Monday, October 14, 2013

A Guest Post by Katie Gotch and Joan Tabachnick

Sexual Violence Perpetrators are Common Among Adolescents…or Are They? The Power of Language When Discussing Sexual Violence

A recently published study entitled The Prevalence Rates of Male and Female Sexual Violence Perpetrators in a National Sample of Adolescents (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2013) has generated quite a response from both professionals and the mainstream media.  This response is not surprising as the article is one of the first investigations into the prevalence of sexual violence among adolescents who are not involved in the criminal justice system.
The study utilized data from a longitudinal self-report survey (Growing Up with Media) which focused on the possible associations between exposure to violent media and violent behavior.  Information was obtained from youth-caregiver pairs in 2010 and 2011 through questions about forced sexual contact, coercive sex, attempted rape, and completed rape. Key to the question about consent was the phrase “when I knew they did not want to.”  The results of the study indicated 9% of the sample reported some type of sexual violence perpetration in their lifetime, which included:
  • 8% (n = 84) who kissed, touched or made someone else do something sexual when the youth knew the other person did not want to do (defined by the researchers as forced sexual contact)
  • 3% (n = 33) got someone to give in to sex when he or she knew the other person did not want to have sex  (defined as coercive sex)
  • 3% (n = 43) attempted, but were not able to force someone to have sex (defined as attempted rape)
  • 2% (n = 18) forced someone to have sex with him or her (defined as completed rape)
  • Overlap between the categories was noted and, among perpetrators, 12% reported two different behaviors, 11% reported three different behaviors, and 9% reported all four types of behavior
Other critical information noted by the authors was:
  • “…consumption of X-rated material significantly differed for perpetrators and nonperpetrators of all types of sexual violence.  Differences were almost entirely explained by whether the material was violent in nature.” 
  • “Youth living in low income households were less likely to report attempted rape than youth in higher income households.”  
And, the most controversial of the findings:

·       “By ages 18 or 19 years, the split of male to female perpetrators was nearly equivalent.  More females reported older victims, and more males reported younger victims.” 
This research is invaluable and we applaud the researchers for investigating such a difficult topic and providing some important baseline information about national rates of sexual violence in adolescence. However, the conclusions made from the data and even the title selected for this article have been problematic and, in many ways, represent a lost important opportunity for deeper discussion about this issue.
Despite the authors’ identification of sexual violence as a public health problem and numerous recommendations about the need to develop comprehensive education and bystander intervention strategies to prevent sexual violence, the title of the article labeled all of these children and youth as perpetrators and the text continued this labeling of children and teens.  Included in this perpetrator label was the 2% who completed rape as well as kids as young as 12 who “kissed, touched, or made someone else do something sexual when the youth knew the other person did not want to.”  The authors also noted that “few perpetrators experience consequences:  only 2 percent reported being arrested,” and then continued to describe the need to enhance detection and investigation of sexual violence cases.  By their own definition, many of these cases, even if reported, would not be legally considered sexual violence and these children and adolescents would not be considered perpetrators.  In our opinion, this speaks to the need to include other forms of intervention and accountability when speaking about children and young teens who cannot be reported for their sexual decisions.  These teens clearly need to be accountable for their actions and require instruction about the importance of consent and how to negotiate these sexual questions with peers. 
Since the publication of the article just over a week ago, the media latched onto the descriptions of these youth as “perpetrators” with article titles such as 10 Percent of U.S. Youths Cause Sexual Violence:  Females are just as likely to be perpetrators as males; 1 in 10 Young People Have Perpetrated Sexual Violence; and Sexual Violence Common Among Adolescents (e.g.;;  
Not only does the media response reinforce the incorrect focus on these youth as “perpetrators,” there was blatant misinterpretation of the data which was then communicated to the public as fact.  One of the more egregious examples of this was the statement that “females are just as likely to be perpetrators as males” – this conclusion was taken from the discussion about age of first perpetration which indicated that, prior to age 18 or 19, the majority of perpetrators were male and it was not until age 18 or 19 that the split between male to female perpetrators was nearly equivalent.  This does NOT translate that females are just as likely to commit rape as males. Rather, it indicates that, when a female in this sample first “engaged in perpetration”, the female was more often 18 or 19 at the time rather than the younger ages of 12 to 17.  And, for these females, the “victim” was also most likely to be older, which again speaks to the concern about whether these young women understand the concept of consent, victimization, and power in sexual relationships.  The data also clearly indicated that females engaged in perpetration behavior at a lower rate than males (attempted rape: n = 43, 35 were male; completed rape: n = 18, 13 were male), not that they are “just as likely to be perpetrators as males.”
The language used by the authors significantly impacted the message they provided and/or how it was perceived by others.  If our intent is to prevent sexual violence, then our words need to be framed in a way that allows people to begin a conversation about the behaviors we are trying to stop.  In our writing and our publications we need to begin to describe the behaviors that children and teens may engage in, rather than label these youth as “perpetrators.”  In a popular publication of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, an overview of children with sexual behavior problems is labeled by the behaviors and not “child perpetrators.” If the focus is on behavior rather than the label, those in a position to intervene will be much more likely to say something or do something when they see behaviors that concern them.  Imagine if this article and others that follow were to use a true public health approach that focuses on and describes behavior – the media will then be unable to respond just with shock, but will instead need to begin to ask: what is the responsibility of adults, and society, to stop the first time perpetration of these behaviors. 
Katie Gotch, M.A.
Coordinator of Public Affairs 
Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

Joan Tabachnick, M.A.
DSM Consulting
Chair, ATSA Prevention Committee

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