A new study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in ten teens said they had coerced another person into some form of sexual activity. In an online survey in 2010 and 2011, researchers asked 1,058 young people ages 14 to 21 whether they had ever “kissed, touched, or done anything sexual with another person when that person did not want you to?” The results surprised even the lead researcher, Michele Ybarra, who told NPR, “I don’t get creeped out very often, but this was wow.”
This intense reaction stems from the fact that 9 percent of teens said they had coerced another person. Specifically, 8 percent said they had kissed or touched someone when they knew that person did not want to, 3 percent said they “got someone to give in to unwilling sex,” 3 percent said they attempted rape, and 2 percent said they actually raped someone. (This adds to more than 9 percent because young people could admit to more than one behavior.)
According to the research, coercion and manipulation were more common than threats or physical force. Most of the young people who admitted to forcing someone into sexual behavior said they argued with the other person, pressured them, got angry, or tried to make the other person feel guilty. Purposely getting a victim drunk was also a common tactic. Only 8 percent of perpetrators said they threatened physical force, and only 5 percent used force. Victims were most often romantic partners.
The authors also note that 50 percent of all perpetrators said that the victim was responsible for the sexual violence. Moreover, most perpetrators said no one ever found out about their actions. The authors conclude, “Because victim blaming appears to be common while perpetrators experiencing consequences is not, there is urgent need for high school (and middle school) programs aimed at supporting bystander intervention.”
Though both males and females said they had used coercion, there were differences between the sexes. Males tended to start younger; for example, almost all of the perpetrators who said an incident had occurred when they were 15 or younger were male. At about age 18 or 19, the percent of perpetrators who are males or females begins to even out (52 percent and 48 percent, respectively). Regardless of their age, male perpetrators tended to have victims who were younger than they were, whereas females had victims who were older.
The survey was conducted as part of an ongoing study called Growing Up With Media. In addition to asking about sexual coercion, respondents were asked about the media they watched. The study found that perpetrators tended to report more frequent exposure to media that depicted sexual and violent situations than those who had not coerced another person, but the results were not always statistically significant. Still, the authors conclude:
[L]inks between perpetration and violent sexual media are apparent, suggesting a need to monitor adolescents’ consumption of this material, particularly given today’s media saturation among the adolescent population.
Elizabeth Schroeder, the executive director of Answer, an organization that educates young people about sexuality and trains teachers, agrees that media consumption is part of the problem. She told RH Reality Check, “This study is extremely distressing, but unfortunately, not a surprise. Sexuality education rarely starts before high school, and by then young people have already received very distorted messages about sex, relationships, and boundaries from other sources such as the media, their peers, adults in their lives, and so on.” Schroeder added, “Age-appropriate lessons about relationships need to start in early childhood and continue throughout high school.”