Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Trends in the Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence: A Cohort Analysis

Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Trends in the Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence: A Cohort Analysis

Article excerpt

Although recent statistics hint that rates of reported rape and child sexual abuse began to decline in the 1990s, little is known about changes in the characteristics of victimizations over time or about the implications of these changes for policy and services. This investigation uses data from a general population survey to examine sexual assault trends in two ways: by age cohort and by historical era in which a first sexual assault experience occurred. Findings suggest that the lifetime prevalence of sexual assault has not significantly changed across cohorts of women in their 20s to 50s. Characteristics of women's experiences across cohorts may be shifting, however, with early childhood experiences of sexual victimization showing a slight decline, accompanied by increases in assault rates during adolescence. Additionally, although help-seeking among victims has increased, women's perceptions of their community's responsiveness have worsened slightly. Research and intervention implications are discussed.

Keywords: sexual abuse; assault; rape

Sexual violence is a common experience in the lives of women. Between 18% and 44% of women in the United States report some form of sexual victimization in their lifetimes (Russell & Bolen, 2000; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998), and estimates of rape rates center around 15% (for review, see Rozee & Koss, 2001). Changes in the prevalence of sexual violence over time and the potential impact of violence intervention and prevention services upon victimization rates are not well documented. Recent research has provided conflicting pictures of trends in the prevalence of sexual assault of women and girls and has stimulated controversy among sexual-violence experts as to the nature and meaning of changes in the epidemiology of rape (Russell & Bolen, 2000). Although some data suggest recent declines in the rates of adult rape and child sexual abuse (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002; Jones, Finkelhor, & Kopiec, 2001; Rennison & Rand, 2003), other data imply that the prevalence of sexual violence has remained unchanged or may have increased (Russell & Bolen, 2000; Wyatt, Loeb, Sous, & Carmona, 1999).

Institutions such as the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Research Council have called for improved surveillance of sexual violence and enhanced tracking of trends in prevalence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002; Kruttschnitt, McLaughlin, & Petrie, 2004). A more accurate understanding of trends in the prevalence and characteristics of sexual assault may aid service and prevention planning as well as policy development.

The purpose of this study is to add to the emerging picture of sexual violence trends by examining differences in the prevalence and nature of victimization across cohorts of women in a general population survey of Washington State women. More specifically, the study examines the sexual assault-related experiences of women in different age cohorts and women victimized in different historical time periods. The primary aims of this study are to (1) examine differences in the general prevalence of various types of sexual violence across cohorts, (2) assess shifts in the nature, type, and characteristics of sexual assault experiences over time, and (3) assess changes across cohorts in postassault help-seeking and victims' perceptions of their community's responsiveness to the issue of sexual violence.

TRENDS IN SEXUAL VIOLENCE PREVALENCE

Examination of sexual violence trends should be placed within the context of historical developments in sexual assault service-delivery systems and in community awareness of issues surrounding sexual violence. Rape crisis centers began to emerge out of the women's movement in the early 1970s, and gradually increasing state and federal funding sparked a growth of new agencies nationwide. In Washington State, for example, the number of community sexual assault programs grew from 1 in 1973 to 41 by 2002 (Berliner & Fine, 2001; B. …

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