No universal definition of sexual violence exists because cultural and social norms and laws define the act; however, many professionals agree on several underlying concepts of sexual violence. Sexual violence includes any unwanted or unlawful behavior perpetrated with the use of coercion and/or force against one’s sexuality by a person either known or unknown to the victim. Sexual violence is a global problem with many consequences for the individual(s) involved, the larger community, and society as a whole.
Although sexual violence is often perceived as an extreme form of violence, a wide range of behaviors constitutes sexual violence, from harassing verbal comments and gestures to physical touching and penetration. While the act of sexual violence is often characterized by physical and verbal behaviors, a large component of sexual violence is mental. Sexual violence is a display of subordination whereby an asymmetrical balance of power and control is present between the perpetrator and the victim. Power may be attributed to one’s physical properties, such as a person’s body size and strength, or it may be attributed to social, financial, or political properties. The perpetrator uses this imbalance of power to coerce or force the victim to surrender to the perpetrator’s control.
A majority of sexually violent incidents occur between acquaintances, contrary to the common belief that strangers often perpetrate sexual violence. Sexual violence is one of the most under-reported incidents for a number of reasons, depending on individual factors, belief systems, and cultural expectations. Many victims may fear retaliation from the perpetrator, may be too embarrassed or humiliated by the episode(s) to report the incident(s), may not feel the authorities can ameliorate the situation, may not perceive themselves to be victims of sexual violence, or it may be socially and culturally unacceptable to inform others about the incident(s), potentially bringing shame to their families. Because sexual violence is grossly under-reported and has no single definition, it is a difficult subject on which to compile accurate statistics.
Women and children are at greatest risk for sexual violence victimization, but other groups are vulnerable, such as the elderly, the disabled, and inmate populations. Other vulnerability factors have been correlated with sexual violence victimization, including a prior history of sexual violence, drug and alcohol use, high-risk sexual behaviors, and poverty. Individuals with lower socioeconomic status typically lack economic and educational resources for survival and for responding to sexual violence, thus placing them at greater risk for victimization. Women living in poverty are also at risk for intimate partner violence, in which sexual violence is a component. Many such vulnerability factors are often consequences of sexual violence, too.
Males are at greater risk for perpetrating sexual violence. No single explanation for the cause of sexual violence exists, but there are many factors associated with the perpetration of sexual violence. Individual factors placing a male at risk for perpetration include drug and alcohol use, hostility toward women, and childhood sexual and physical abuse. Relationship factors placing a male at risk for perpetrating sexual violence include association with delinquent and aggressive peers, unstable and violent family environments, and patriarchal family and community structures.
Other community factors that increase the likelihood of sexual violence include weak sanctions against, and tolerance for, perpetrators of sexual violence; a lack of economic means, such as employment; and a lack of support from law enforcement. Larger social factors affect the likelihood that males will sexually violate others, including poverty and a lack of policy addressing gender inequality. A tolerance for the subjugation of women and male superiority and sexual entitlement continue to influence sexual violence perpetration in many countries.
The consequences of sexual violence for victims are widespread, including immediate and long-term costs for the victim, the community, and society. Consequences may be physical, psychological, social, and health related, depending on the victim and perpetrator relationship and the type, frequency, and severity of violence endured.
Physical injuries may be sustained during the incident of sexual violence. For example, bruising and lacerations may result from the perpetrator’s use of force or use of weapons. Injuries to the victim’s sexual organs may also result from forced penetration. Sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies are also potential physical repercussions of sexual violence.
Psychological injuries will vary among victims depending on various factors. Short-term problems include shock, denial, anxiety, and a loss of trust of others. Long-term consequences include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and a fear of revictimization. Health-related consequences, including engaging in risky sexual behaviors and drug use and abuse, not only are potential short-term and long-term consequences of sexual violence but also place the victim at risk for being revictimized.
Many other crimes, such as prostitution and sex trafficking, entail the potential for sexual violence to occur, particularly rape. Increased use of technology, particularly the use of the Internet, provides new domains for sexual violence and propaganda to occur, such as pedophilia and stalking. Female genital mutilation is a cultural practice that has been outlawed or restricted in several countries. Finally, rape has been used as a tool of warfare against women in countless wars spanning countless periods of time. All these implications entail a different perspective of a global problem.
Sexual violence is a complex phenomenon with a wide range of risk factors and consequences for all individuals involved, particularly the victim. Regardless of the victim’s culture and background, the consequences of sexual violence lend insight into why such violence is a social problem on numerous levels, leaving a host of problems to be mitigated and overcome.
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center. 2004. “Global Perspectives on Sexual Violence: Findings from the World Report on Violence and Health.” Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. Retrieved March 30, 2017 (http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Booklets_Global-perspectives-on-sexual-violence.pdf).
- Paludi, Michelle A., ed. 1999. The Psychology of Sexual Victimization: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
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