The numbers might seem shocking, but they came as no surprise to those who work for rape crisis and sexual assault prevention programs.
According to a new government survey, nearly one in five women say they have been raped or the victim of a rape attempt at some point, and one in four said they had been beaten by an intimate partner.
“The study is very consistent with what advocates for victims of sexual assault see,” said Joanne Zannoni, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, based in Albany. She said she hoped the study would spark a larger discussion about how widespread the problem is, and raise awareness.
Linda Scharf, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, which runs a rape crisis program, said the federal study, along with high-profile cases such as the alleged assault of underage boys by a former assistant football coach at Penn State, were encouraging people to talk about the prevalence of sexual assault.
Called the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, the study was begun in 2010 and conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study found that women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, intimate partner violence and stalking, but that men are also affected. According to the survey, one in 71 men have been raped in their lifetime, and one in seven men experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner. One in four women have been the victim of severe physical violence, according to the survey.
Zannoni said that the percentage of men claiming to have been raped sounded low. Those who work with victims, she said, describe the problem as more widespread.
“I don’t think it’s a growing problem,” she said. “What may be changing is that more male victims are coming forward.”
Zannoni said that misperceptions about men and sex might contribute to the problem.
“There’s this idea that a man could not be raped or sexually assaulted,” Zannoni said. “There’s this notion that men are always ready for any type of sexual encounter.” Neither of these beliefs are true, she said, but they might explain why “male victims might have questions about why the perpetrator chose them. In many cases, the perpetrator is a male. People tend to think sexual assault between same-sex people means homosexuality is involved, and that’s a misperception. But it can make it hard for men to come forward.”
She said men might also be unaware that many rape crisis programs serve all victims of sexual assault, not just women.
Zannoni and other advocates said they would like to see rape prevention efforts shift focus from victims to perpetrators.
Right now, rape prevention messaging often focuses on telling women how not to be victims — to avoid walking home alone or drinking too much or wearing clothing that might be considered revealing. But Zannoni said these campaigns are misguided, because they do not address the underlying problem and place the blame for an attack on the victim.
She said there are certain risk factors that indicate whether someone is likely to commit a sexual assault, including hostility toward women, hypermasculinity and whether they witnessed violence as a child. In addition, more than half of female rape victims are raped by an intimate partner, while another 40 percent are raped by an acquaintance, which suggests that the majority of attacks are not caused by random strangers.
“People aren’t assaulted because of what they’re wearing,” Scharf said. “We often teach ‘Don’t get raped,’ instead of ‘Don’t rape.’ But short skirts don’t cause rape, rapists do. … Sexual assault is a crime. It’s not about sex. It’s about power. There’s this idea that men can’t control their urges. That’s ridiculous.”
Scharf said people of all ages are victims of rape. “It’s important that we understand that rape doesn’t just happen to beautiful young women wearing short skirts. It’s important that we look at sexual assault for what it is.”
Another problem, Zannoni said, are societal norms that “support male superiority and male sexual entitlement.” Just last week, a fraternity at the University of Vermont was suspended after distributing a pledge survey that asked “If I could rape someone, who would it be?”
“Where did they get the idea that this was acceptable to send out?” Zannoni asked.
In order to prevent rape and intimate partner violence, students need to be taught that they’re unacceptable at school, at home and by afterschool organizations, Zannoni said.
Rape, stalking and physical violence by an intimate partner usually has lasting effects. According to the study, 81 percent of women who experienced rape, stalking or physical violence reported significant short or long-term impacts such as post-traumatic stress disorder, while 35 percent of men reported short or long-term impacts.
Victimization starts early in life, according to the report. Approximately 80 percent of female victims experienced their first rape before the age of 25, and almost half experienced their first rape before the age of 18. About 35 percent of women who were raped as minors were also raped by adults, compared to 14 percent of women without an early rape history. Twenty-eight percent of male victims of rape were first raped when they were 10 years old or younger.
Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson runs a 24-hour hotline for sexual assault victims and their families. Scharf said that many of the people who call were sexually assaulted years ago.
“They might read something in the paper, and it’s an emotional trigger for them, and they decide to deal with it,” she said. “It’s important for people to realize that they’ll always be listened to.”
Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood in Albany doesn’t run a rape crisis center, but the clinicians there are trained our clinicians to detect signs of trauma, according to Blue Carreker, a spokeswoman for the organization. If a woman reports being sexually assaulted, she is referred to a rape crisis center.
Carreker said Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood doesn’t keep track of how many women report being sexually assaulted, but the numbers in the survey came as no surprise.
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