Laura Hawkes and colleagues have published a prevalence and impact study of American women and their first sexual experience. The sample of women between the ages of 18 and 44 (13,000 plus) records that 6% experienced rape as their first sexual experience. On average, the rape took place when the woman was 15 years of age. The perpetrator was, on average, 27 years of age. (For a news oriented summary of this study, go to this story on NPR.
Force (of any kind) + unwanted sex = rape
When you think of the term rape, you may immediately imagine physical violence. And certainly, many sexual assaults and rape are unimaginably violent acts. But, it is important to realize that verbal and emotional coercion may also play a very large role in forced sex/rape. When a person uses their position, status, verbal power, threats of violence, threats of loss of safety, emotional manipulation and the like to get another person to engage in sexual intercourse, this can be defined as rape. If it was unwanted but the person did not physically fight back, it is still considered rape.
Rape of any kind is destructive and traumatizing. For some, emotional coercion adds an extra layer of shame and trauma because either they or others may not consider the experience an assault. “Well, he didn’t hold a gun to my head…” or “I didn’t fight him off…so maybe it wasn’t really an assault.” Common but destructive questions such as, “What were you wearing? Why did you go there” add additional trauma.
What impact might that have on a person?
When forced sex is the first sexual experience, there are a cascade of potential health problems that may plague the victim. Reproductive health consequences loom large as to be expected. Many of these continue long afterwards. Mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addictions also may become chronic experiences. In what may be often overlooked, chronic insomnia (a not surprising result) can lead to long-term auto-immune disorders and cancers. No wonder we don’t just “get over” something like this.
Discouraged? Yes. Helpless? No.
You can read a study like this and leave feeling discouraged about our society. That would be an appropriate response. And, you may also leave knowing that you can do two things that do make a difference:
- Increase your awareness of and compassion for those who have experienced rape/sexual assault. Your capacity to hold their stories and acknowledge the impact may actually begin to lessen shame and isolation and improve quality of life.
- Be willing to speak up about any and all behavior that minimizes abuses of power, especially as it relates to sexual activity.
To read the official abstract of the study, go here.