Sexual Assault: The Silent, Violent Epidemic
According to the AMA, sexual assault continues to represent the most rapidly growing violent crime in America, claiming a victim every 45 seconds. Because many of these attacks occurring daily go unreported and unrecognized, sexual assault can be considered a “silent-violent epidemic” in the United States today.
The National Victim Center reports that over 700,000 women are raped or sexually assaulted annually. Of these victims, 61% are under age 18. Less is known about the frequency of rapes perpetrated against men. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that male victims represent about five percent of reported sexual assaults.
The legal term “rape” has traditionally referred to forced vaginal penetration of a women by a male assailant. Many states have now abandoned this concept in favor of the gender neutral concept of sexual assault. Among the acts classified as sexual assault is acquaintance or date rape, generally defined as an assault in which the assailant is known to the victim. Approximately 20% of sexual assaults against women are perpetrated by assailants unknown to the victim. The remainder are committed by friends, acquaintances, intimates, and family members. Acquaintance rape is particularly common among adolescent victims.
The majority of sexual assault victims are young. A 1991 report stated that 32% of sexual assaults by acquaintances occur when the victim is between the ages of 11 and 17.
Women with a history of rape or attempted rape during adolescence are almost twice as likely to experience a sexual assault during college, and were three times as likely to be victimized by a husband.
As is true of other violent crimes, it is difficult to get accurate estimates of the incidence of sexual assault. It is generally accepted that less than half of rapes are reported to authorities; some estimates are as low as 10%. Many factors contribute to underreporting, including embarrassment, fear of further injury, and fear of court procedures that, too often, scrutinize and judge the victim's behavior and history.
Sexual assaults can and do occur within marital relationships. Most often, these assaults occur within a context of ongoing domestic violence. While reports and prosecutions of spousal rape are fairly infrequent, some convictions have occurred. Sexual assault is reported by 33% to 46% of women who are being physically assaulted by their husbands.
Several sociocultural influences contribute to the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault. These include increased acceptance of interpersonal violence, adversarial stereotypes of male-female relationships, prevalent myths about rape, and sex-role stereotyping. Some victims of attacks meeting the legal definition of rape do not label their experience as sexual assault.
Common myths surrounding rape include: only women can be sexually assaulted; victims who truly resist cannot be raped; no really doesn't mean no; nice girls don't get raped; and “she asked for it.” Male rape victims may feel that others will question their sexuality if they report the incident or that they, in fact, subconsciously desired and complied with their assault.
The use of alcohol and drugs also contributes to the risk of sexual assault. A study of sexual assaults among college students found that 73% of the assailants and 55% of the victims had used drugs, alcohol, or both immediately before the assault.
“Sexual assault is a 'silent-violent epidemic' growing at an alarming rate and traumatizing the women and children of our nation,” said Lonnie Bristow, M.D., AMA president. “This crime is shrouded in silence, caused by unfair social myths and biases that incriminate victims rather than offenders. These myths push victims into the shadows, afraid to step forward and seek help from their physicians.”