Over the last decade, researchers, clinicians, and health advocates have explored the incidence, prevalence, and consequences of sexual violence, including attempted and/or completed rape, sexual coercion and harassment, and sexual contact with force or threat of force, within adolescent acquaintance and dating relationships (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner, 2000; Wordes & Nunez, 2002). Current estimates reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) noted that adolescents are more likely to experience sexually violent crimes than any other age group. Furthermore, more than half of all victims of sexual crimes, including rape and sexual assault, are women under the age of 25 years (AAP, 2001). Similar rates were reported by the National Crime Victim Survey (2000). To meet the needs of the adolescent population, attention to risk factors for experiencing sexual violence, the health and psychosocial implications of victimization, and resources for preventing violence is merited.
Risk Factors Associated with Sexual Violence
To date, several risk factors have been associated with an increased risk of experiencing sexual victimization within adolescent dating or acquaintance relationships. These factors largely include youth, which is associated with limited knowledge and lack of experience in interpersonal relationships (WHO, 2002), substance use, including alcohol and drugs (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & Mcauslan, 2001), previous victimization (Rhea, Chafey, Dohner, & Terragno,1996; Wordes and Nunez, 2002), and acceptance of gender based stereotypes (Kershner, 1996; Rickert, Sanghvi, and Wiemann, 2002 ). Ironically, a combination of these same factors is also associated with an increased risk of adolescent males perpetrating sexually based crimes against their female counterparts.
Reporting Sexual Violence
Because these crimes occur within the context of existing relationships, many victims never disclose sexual violence to appropriate authorities. In fact, sexual violence in dating relationships is frequently referred to as a “hidden crime” (CDC, 2000) because less than one-fifth of rapes are ever reported to the police (Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, 2001). Many victims cite denial, minimization, fear, guilt, and shame as factors that deter them from reporting sexual violence. These feelings may be even more pronounced for adolescents when alcohol or other substances have been used prior to victimization (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & Mcauslan, 2001; National Center for Victims of Crime, 1998). Furthermore, reporting victimization may also be particularly difficult for younger adolescents, many of whom have had limited experience advocating for their health, safety, and well-being.
Sexual Violence Prevention Programs
In an effort to prevent sexual victimization and the myriad of negative physical and mental health consequences of sexual violence, including trauma to the genital track, exposure to sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancy, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety (Ackard & Neumark- Sztainer, 2002; WHO, 2002), a number of prevention programs sponsored by schools and communities have been implemented in the United States. Many programs target adolescent males and females of varying ages using a variety modalities, including general education on sexual violence, theatre productions, poster contests, and involvement in community activities. Furthermore, mixed gender programs have also been developed that utilize similar modalities.
Despite the great strides that have been made in understanding sexual violence in adolescent dating and acquaintance relationships, future research, clinical practice, and advocacy efforts should continue to address areas where data are sparse and understanding limited. One noticeable gap in the scientific literature is the limited inclusion of persons from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in sample populations. Additionally, inadequate attention has been paid to perpetration of sexual violence, including the factors that facilitate or impede a male’s decision to perpetrate sexual violence either through coercive or aggressive tactics. Furthermore, limitations in existing studies, including sampling bias and conceptual inconsistencies, reduce the ability to generalize findings across populations. Lastly, intervention programs that show promise in reducing sexual violence among adolescents must be thoroughly investigated and documented so that future researchers, clinicians, and health advocates may replicate model programs (Foshee et al., 1998; Foshee et al., 2000).
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