researchers found a “high prevalence of sexual victimization [was] committed by female staff members and female inmates.”  Drawing on BJS data, they note that “women are much more likely to be abused by other women inmates than by male staff.” Among adult prisoners reporting staff sexual victimization, four-fifths (80.0%) reported only female perpetrators.

Perhaps most surprising, “women state prisoners were more than three times as likely to experience sexual victimization perpetrated by women inmates (13.7%) than were men to be victimized by male inmates (4.2%).”  (The authors remind readers that “willing” sex between staff members and detainees is a criminal offence; inmate subject to privileges are controlled at the whim of staff.)

The researchers have compassion to both victims and the perpetrators of sexual violence.  The note that “those who perpetrated sexual crimes had previously experienced greater childhood trauma than those convicted of nonsexual offenses, including more physical violence, emotional abuse, and neglect.”  Looking specifically at lesbian and bisexual women abused by women, the researchers found that such victims “report feeling that their victimization is delegitimized due to heterosexist assumptions.”


The two studies were published in prestigious academic journals – American Journal of Public Health and Aggression and Violent Behavior, respectively —

and will likely be read by scholars, attorneys, psychologists and social workers.  They are representative of a growing body of scholarship rethinking long-held social conventions regarding, for example, marijuana use for health and recreations, and freeing of non-violent offenders from prison.  As this research reaches a wider audience, including politicians, law-enforcement officials and the general public, it could help change the judicial and policing systems’ understanding of sexual violence.

The authors call for “public health and policy responses [to] embrace a new, gender inclusive response to sexual victimization.”  This “inclusive” understand involves seeing men as victims and women as perpetrators, thus breaking with long-held social stereotypes rooted in patriarchy.  They go further and argue that “Unless we uproot the simplistic stereotypes that limit understandings about sexual victimization, we will not address it accurately, nor will we respond to victims empathically.”

The issue of sexual violence takes on new urgency under Donald Trump’s president.  At the time of the election, the New Yorkeridentified 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 unwanted kissing and outright rape.

It remains a secret as to how many women Trump might have paid for sexual services – and what phantasies he played out.  Americans will likely never know the full extent of his sexual exploits.  One can only wonder whether America’s 45th President 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.

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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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