Risk and Protective Factors
Risk factors are associated with a greater likelihood of sexual violence (SV) perpetration. They are contributing factors and might not be direct causes. Not everyone who is identified as “at risk” becomes a perpetrator of violence.
A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of becoming a perpetrator of SV. Understanding these multilevel factors can help identify various opportunities for prevention.
CDC conducted a systematic review of risk and protective factors for SV perpetration and identified a number of factors at the individual and relationship levels that have been consistently supported by research. However, research examining risk and protective factors for SV perpetration at the community and societal levels remains very limited. Thus, most risk factors identified at community and societal levels are theoretically-derived and based on findings from the World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health (2002).
NOTE: CDC focuses its efforts on preventing the first-time perpetration of SV. For information on risk and protective factors related to victimization (World Report on Violence and Health).
Risk Factors for Perpetration
Individual Risk Factors
• Alcohol and drug use• Delinquency• Empathic deficits• General aggressiveness and acceptance of violence• Early sexual initiation• Coercive sexual fantasies• Preference for impersonal sex and sexual-risk taking• Exposure to sexually explicit media• Hostility towards women• Adherence to traditional gender role norms• Hyper-masculinity• Suicidal behavior
• Prior sexual victimization or perpetration
• Family environment characterized by physical violence and conflict• Childhood history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse• Emotionally unsupportive family environment• Poor parent-child relationships, particularly with fathers• Association with sexually aggressive, hypermasculine, and delinquent peers• Involvement in a violent or abusive intimate relationship
• Poverty• Lack of employment opportunities• Lack of institutional support from police and judicial system• General tolerance of sexual violence within the community• Weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators
• Societal norms that support sexual violence• Societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement• Societal norms that maintain women’s inferiority and sexual submissiveness• Weak laws and policies related to sexual violence and gender equity• High levels of crime and other forms of violence
Sexual violence can have harmful and lasting consequences for victims, families, and communities. The following list describes some of those consequences.
• More than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape every year with the highest rates of rape-induced pregnancy reported by women in abusive relationships• Some long-term consequences of sexual violence include:
o Chronic paino Gastrointestinal disorderso Gynecological complicationso Migraines and other frequent headacheso Sexually transmitted infectionso Cervical cancero Genital injuries
Victims of sexual violence face both immediate and chronic psychological consequences.
Immediate psychological consequences include the following:
• Shock• Denial• Fear• Confusion• Anxiety• Withdrawal• Shame or guilt• Nervousness• Distrust of others• Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
o Emotional detachmento Sleep disturbanceso Flashbackso Mental replay of assault
Chronic psychological consequences include the following:
• Depression• Generalized anxiety• Attempted or completed suicide• Post-traumatic stress disorder• Diminished interest/avoidance of sex• Low self-esteem/self-blame
Sexual violence also has social impacts on its victims, such as the following:
• Strained relationships with family, friends, and intimate partners• Less emotional support from friends and family• Less frequent contact with friends and relatives• Lower likelihood of marriage• Isolation or ostracism from family or community
Health Risk Behaviors
Sexual violence victimization is associated with several health risk behaviors. Some researchers view the following health behaviors as both consequences of sexual violence and factors that increase a person’s vulnerability to being victimized again in the future.
• Engaging in high-risk sexual behavior
o Unprotected sexo Early sexual initiationo Choosing unhealthy sexual partnerso Having multiple sex partnerso Trading sex for food, money, or other items
• Using harmful substances
o Smoking cigaretteso Drinking alcoholo Drinking alcohol and drivingo Taking drugs
• Unhealthy diet-related behaviors
o Fastingo Vomitingo Abusing diet pillso Overeating
• Delinquency and criminal behavior• Failure to engage in healthy behaviors, such as motor vehicle seat belt use
Sexual violence is a serious problem that can have lasting, harmful effects on victims and their family, friends, and communities. The goal of sexual violence prevention is simple—to stop it from happening in the first place. The solutions, however, are just as complex as the problem.
Prevention efforts should ultimately decrease the number of individuals who perpetrate sexual violence and the number of individuals who are victims. Many prevention approaches aim to reduce risk factors and promote protective factors for sexual violence. In addition, comprehensive prevention strategies should address factors at each of the levels that influence sexual violence—individual, relationship, community, and society.
The most common prevention strategies currently focus on the victim, the perpetrator, or bystanders. Strategies that try to equip the victim with knowledge, awareness, or self-defense skills are referred to as “risk reduction techniques.” Strategies focused on the perpetrator attempt to change risk and protective factors for sexual violence to reduce the likelihood that an individual will engage in sexually violent behavior. The goal of bystander prevention strategies is to change social norms supporting sexual violence and empower men and women to intervene with peers to prevent an assault from occurring. Other prevention strategies address social norms, policies, or laws in communities to reduce the perpetration of sexual violence across the population.
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