Forced sexual contact among teens common, says study

A disturbing new study reveals that 9 percent of youths aged 14 to 21 have coerced or forced someone into sexual contact and spells out a more complicated problem than 'no means no' rhetoric can address.

Reed Saxon/AP
Kara Hoppe, one of the adult supervisors, is seen with a wall full of help resources at the Teen Line center, that takes text messages and phone calls from teens seeking help, at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, March 26.

A new study suggests that 9 percent of youths aged 14 to 21 admitted to some kind of forced sexual contact (using anything from guilt to physical force) and that half of them blamed their victims. And as is generally the case with self-reported findings like this, the true numbers could be larger.

The study of 1,058 young people, by researchers from the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif. and the University of New Hampshire, also found that perpetrators of sexual coercion and/or violence reported greater exposure to violent X-rated content. This isn't proof of causation, but is certainly intriguing for parents and policymakers who are trying to disentangle the relationship between media consumption and bad (or even criminal) behavior.

That this is important should be self-evident, but the study does a good job of quickly explaining its own significance:

With more than 1 million victims and associated costs of almost $127 billion each year, sexual violence is a significant public health problem. In addition to societal costs, the impact on the individual can be high, including increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, physical health problems, and suicidal behavior.

The study also illuminates the way in which victims and perpetrators relate to one another, and how far behind law-enforcement is in terms of addressing the problem of coerced sex and sexual assault:

Three in four victims (73 percent) were a romantic partner. Sixty-six percent of perpetrators reported that no one found out about the perpetration. Contact with the justice system was uncommon: 1 percent of perpetrators reported police contact and 1 percent an arrest.

The results throw yet more fear and chaos into the already dark maelstrom of teenage sexual behavior. The hormones, intense emotion, and sloppily byzantine social relationships of adolescence are pressurized and poisoned by the general atmosphere of "abstinence-only" policies in lieu of education and highly sexualized popular entertainment – which makes coming of age in America about as easy as shooting Category 5 rapids while floating in a frying pan. "No means no" seems simple enough, but in an era when "50 Shades of Gray" passes for a major cultural accomplishment, it's easy to see how the message can get lost or distorted.

The study's data (presented in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Pediatrics) is wide-ranging, and it maps onto a broad spectrum of teen contact that ranges from classic, innocent teenage bumbling (a mis-timed or otherwise awkward attempt at a kiss) all the way up to premeditated rape.

And as such, it seems likely to spark conversations evocative of the early '90s controversy over the Antioch College sexual offense policy, which called for explicit verbal consent for any and all levels of physical intimacy. To recap: The New York Times gently castigated the policy, saying "legislating kisses won't save them from themselves," and the director of Antioch's sexual offense prevention and survivors' advocacy program responded  "that we are not trying to reduce the romance, passion or spontaneity of sex; we are trying to reduce the spontaneity of rape."

In short: It's complicated. And in an era where sexting (and all manner of Internet-assisted sexual blackmail and revenge) is a fact of life, and when bullying is constantly discussed and deconstructed, the study will likely add both heat and light to an already intense discussion.

It seems clear, however, that the issue is a serious one, and one that doesn't go away when high schoolers become college students; we need only witness the recent Georgia Tech fraternity e-mail advising members on how to use alcohol to lure "rapebait" at parties. And in as much as "she was drunk, so she consented" is used as an excuse for assault, the study shows that blaming the victim is common enough to be routine:

One in seven perpetrators said they were not at all responsible for what happened. Accordingly, more than 4 in 5 perpetrators said the victim was at least somewhat responsible for what happened.

More data is the starting point. Education, public discussion, and increasingly clear guidelines seem to be among the remedies that may help reduce - but certainly not eliminate - the number young adults crossing the line from "it's complicated" to something coercive and even dangerous.

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