One in 16 American women considers her first sexual experience a forced one, according to a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, titled “Association Between Forced Sexual Initiation and Health Outcomes Among US Women,” analyzed 13,310 American women between the ages of 18 and 44 between 2011 and 2017, finding that 6.5 percent—an estimated 3.3 million—would categorize their sexual initiation as some form of rape.
Furthermore, the study found those first forced encounters occurring at an average age of 15-and-a-half years old. (For comparison’s sake, 17.4 years is the average age of consensual sex for women.) The average age of their perpetrator was 27, which Dr. Laura Hawks, a research fellow at Harvard’s Cambridge Health Alliance and main author of the study told NPR indicates a “major power discrepancy.” Study results were culled from participants in the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth.
With the objective of identifying “the prevalence of forced sexual initiation among US women and its association with subsequent reproductive, gynecologic, and general health outcomes,” the study also found that:
Compared with women with voluntary sexual initiation, women with forced sexual initiation were more likely to experience an unwanted first pregnancy or abortion...endometriosis...pelvic inflammatory disease...and problems with ovulation or menstruation...Survivors of forced sexual initiation more frequently reported illicit drug use...fair or poor health...and difficulty completing tasks owing to a physical or mental health condition...
But as Hawks notes, “It’s quite alarming, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg because this study is only including women aged 18 to 44. You can imagine that if we asked this of women of all ages, absolutely the number would be many millions higher.”
It’s worth noting that the study, which is one of the first to study rape as an initial sexual encounter, concluded in 2017, a year that coincidentally marked the advent of the #MeToo movement as we currently know it. Dr. Marks identifies this sea change as a reason that even her study’s disturbing findings may be a significant underestimate. “More women may feel more comfortable identifying their experiences of sexual violence today than they did just a few years ago,” she told NPR.
And to be clear, the study’s results included not only physical force but also verbal and emotional forms of coercion, as NPR reports.
More than 26% said they were physically threatened during the encounter, 46% said they were physically held down. Over half (56%) of them said they were verbally pressured into having sex, and 16% said that their partner threatened to end the relationship if they didn’t have sex. These forms of coercion were not mutually exclusive.
And while verbal coercion isn’t generally regarded with the same seriousness or sympathy as physical force, at least one additional researcher, University of Calif. at San Francisco assistant professor Carolyn Gibson, tells NPR that “these emotional experiences and pressures are incredibly problematic.”
“The definition of rape is any sexual encounter that’s unwanted or nonconsensual,” said Hawks. “And when a [woman or girl] is coerced into having sex that she doesn’t want to have, that is still considered a rape.”