National Geographic News
Dana Bolger was raped by a fellow student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, she says.

Dana Bolger, an Amherst College junior who was raped, helped create a Web site credited with raising awareness about sexual violence at the school.

Photograph by Ilana Panich-Linsman, New York Times/Redux

Tanya Basu

National Geographic

Published October 7, 2013

When you think rapist, you probably think of an adult male lurking in an alley and preying upon young women.

Not so fast, according to a new study published in today's JAMA Pediatrics that overturns many commonly held beliefs about sexual violence.

Researchers Michele Ybarra of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research and Kimberly Mitchell of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire followed American youth over the course of several years, asking the youngsters questions about their sexual behavior during that time to see if there was any indication of sexual violence early in a person's history.

What they found was startling: Nearly 10 percent of survey respondents reported perpetrating some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, with 4 percent reporting attempted or completed rape.

Not a Boy's Game

In fact, teenage boys and girls increasingly instigate sexual violence—and many convicted perpetrators of sexual crimes began at young ages.

Today's adult rapist may have once been a teenage perpetrator of sexual violence.

According to a study in 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 75 percent of women who have been raped were raped before the age of 25—with 42.2 percent of this group being raped before their 18th birthday.

Sexual violence is fairly common in the teenage years, both from a victim and perpetrator standpoint.

"When you talk to people who have been convicted of crimes, overwhelmingly they say [it all started in] adolescence," she said. "There's reason to believe that sexually violent people emerge in adolescence.

"This study was a first attempt to ask people about [sexual perpetration] and understand when it's emerging."

For one thing, the researchers discovered that age 16 seems to be the peak time for sexual violence.

The results of the study may change the way society thinks about sexual violence—starting with the male and female divide.

(Related: "UN Study Looks at High Rate of Rape.")

Perhaps the most controversial part of the study is that males, traditionally thought of as the perpetrators of sexual violence, are not the only ones responsible for sexual violence—females are too.

"Not long ago, males were asked the perpetrator questions and females were asked the victim questions," Ybarra noted. "We never appreciated the fact that males could be victims and females could be perpetrators.

"[This study] highlights the importance of asking both sexes both questions."

The study found that females and males had carried out sexual violence at nearly equal levels by the age of 18. Of the survey respondents who reported being perpetrators, 48 percent were female and 52 percent were male. Interestingly, females tend to assault older victims, while males are more likely to choose younger victims. Females are also more likely to engage in "gang rape" types of activity and act in groups or teams (1 in 5 females reported this type of activity, compared with 1 in 39 males).

Researchers aren't sure if this pattern is because of differences in developmental trajectories between males and females.

Violent Video Games to Blame?

Although the authors point to video games and X-rated media content as factors, they are cautious about linking sexual violence to an increasingly violent media.

"We certainly are not claiming causation," Ybarra said. "We're not saying that sexual violence is caused by violent media or vice versa. But one of the primary aims of the study is to understand the linkages between media and behavior."

And the link is undeniably strong, said Ybarra.

The researchers examined whether there were differences between X-rated material and violent X-rated material that included one person being hurt in some way. They first asked whether the subjects had viewed X-rated material. If the answer was yes, a follow-up question was asked—had the person also viewed violent X-rated material?

"Violent X-rated material has more of an effect," Ybarra said. "When you look at the rate of those that say yes [to having viewed violent X-rated material], 17 percent who said yes were perpetrators versus 3 percent [who had viewed violent X-rated material and were not perpetrators]."

Compare that wide gap with their finding that 34 percent of nonperpetrators and 37 percent of perpetrators had viewed nonviolent X-rated material.

Changing Definitions

Sexual violence is a broad term, but researchers were careful to include all forms of sexual violence beyond rape.

The four classifications of sexual violence considered were foresexual (or presexual) contact, coercive sex, attempted rape, and completed rape.

Gender differences emerge in types of sexual violence.

"Foresexual contact is similar for females and males," Ybarra said, with females slightly edging out males in this category (52 percent and 47 percent, respectively).

"But when you get into coercive and attempted rape, it does seem to differ"—with males committing 75 percent of these crimes, compared with 25 percent committed by females.

But they also found that completed rape is predominantly a male crime—a finding that is in line with general attitudes about rape, according to Sharmili Majmudar of Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates, which was not associated with the study.

"Almost all of what we know of sexual violence by teens against teens and among adults is fairly consistent in naming men as the most likely to be the perpetrator" of completed rape, Majmudar said.

So while females don't commit rape at the same rates as males, they are just as likely to coerce a male partner into foresexual contact.

Who You Know

Perhaps the most disturbing fact to come out of this report is that "stranger danger is not really the problem," Ybarra said, referring to the popular misconception that most victims of sexual violence are assaulted by people they do not know.

In fact, nearly three-quarters of those who experienced sexual violence did so at the hands of a romantic partner. The remaining one-quarter were victims of someone they knew.

In other words, all victims in the study had some sort of relationship with the perpetrator.

Ybarra argues that open conversations about healthy relationships and sexual activity are key to solving these problems.

"It's an uncomfortable conversation," she acknowledges. "But it's not just rape. Child abuse is more likely to be perpetrated by someone you know, and [these crimes] go into adulthood."

Justice is often hard to attain: 66 percent of victims reported that no one found out about the assault, with only one percent of victims reporting the crime to police, and only one percent of police reports leading to an arrest.

Cultural attitudes are part of the problem, as 50 percent of perpetrators blame their victims for the sexual violence.

Still, it's tough for a male victim to come forward. Majmudar cites a "cultural framework of masculinity, where a man is supposed to be tough and not be victimized by a woman or a girl.

"There are ways our cultural lessons about gender silence the men who are victims and, frankly, the cultural ideas about sexual violence silence victims regardless of gender," she continued. "There's a lot of work to be done to create communities for victims."

Ybarra hopes this study informs conversations and policy about preventing sexual violence that takes gender and development into account.

"Our hope is that this is the starting point of a useful and important conversation about healthy sex in adolescence," she said. "I want to understand the differences and similarities for males and females and what that means from a prevention standpoint. Do we need to do something different for females?"

Follow Tanya Basu on Twitter.

24 comments
Tom Petres
Tom Petres

Anyone want a better idea on such matters?  Read The Woman Racket.  Great book.

P V
P V

Worth keeping these parts of the article/study in mind - COERCIVE, ATTEMPTED RAPE & COMPLETE RAPE are still predominantly male crimes:

"But when you get into coercive and attempted rape, it does seem to differ"—with males committing 75 percent of these crimes, compared with 25 percent committed by females.

AND...

But they also found that completed rape is predominantly a male crime—a finding that is in line with general attitudes about rape, according to Sharmili Majmudar of Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates, which was not associated with the study.

So of the 4 types of "sexual violence" defined in this study, the 3 most violent are still more likely to be committed by males.

Barbara Cullom
Barbara Cullom

It seems odd to me that a story on sexual violence has a photograph of a woman.  After reading several sentences, it made sense that the woman pictured has taken action against rape, but initially, I was startled by the pairing.

Charlotte P.
Charlotte P.

Go tell that to all the victims of war rape. 

Erich Vieth
Erich Vieth

This article is really confusing, because it fails to illustrate key terms.  What, specifically is foresexual contact, for instance?   How does one draw the line between inappropriate sexual contact and contact where two people are touching consensually, but then one decides that he/she has had enough and  discontinues the touching?  Is that now considered to be sexual "aggression?"   This author is afraid write frankly.

Stuart M.
Stuart M.

This sounds like a very poor research study to me. No one answers survey-type questions honestly. I think the findings are pretty preposterous. Trying to say girls and boys are equally sexually violent is ridiculous. What is foresexual contact? A girl kissing a boy who doesn't want to be kissed? The physical differences in strength between boys and girls just totally skews the potential for sexual violence towards boys. 20% of girls engage in gang rape-type activities? Give me a break. This type of study will just lead to more poopooing of male sexual violence. "Well, the girls do it too!" I can hear it already.

Anthony Zarat
Anthony Zarat

"Females and males have carried out sexual violence at nearly equal levels by the age of 18—48 percent on the female side, 52 percent on the male side."

Feminists will do EVERYTHING they can to conceal this FACT.  The same fact was reported by the Centres for Disease Control ... and the feminists re-defined rape so that a victim had to be "penetrated" and a perpetrator had to "penetrate."  Feminists are ethically abhorrent man-haters.

Jim Ronin
Jim Ronin

Extremely interesting article. Though I feel that once again I have to come down on the side of video-games and media.

They are rated for a reason, because media is more suitable for someone of one age than they are to another, (most commonly used example being the GTA series).

If violent media is to blame, and there is some to support that it does, but far more to support that it doesn't, it is not the fault of the media or the companies / people who create that media, but the fault of the parents, guardians or stores that have allowed under age people to buy / get hold of and use that media. Films, games, music, it's all rated for a reason, it is the adults that must take responsibility if they have allowed underage people to view that material, NOT the fault of those who create it, because there is a MUCH larger audience of the allowed age who want to view that material than there are of younger people, although that number is increasing all the time.

Effectively, more strict control over age rated material needs to be introduced. Banning that material altogether will NOT solve the problem there.

This is not only a problem with sexual violence, but also with almost every other form of youth violence committed. The blame is usually always pointed towards violent media in some way or another. It's becoming a scapegoat an easy "he did it".

Other than that, once again, very interesting article, I had no idea about female instigated violence being as widespread as it is!

P V
P V

@Tom Petres For those interested, here is a great review of that book: "The Woman Racket is a singularly odd book.  The subtitle proposes to present "the new science explaining how the sexes relate at work, at play and in society", but the science presented isn't all that new, nor is much science presented" - Full review HERE.

How that propaganda would help with designing effective intervention/curbing of SEXUAL VIOLENCE is anyone's guess.

However, teaching *all* people (male, female, intersex) to respect the rights of others to their own bodies, will. No one is entitled sexually to another person's body. Truly alarming that 50 percent of perpetrators blame their victims for the sexual violence.

We clearly still need to educate* young people about this, especially in the context of relationships - as the study suggests this is the most common scenario in which sexual violence takes place.

*that education cannot overlook the fact (according to the study mentioned above) COERCIVE, ATTEMPTED RAPE & COMPLETE RAPE are still predominantly male crimes. The study might help illuminate specific ways girls and boys should be educated about sexual violence, to curb such violence.

L C
L C

@P V You need to remember that rape is defined to exclude certain acts against men, so minimizing the numbers of women who are charged, and that there is under-reporting by men.  Sexual violence, including rape, is an equal opportunity crime.

P V
P V

In addition: The most alarming thing for me was not so much the sex of the perpetrators of the four types of acts defined as "sexual violence" in the study. But the fact that, according to the study findings, the perpetrators are overwhelmingly PEOPLE THE VICTIMS KNEW: "nearly three-quarters of those who experienced sexual violence did so at the hands of a romantic partner. The remaining one-quarter were victims of someone they knew."

Education around sexual violence within relationships I fear is still terribly inadequate.

L C
L C

@Barbara Cullom Perhaps you should be startled, since some women are sexually violent.  There are numerous research projects and articles which attest to that. See research articles by researchers Denise Hines, Lara Stemple, Myriam Denov, and Jessica Turchik among others.

Ali Bukhari
Ali Bukhari

@Stuart M. Your remarks are poor, the study seems to be fine... girls are more violent. foresexual contact can not just be physical touch, it can say as to romantic conversation from the women end which is more likely happening. Men are less in emotional control specially in anger & sex. Girls raping girls are so famous in gang rape.. 

Will Shetterly
Will Shetterly

@Stuart M. If this survey is wrong, all surveys about sex are wrong. Which may be the case, of course.

Anyone who thinks men and women are fundamentally equal should agree that applies to sexual aggression too.

P V
P V

@Anthony Zarat here are a couple of sections within the article above you seem to have overlooked:

"But when you get into coercive and attempted rape, it does seem to differ"—with males committing 75 percent of these crimes, compared with 25 percent committed by females.

AND...

But they also found that completed rape is predominantly a male crime—a finding that is in line with general attitudes about rape, according to Sharmili Majmudar of Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates, which was not associated with the study.

And regarding your statement about "feminists": Feminists today are not in *any* way a homogenous group. Not all feminists hate men, there are men who identify as feminists, and many of us have the capacity to understand all of this. Your generalisation, sadly, only diminishes your argument.

My thanks to the author of this article - have many further questions about the study itself, but, a thought-provoking read.

Jason Dowd
Jason Dowd

@Anthony Zarat 

Some feminists may be ethically abhorrent man-haters, but I have known quite a few who weren't.

Lance Smith
Lance Smith

@James RaynorAgreed on all points.

As for your last point about female instigated violence, here is another reading that may be of interest to you. These are things we don't hear in the media. Oh everyone loves to blame the (male) victim by blaming a "cultural framework of masculinity, where a man is supposed to be tough and not be victimized by a woman or a girl." but in reality, the problem today is noisy victims' rights groups only see female victims (after all, we are told not too long ago WOMEN didn't like to admit victimhood either). Granted, men (and the women who love them) need to step up...which is happening. Very often to the absolute howls of protest from the victims' rights groups and feminists!

Quote: "The most comprehensive review of the scholarly domestic violence research literature ever conducted concludes, among other things, that women perpetrate physical and emotional abuse, as well as engage in control behaviors, at comparable rates to men. The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge project, or PASK, whose final installment was just published in the journal Partner Abuse, is an unparalleled three-year research project, conducted by 42 scholars at 20 universities and research centers, and including information on 17 areas of domestic violence research." 

See:  http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/5/prweb10741752.htm?PID=4003003

Stuart M.
Stuart M.

@Ali Bukhari   So you're saying foresexual violence includes "verbal violence" too? I think we are watering down definitions of what sexual violence is. I think that is a big disservice of this report. Lots of commenters seem to have drawn the wrong conclusion from this study, thinking women are just as sexually violent as men. Thanks to P.V. for highlighting the parts of the report which undermine the "Females are just as likely to be perpetrators as males" subtitle of this article. I worry that news websites are so desperate to attract traffic that they use very controversial sounding titles that will get them onto Google News. I expect better from National Geographic.

P V
P V

@Ali Bukhari your remarks make no sense, are grammatically poor, and factually dubious.

Lance Smith
Lance Smith

@Jason Dowd Then those feminists need to start stepping up and drown out their sisters. As long as they push the fiction that masculine is some sort of toxicity, they will be considered the enemy. As long as they vilify all men... As long as they build their religion on the myth that all men are privileged and all women are not.... As long as they continue to shame men (and the women that love them) for pointing out areas and ways the men are oppressed and women are privileged.... As long as they do not wish to give men an EQUAL seat at the gender rights table.... and on and on. Whether you wish the accept this truth or not, feminism as it is practiced has a lot of answer for. And it is up to them to figure out how they wish to proceed, grow, and evolve.

P V
P V

@Lance Smith @James Raynor

Lance, you wrote: "Very often to the absolute howls of protest from the victims' rights groups and feminists!"

I would gladly accept your assertion that "victim's rights groups and feminists" are discouraging men from reporting being raped, if you would provide actual evidence this is occurring on a wide scale level. 

Moreover your assertion that: "Oh everyone loves to blame the (male) victim by blaming a "cultural framework of masculinity" is flawed. "Blaming" a cultural framework is not blaming the victim... it is blaming the cultural framework (feel free to read back that sentence again). 

Males, Females and Intersex people can be either victims or perpetrators of a crime. End of.

P.S. Re your assertion of feminists discouraging male victims - on social media this week, I saw feminists and victims rights advocates articulating loudly why what star Chris Brown said about "losing his virginity" at age 8 was, in fact, rape. By an older female.

P V
P V

@Stuart M. @Ali Bukhari The subtitle can be seen as misleading when you get into the specifics of the report - I certainly hope people read the article carefully, but it is likely many will scan and not fully understand or think critically about the information that was gathered, and has been presented here.

But I also notice MRAs (male rights activists) and people with dubious agenda's always leave comments on articles like this (as some have here), which conveniently overlook any lines that don't support their angry ideology. 

It is rather ironic that the comment by Anthony attacks man-hating, ideologically blinded "feminists", yet commits the exact same offense of overlooking inconvenient information.

All underneath an article on how to best protect/help our young people of all sexes - and, hence, society. Shameful, really. 

P V
P V

@Lance Smith @Jason Dowd It's worth noting here Lance that despite the fact you didn't question Anthony's assertion that some kind of "feminist" conspiracy is happening to suppress any evidence of female sexual violence, the above article also features the following sentences:

"But when you get into coercive and attempted rape, it does seem to differ"—with males committing 75 percent of these crimes, compared with 25 percent committed by females.

AND...

But they also found that completed rape is predominantly a male crime—a finding that is in line with general attitudes about rape, according to Sharmili Majmudar of Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates, which was not associated with the study.

Moreover, debates about the causes of and best way to address rape are ongoing within "feminism", which these days is a very broad and diverse church indeed. It is a debate not helped by either those who proffer "man-hating" rhetoric, OR those who proffer sweeping, simplistic, ignorant statements about "feminism".

L C
L C

@P V The subtitle is correct.  Read articles by people who do original research such as Denise Hines, Lara Stemple, Myriam Denov, and Jessica Turchik among others.

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