Sexual Violence – Risk and Protective Factors

Risk factors are associated with a greater likelihood of sexual violence (SV) perpetration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of becoming a perpetrator of SV. These are contributing factors and might not be direct causes, and not everyone identified as at risk becomes a perpetrator of violence.

Understanding these multilevel factors can help identify various opportunities for prevention.

Sexual violence affects both the individual and society, and it can have harmful and lasting physical and psychological consequences for victims, families, and communities.

Sexual violence affects both the individual and society, and it can have harmful and lasting physical and psychological consequences for victims, families, and communities.

Individual risk factors for perpetration include 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, and prior sexual victimization or perpetration.

Individual risk factors become more complicated in the context of relationship factors that include a family environment characterized by physical violence and conflict; a childhood history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; an emotionally unsupportive family environment; poor parent-child relationships, particularly with fathers; association with sexually aggressive, hypermasculine, and delinquent peers, and involvement in a violent or abusive intimate relationship.

Poverty, a lack of employment opportunities, a lack of institutional support from police and judicial system, the general tolerance of sexual violence within the community, and weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators – all can come together to amplify individual and relationship risk factors. Moreover, societal norms that support sexual violence, suggest male superiority and sexual entitlement, imply women’s inferiority and sexual submissiveness make sexual violence seem normal.

Protective factors may lessen the likelihood of sexual violence victimization or perpetration by buffering against risk. These factors can exist at individual, relational, community, and societal levels.  The few protective factors identified by researchers include parental use of reasoning to resolve family conflict, emotional health and connectedness, academic achievement, and empathy and concern for how one’s actions affect others.

Sexual violence affects both the individual and society, and it can have harmful and lasting physical and psychological consequences for victims, families, and communities. More than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape every year with the highest rates of rape-induced pregnancy reported by women in abusive relationships.

Sexual violence also has social impacts on its victims, such as strained relationships with family, friends, and intimate partners, diminished emotional support from friends and family, less frequent contact with friends and relatives, reduced chance of marriage, and isolation or ostracism from family or community.

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 derived theoretically.

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