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Sex

1 in 16 Women Report Their First 'Sexual' Experiences Were Rape or Assault

Extrapolated to the whole U.S. population, this would mean 3.3 million women have experienced "forced sexual initiation."

by Jesse Hicks
17 September 2019, 5:03am

Art by Michelle Thompson

This article originally appeared on VICE US

A new study released today finds that one in sixteen US women report that they were forced—raped, assaulted, and/or coerced—during their first time experiencing vaginal penetration. Extrapolating this out to the whole US population would mean more than 3.3 million women between the ages of 18 and 44 experience this type of coercion. The study’s authors note that this is a relatively understudied area and that most information about “forced sexual initiation,” as they label rape and assault in this study, in the United States is outdated, based on a similar analysis from 1995 that showed an even higher percentage of forced sexual initiation (9.1 percent to the current study’s 6.5 percent), but differences in wording and a younger age range among participants make direct comparisons difficult.

Researchers reached updated numbers via the National Survey of Family Growth, a questionnaire administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Using data collected between September 2011 to September 2017, they analyzed answers from 13,310 American women about whether their first vaginal intercourse with a man was voluntary. Those who said they were forced were asked follow-up questions about the types of coercion, including physical force, verbal pressure, and the influence of alcohol or drugs.

In the survey, more than half of those who were forced reported that they were verbally pressured, while just over 46 percent said they were held down. Half of those who were forced said their rapist or assaulter was larger or older—and those coerced tended to be younger when it happened than those who weren’t. Assailants also tended to be older than the partners of women who had voluntary sexual initiations. About a quarter of respondents, respectively, reported being given a drug, threatened with physical harm, and/or actually physically harmed.

The results suggest a problem that cuts across class and geography, though women who were forced were less likely to be white and slightly less likely to have been born outside the United States. They were also more likely to live below the poverty level and less likely to have a college education.

Women who experienced forced sexual initiation tended to have higher rates of unwanted first pregnancy or abortion, pelvic inflammatory disease, and problems with ovulation or menstruation. They also more frequently reported illicit drug use and fair or poor health. While the survey was limited in analyzing the mental health effects of forced sexual initiation, those who experienced it were likelier to report difficulty completing tasks due to physical or mental health conditions.

The results point to underlying, toxic power dynamics, the authors note: The men forcing sex tend to be older, and the women were likelier to be younger than 18 at the time of their experience. They suggest that sexual education that emphasizes affirmative consent could help mitigate power imbalances—but, ultimately, there’s a lot more work to be done.

If you need someone to talk to about an experience with sexual assault or abuse, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where trained staff can provide you with support, information, advice, or a referral. You can also access 24/7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.

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