Nine percent of adolescents participating in a longitudinal survey assessing exposure to violence in the media reported that they had perpetrated some type of sexual violence in their lifetimes, with the incidence of initial sexually violent acts peaking at the age of 16 years, according to a report published online Oct. 7 in JAMA Pediatrics.
A total of 108 of the 1,058 14- to 21-year-old males and females participating in the national Growing Up With Media study admitted to perpetrating sexual violence. Eighty-four said that they had kissed, touched, or made someone do something sexual knowing that the other person did not want to (defined as forced sexual contact); 33 had gotten someone to give in to sex knowing that he or she did not want to (defined as coercive sex); 43 attempted but were unable to force someone to have sex (defined as attempted rape); and 18 forced someone to have sex (defined as completed rape). There was some overlap among these categories.
Perpetrators of any type of sexual violence were significantly more likely than were nonperpetrators to consume X-rated material via television, music, video games, and the Internet. In particular, they were significantly more likely to view depictions of one person physically hurting another while doing something sexual, said Michele L. Ybarra, Ph.D., of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, San Clemente, Calif., and Kimberly J. Mitchell, Ph.D., of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham.
"Although the data do not denote causality, it seems appropriate to suggest that frequent consumption of sexual and violent material, and especially sexually violent material, should be a marker for concern for adolescent health care professionals," they noted.
The investigators added that since this is one of the first reports of national rates of sexual violence among adolescents, the findings must be replicated in future research and until then should be interpreted cautiously.
Dr. Ybarra and Dr. Mitchell undertook this study because of the paucity of data regarding sexual violence in this age group. The longitudinal Growing Up With Media survey began in 2006 when the initial 1,586 participants were aged 10-15 years, and it focused on violent media and violent behavior. But the researchers began collecting data on sexual perpetration as well in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 questionnaires, when participants were aged 14-21 years.
A total of 49 adolescents – 39 males and 10 females – reported that they attempted or completed rape. In 60% of these episodes, vaginal sex was attempted or completed, and in 48%, oral sex was attempted or completed.
Males were significantly more likely than were females to report such sexual violence up until the age of 18 years. For example, 98% of those who reported perpetrating at age 15 years or younger were male, as were 90% of those who reported perpetrating at age 16 or 17 years. But the number of male and female perpetrators was nearly even among those who started committing sexual violence at age 18 or 19 years.
This suggests "different developmental trajectories" between male and female perpetrators and indicates that prevention programs must be tailored and timed for these gender and age differences.
Females also were more likely to report perpetrating sexual violence as part of a team or group; 2 of the 10 female perpetrators (20%) did so, compared with only 1 of 39 male perpetrators (2.5%).
Age 16 was "by far the most common age at perpetration," with 40% of participants who admitted committing sexual violence citing 16 as the age at which they started. "It is critical that adolescent health care professionals, parents, and others interacting with youths model and educate young people about how to develop and maintain healthy sexual relationships well before this pivotal age," Dr. Ybarra and Dr. Mitchell said (JAMA Pediatr. 2013 [doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.2629]).
The study subjects were asked to provide details about their most recent coercive actions. Most (63%) said they got angry at or tried to make the victim feel guilty to obtain sex, and 32% said they argued with or put pressure on the victim. Threats and physical force were used by 5% and 8%, respectively.
Alcohol was used to coerce sex in "a notable minority of situations (15%)," the investigators wrote.
Approximately three-fourths of the victims were "romantic partners" of the perpetrator, and the remaining one-fourth of victims had some form of a relationship with the perpetrator. This finding is consistent with the literature, which demonstrates that adolescent victims are overwhelmingly more likely to be abused by someone they know than by a stranger.