Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person's sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work
Coercion can cover a whole spectrum of degrees of force. Apart from physical force, it may involve psychological intimidation, blackmail or other threats - for instance, the threat of physical harm, of being dismissed from a job or of not obtaining a job that is sought. It may also occur when the person aggressed is unable to give consent - for instance, while drunk, drugged, asleep or mentally incapable of understanding the situation. Sexual violence includes rape, defined by some as physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object. The attempt to do so is known as attempted rape. Rape of a person by two or more perpetrators is known as gang rape. Sexual violence can include other forms of assault involving a sexual organ, including coerced contact between the mouth and penis, vulva or anus.
What you should know about sexual violence
Sexual violence occurs throughout the world, although in most countries there has been little research conducted on the problem. Due to the private nature of sexual violence, estimating the extent of the problem is difficult. Research in South Africa and Tanzania suggests that nearly one in four women may experience sexual violence by an intimate partner, and up to one-third of adolescent girls report their first sexual experience as being forced.
Sexual violence has a profound impact on physical and mental health. As well as causing physical injury, it is associated with an increased risk of a range of sexual and reproductive health problems, with both immediate and long-term consequences. Its impact on mental health can be as serious as its physical impact, and may be equally long lasting. Deaths following sexual violence may be as a result of suicide, HIV infection or murder - the latter occurring either during a sexual assault or subsequently, as a murder of "honour". Sexual violence can also profoundly affect the social wellbeing of victims; individuals may be stigmatized and ostracized by their families and others as a consequence.
Coerced sex may result in sexual gratification on the part of the perpetrator, though its underlying purpose is frequently the expression of power and dominance over the person assaulted. Often, people who coerce their spouses into sexual acts believe their actions are legitimate because they are married. Rape of women and of men is often used as a weapon of war, as a form of attack on the enemy, typifying the conquest and degradation of its women or men or captured male or female fighters. It may also be used to punish people for transgressing social or moral codes, for instance, those prohibiting adultery or drunkenness in public. Women and men may also be raped when in police custody or in prison.
Factors associated with being a victim of sexual violence
One of the most common forms of sexual violence around the world is that which is perpetrated by an intimate partner, leading to the conclusion that one of the most important risk factors for people in terms of their vulnerability to sexual assault is being married or cohabiting with a partner. Other factors influencing the risk of sexual violence include:
Young women are usually found to be more at risk of rape than older women. According to data from justice systems and rape crisis centres in Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru and the United States, between one-third and two-thirds of all victims of sexual assault are aged 15 years or less. Certain forms of sexual violence, for instance, are very closely associated with a young age, in particular violence taking place in schools and colleges, and trafficking in women for sexual exploitation.
Alcohol and drugs
Increased vulnerability to sexual violence also stems from the use of alcohol and other drugs. Consuming alcohol or drugs makes it more difficult for people to protect themselves by interpreting and effectively acting on warning signs. Drinking alcohol may also place women in settings where their chances of encountering a potential offender are greater.
Having previously been raped or sexually abused
There is some evidence linking experiences of sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence with patterns of victimization during adulthood. A national study of violence against women in the United States found that women who were raped before the age of 18 years were twice as likely to be raped as adults, compared with those who were not raped as children or adolescents (18.3% and 8.7%, respectively).
The effects of early sexual abuse may also extend to other forms of victimization and problems in adulthood. For instance, a case control study in Australia on the long-term impact of abuse reported significant associations between child sexual abuse and experiencing rape, sexual and mental health problems, domestic violence and other problems in intimate relationships even after accounting for various family background characteristics. Those who had experienced abuse involving intercourse had more negative outcomes than those suffering other types of coercion.
Having many sexual partners
Young women who have many sexual partners are at increased risk of sexual violence. It is not clear, though, if having more sexual partners is a cause or consequence of abuse, including childhood sexual abuse. For example, findings from a representative sample of men and women in Leon, Nicaragua, found that women who had experienced attempted or completed rape during childhood or adolescence were more likely to have a higher number of sexual partners in adulthood, compared with non-abused or moderately abused women. Similar findings have been reported in longitudinal studies of young women in New Zealand and Norway.
Women are at increased risk of sexual violence, as they are of physical violence by an intimate partner, when they become more educated and thus more empowered. Women with no education were found in a national survey in South Africa to be much less likely to experience sexual violence than those with higher levels of education. In Zimbabwe, women who were working were much more likely to report forced sex by a spouse than those who were not. The likely explanation is that greater empowerment brings with it more resistance from women to patriarchal norms, so that men may resort to violence in an attempt to regain control. The relationship between empowerment and physical violence is an n-shape with greater empowerment conferring greater risk up to a certain level, beyond which it starts to become protective. It is not known, though, whether this is also the case for sexual violence.
Poor women and girls may be more at risk of rape in the course of their daily tasks than those who are better off, for example when they walk home on their own from work late at night, or work in the fields or collect firewood alone. Children of poor women may have less parental supervision when not in school, since their mothers may be at work and unable to afford child care. The children themselves may, in fact, be working and thus vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Poverty forces many women and girls into occupations that carry a relatively high risk of sexual violence, particularly sex work. It also creates enormous pressures for them to find or maintain jobs, to pursue trading activities and, if studying, to obtain good grades all of which render them vulnerable to sexual coercion from those who can promise these things. Poorer women are also more at risk of intimate partner violence, of which sexual violence is often a manifestation.