Sexual Abuse Prevalence In The United States

By: Lance Williams

In highlighting the prevalence of sexual abuse in the United States one is overwhelmed at its far reaching effects.  What follows is a brief description of the nature and prevalence of sexual abuse.  Far from being an exhaustive summary, the intent of this paper is to provide a high level overview of what many consider to be the most under-reported violent crime in America.  (Karjane, Fisher, Cullen 2005)  In addition, a review of associated consequences to sexual abuse has been provided in recent studies and will be summarized here.  Special attention has been given to the occurrence of sexual abuse in adolescent and college age groups due to the unique dynamics that seems to exist with adult sexual abuse prevalence.

Sexual Abuse Defined

One challenge that exists in determining accurate rates of sexual abuse concerns an accurate definition of the terms.  While most studies include forced vaginal, oral, and anal sex when defining sexual abuse, some studies include both attempted and completed assaults (Tjaden and Thoennes 2006) while others document only completed assaults (McFarlane and Malecha 2005).  The impact of these definitions will have an obvious effect on the prevalence reported in each study and is only mentioned to point out the variance that can exist between studies.

The Nature of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a crime of violence that is often perpetrated upon the victim by someone they know.  Only 17 percent of female victims and 23 percent of male victims were raped by a stranger.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2006)  Sexual abuse is also most often committed in private settings and by one person (78.2 percent), while multiple assailants are responsible for just over 20 percent of reported rapes .  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2006)  In addition, a strong correlation exists between those who experience physical abuse and sexual assault in that 68 percent of physically abused women also reported having been sexual assaulted. (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)

Perpetrators of sexual abuse also differ in each stage of a victim’s life with children tending to be victimized by relatives, adolescent women by intimate partners and acquaintances and adult women were most likely to be raped by an intimate partner.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2006)


When considering the nature of sexual abuse among adolescents, research indicates that girls are at a higher risk of sexual assault than boys (13.0 percent versus 3.4 percent).  (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)  In addition, almost three in four rapes were committed by someone the victim knew well.  (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)  In one study, nearly seventy percent of sexual assaults among adolescents occurred  at either the victim’s residence, neighborhood or school.  (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)


Statistical data among college-age victims for both completed and attempted rapes continues to support the fact that most are committed by someone the victim knows with 9 in 10 offenders being known to the victim.  The data also shows that over 70 percent of completed, attempted or threatened rapes took place on a date.  (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001)  In addition, most sexual assaults occur after midnight (51.8 percent) with 36.5 percent happening between 6:00 p.m. and midnight, and only about 12 percent occurred between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00p.m.  (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001)  The majority of college rapes (60 percent) take place in the victim’s home.  (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001)

Behaviors Associated with Increased Risk

Women who are subjected to sexual abuse are certainly not responsible for the abuse that they endure.  However, it has been noted that calling attention to common behaviors associated with increased risk of sexual abuse can assist in identifying an effective prevention strategy. (Department of Justice 2004)  The following behaviors have been identified as those associated with an increased risk of sexual abuse.

  • Women who experienced multiple forms of abuse (i.e. sexual and physical) and those who experienced sexual abuse in multiple stages of development (i.e. childhood and adolescents), were more likely to experience sexual abuse later in life.  (Department of Justice 2004; Siegel and Williams 2003; Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001)
  • Multiple sexual partners significantly increased the risk of adult sexual abuse.  (Siegel and Williams 2003)
  • Women who struggled with Alcohol abuse have a greater likelihood of being victimized sexually.  (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001; Siegel and Williams 2003)

Prevalence of Sexual Assault

The prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. is increasing.  Having been sexually assaulted as a minor has been shown to double the likelihood of being raped as an adult.  In addition, the following data helps us comprehend the gravity of the crisis we face.

  • One out of six women is a victim of rape.  Nearly 18 million women and almost 3 million men in the U. S. have been raped.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2006)
  • Intimate partner sexual assault is the most common sexual assault with 14% to 25% of women reporting sexual assault by their intimate partners at some time during the relationship.” (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)
  • The National Violence against Women Survey reported that almost 25 percent of women and 7.6 percent of men were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabitating partner, or date at some time in their lifetime. (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000)
  • Prevalence of rape differs by age group with the highest being one in five women  for women aged 18-49, 1 in 6 women ages 50-59 and 1 in 15 women who were age 60 and older.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000)


Rape prevalence for males and females also varies throughout adolescents.  Boys were two times more likely than girls to have experienced their first rape prior to age 12.  However, nearly one third of women and almost one fourth of men experienced their first sexual assault between the ages of 12 and 17.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000)


College age students also face an alarming trend.  In one study over a given school year (6.91 months), the victimization rate for sexual assault was 27.7 rapes per 1000 female students, or 1 in 36 women being raped.  The incident rate in this same study was reported to be 35 rapes per 1000 female students, with the difference in numbers being accounted for by multiple rapes per victim.  This would indicate that an average college of 10,000 students could face over 350 incidences of rape in a given year.  (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001)

Another study corroborates this data reporting that 88 percent of women completing a 4-year college program had experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual victimization in their lifetimes, with 64 percent experiencing both.  (Department of Justice)

Consequences of Sexual Abuse

Many of the consequences of sexual abuse are consistent with what one would expect with such a destructive act.  However, the extent and impact of secondary and tertiary consequences should motivate greater action in working to prevent sexual assault in the future.  Several documented consequences are listed below.

  • A history of sexual assault is associated with a four-to-fivefold increase in the prevalence of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)
  • Incidences of rape are often followed by an increased use of alcohol and illicit drugs like cocaine.  (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)
  • Women who were sexually assaulted and had filed a protection order were over five times more likely than those who were physically abused to report a threatened or attempted suicide.  (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)
  • Children of sexually abused mothers, age 12 to 18, exhibited a high degree of depression, and significantly more than children of physically-abused mothers.  (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)
  • Boys and girls who were sexually assaulted were nearly four and five times more likely, respectively, to struggle with substance abuse at some point in their life.  (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)

Seeking Help

It is apparent that the legal system alone is ill-equipped to handle cases of sexual assault.  The nature of this crime requires the involvement of many organizations to handle the complex damage caused by this violent act.  Several studies report the reluctance of victims to contact law enforcement and others report unsatisfactory results for many of those who do report the incident.

  • In one study only 6% of sexually assaulted women contacted the police following the first sexual assault and 8% applied for a protection order.  (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)
  • However, in this same study contact with the police and an application for a protection order was associated with up to a 70% reduction in the risk of re-assault.” (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)
  • Another study reported a 17.2 percent reporting rate related to intimate partner rape with a 50 percent satisfaction rate regarding their treatment by the police.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000, 2006)
  • In addition, failure to report a sexual assault and/or apply for a protection order significantly increased a risk of re-assault.  (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)
  • In one study, less than 45 percent of the rapes that were reported resulted in the rapist being arrested, with intimate partner rapists less likely to be convicted than nonintimates.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2006)


Clearly those who claim to be Christ followers must be aware of the growing frequency of sexual assault and be equipped to at least direct those who are victims of this abuse to effective and biblical care.  The church has a wonderful opportunity to be an advocate for those who have suffered in such a profound way.  In addition, it is the duty of every pastor and overseer of adolescents and children to be aware of not only their legal but also their ethical responsibilities to report sexual abuse to assist victims in reporting sexual abuse to the appropriate law enforcement professional.


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