Sexual victimization can mean several things — verbal coercion to have sex with an intimate partner, rape by a stranger, a woman fondled in a bar or forced intercourse when a woman is too intoxicated to consent or object.
Researchers at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions report that 18 percent of young women recruited into a study experienced sexual victimization in a two-year period. Victimization was defined as unwanted sexual contact, verbally coerced sex, rape or attempted rape. Among this group, the majority (approximately 66 percent) stated that their victimization was perpetrated by an intimate partner.
Importantly, it was found that sexual victimization of women by intimate partners and non-intimate partners are two completely separate phenomena. Two different sets of risk factors exist for victimization by two different types of perpetrators.
“Because risk factors or predictors for the two different types of sexual victimization differ, considering them separately allowed us to see who is vulnerable to which type of experience,” stated Maria Testa, Ph.D., lead investigator on the study and RIA senior research scientist. “It also has suggested the need for tailoring prevention strategies to each type of experience.”
The research results were published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Testa and colleagues investigated whether women’s substance use, sexual activity and lack of assertiveness in refusing sexual advances might contribute to sexual victimization by both intimate partners and non-intimate partners.
For purposes of this study, an intimate partner was defined as a boyfriend/dating partner, husband, ex-boyfriend or ex-husband. All other perpetrators were classified as non-intimates and included acquaintances and friends, and more rarely, relatives, groups and strangers.
Initially through in-person interviews at the institute and subsequently through questionnaires mailed to their homes, 927 women averaging 24 years of age at the beginning of the study reported their experiences of sexual victimization at three time points. The sample of women ages 18-30 was representative of Buffalo and Erie County with 75 percent of the women identifying themselves as Caucasian, 17 percent as African American and small percentages as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. Average income was $35,000 and 40 percent of the women were enrolled in college. Most were unmarried and employed either full- or part-time.
The factors that predicted victimization from intimates were different than the factors that predicted victimization from non-intimates. Predictors of intimate partner victimization included being married or living together, prior intimate partner victimization and difficulty refusing a partner’s request for sex. Thus, women who experience this type of sexual victimization are at risk of experiencing it multiple times, by virtue of remaining in relationships with sexually aggressive men.
A predictor of victimization by a non-intimate perpetrator was binge drinking. “One explanation for this may be that a perpetrator who is not intimately acquainted with a victim is more likely to take advantage of a woman’s intoxication as a way to facilitate having sex with her,” according to Testa. “Women who are heavy drinkers or binge drinkers typically drink outside the home and in the presence of others who are drinking, reflecting a lifestyle that poses greater risk from men they don’t know.”
Another predictor of victimization by a non-intimate perpetrator was engaging in sex with a greater number of sexual partners. This behavior also increased risk for subsequent sexual victimization due to exposure to a greater number of potential perpetrators.
Testa suggests that prevention strategies to reduce sexual victimization by non-intimate partners should be designed to reduce heavy episodic drinking, as well as the number of sexual partnerships, especially in populations such as female college students. Different strategies are necessary to prevent sexual victimization from intimate partners and might include assertiveness training for women about how to effectively refuse sexual advances and discouraging young women from entering or remaining in coercive relationships.
Co-authors on the report included Carol VanZile-Tamsen, Ph.D., formerly of RIA and currently a research analyst with UB’s Office of Institutional Analysis, and Jennifer A. Livingston, Ph.D., RIA research scientist.
This research was supported with grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Office of Research on Women’s Health.
The Research Institute on Addictions has been a leader in the study of addictions since 1970 and a research center of the University at Buffalo since 1999.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.