Understanding Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is a form of oppression in which sex is used as a weapon by those with power against those without power. Sexual Violence is a public health epidemic in the United States and in Ohio, impacting our family members, neighbors and friends. The term “sexual violence” encompasses all abusive and coercive acts of violence in which sex/sexuality is used as a weapon to harm, humiliate, control, exploit, and/or intimidate. It impacts individuals of all ages, and its pervasiveness knows no demographic boundaries. Sexual violence is a traumatic crime that affects survivors physically, mentally, emotionally, behaviorally and spiritually. It also impacts families, communities, and systems. Ending sexual violence is not just our vision as a society. It can be our reality.

Statistics regarding the prevalence of sexual violence are readily available, but vary widely depending on their source and how that source defines sexual violence and specific sex offenses. For the purposes of our work, OAESV defines sexual violence as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does: “Sexual violence (SV) is any sexual act that is perpetrated against someone’s will. SV encompasses a range of offenses, including a completed nonconsensual sex act (i.e., rape), an attempted nonconsensual sex act, abusive sexual contact (i.e., unwanted touching), and non-contact sexual abuse (e.g., threatened sexual violence, exhibitionism, verbal sexual harassment). All types involve victims who do not consent, or who are unable to consent or refuse to allow the act.”

Criminal Justice and Statutory Definitions

What We Know About Sexual Violence in General

It is a widespread crime suffered worldwide by individuals of all ages, races, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, gender identities, sexual orientations, and geographic locations.

  • It is suffered disproportionately by women of color, individuals with disabilities, and individuals who identify as LGBTQI.
  • It is one of the most underreported crimes.
  • It is associated with numerous negative health and economic outcomes for survivors.

A Sampling of Statistics About Sexual Violence

Nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have experienced rape in their lifetime; nearly half of all women have experienced sexual violence other than rape; 1 in 71 men in the U.S. has been the victim of rape in their lifetime; 1 in 5 has experienced sexual violence other than rape. 1 in 2 transgender individuals have experience rape or sexual assault in their lifetime.

National Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence Survey

42% of female survivors experienced their first completed rape prior to age 18; 28% of male survivors were first raped prior to age 11 (Centers for Disease Control). 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually victimized before age 18.

Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

In Ohio in 2011, 61% of reported rapes were committed against juveniles; the average age of victimization was 15 (Ohio Incident-Based Reporting System).

Approximately 63% of sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement (Read more: National Sexual Violence Resource Center).

The Truth About Rape

There are numerous myths about sexual violence that exist in our society, the impact of which is both individual and cultural. Sexual violence is a form of oppression and a crime of power and control. Most myths about sexual violence are rooted in and perpetuated by this oppression, and are a direct extension of the rape culture which exists in our society. Some myths are rooted in our psychological need to protect ourselves from harm and to distance ourselves from those who have been victimized.

Below are a few of the most common myths (and their countering facts) about sexual violence in our society:

Myth: Most rapes are committed in dark alleys by strangers.
Fact: The majority of rapists are known to the survivor and assaults often occur in locations familiar to the survivor and/or rapist.

Myth: Rape is motivated by uncontrollable sexual desire.
Fact: Rape is a violent crime of power and control in which sex is used as a weapon to harm and humiliate.

Myth: If the survivor was dressed provocatively or intoxicated or high, it’s their fault.
Fact: It is never the survivor’s fault, no matter what they were or were not doing or wearing. No one ever asks for or deserves to be raped.

Myth: Women often lie about being raped.
Fact: Very few reported rapes are false – about 4% – which is consistent with the false reporting rate for most other felony crimes.

Myth: If the survivor didn’t resist or struggle, then it wasn’t rape.
Fact: There are many reasons a survivor may not (or cannot) resist, including fear, being overpowered, or being incapacitated.

Myth: Only gay men rape other men.
Fact: Most men who rape men identify as heterosexual. Rape is about power and control, not sexual desire or orientation.

Myth: Rape cannot happen in same-gender relationships.
Fact: Men can rape other men, and women can rape other women, whether in an intimate relationship, acquaintances, or strangers.

Myth: Sex workers can’t be raped; someone engaging in risky sexual behavior is to blame if they are raped.
Fact: Regardless of a person’s sexual history or behavior, if s/he did not consent, it is rape. An individual can be raped by someone with whom they had prior consensual sexual contact.

Rape Culture

As previously discussed, sexual violence is a form of oppression in which sex is used as a weapon to control, humiliate, and intimidate those on whom that violence is committed. In modern American society, it may be difficult to believe or accept that a culture supporting rape still exists, but it arguably does. Many aspects of “rape culture” are so much a part of our social structure and discourse that we don’t always recognize them as contributing to the problem of sexual violence. As a result, sexual violence is normalized, tolerated, excused, and thus also encouraged.

In the broadest context, rape culture affects every group and individual in our society who does not have power. “The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and intimidation to all women” (Marshall University Women’s Center). Those from oppressed or marginalized groups experience disproportionate rates of discrimination and violence (including rape), and are socialized from an early age by those in power and through the impact of historical trauma to expect that discrimination and violence will be part of their lives. This serves to keep those with less power and privilege subordinate to those with more power and privilege. When violence, including sexual violence, is committed against those with less power and privilege, the victimized are blamed for their victimization.

There are many examples of rape culture in our society. Below are a few examples:

  • Binary norms and stereotypes that do not allow for diverse gender identities, gender expression and sexual orientations, especially for individuals within LGBTQI communities.
  • Widespread, consistent glamorization of sexual violence and murder committed against women (especially women of color) and girls in popular media and the entertainment industry.
  • Objectification of women and girls in entertainment, advertising, and the media
  • Adherence to rigid gender norms and stereotypes that support hyper-masculinity and discourage the equality and sexual freedom of females and individuals who identify as LGBTQI.
  • Tolerance of sexually explicit jokes, sexual harassment, demeaning sexual comments, etc.
  • Excusing or dismissing sexually violent or coercive behavior (“boys will be boys”, e.g.).
  • Choosing not to believe survivors or refusing to take accusations of sexual violence seriously.
  • Teaching potential victims to avoid being raped, rather than teaching everyone how to practice consent, be respectful and nonviolent.
  • Rape culture affects everyone in our society, and everyone has a role in challenging it. Each of us can choose not to laugh at sexist, racist and transphobic jokes, not to purchase or consume sexually violent entertainment, and to speak up when acts of sexual violence are excused and individual survivors are blamed or otherwise not supported.
  • Those with greater power and privilege have a responsibility to exercise their power and privilege to stop violence and the systems that enable violence to continue.

Additional Information

Download our information sheet about Sexual Violence and Ohio's efforts to address it. Download our brochure, "Sexual Violence: Facts, Resources & Action Steps".