Warning: Many of the topics covered in this section are upsetting or disturbing.
When we consider interpersonal violence such as homicide, assault and robbery, men are more likely than women to be victims of violent crimes. While true, this fact obscures another fact: women are far more likely than men to be raped and sexually assaulted. Women are more likely than men to be victims of (IPV), or violence between spouses and others with intimate relationships. They are more likely to experience abuse online and harassment in public. And finally, women are much more likely to be portrayed as victims of violence in the media.
The gendered nature of these acts against women distinguishes them from the violence men suffer. Violence is directed against men not because they are men per se, but because of anger, jealousy, and the sociological reasons discussed earlier in the review of deviance and crime. But rape and sexual assault, intimate partner violence, harassment, and media portrayals as victims are directed against women precisely because they are women. They are thus an extreme extension of the gender inequality women face in other areas of life.
Note that our discussion will primarily focus on the experiences of people in the United States. However, gendered violence is a world-wide phenomenon. Research by the World Health Organization has found globally, that 1 in 3 women experience physical violence or sexual assault in their lifetime. This violence starts early in life, with 25% of women who are 15-24 years of age and involved in a relationship, experiencing IPV by their mid-20’s (World Health Organization, 2021). Further, inequality is a significant correlating factor in violence against women, with women in low- and lower-middle-income countries experiencing the highest rates of IPV (2021). It is estimated that, on average, 37% of women in these countries experience IPV in their lifetime, with the prevalence in some countries up to 50% (World Health Organization, 2021).
Noted feminist writer, Susan Griffin (1971, p. 26), began a classic essay on rape in 1971 with this startling statement:
I have never been free of the fear of rape. From a very early age I, like most women, have thought of rape as a part of my natural environment—something to be feared and prayed against like fire or lightning. I never asked why men raped; I simply thought it one of the many mysteries of human nature.
Our knowledge about the extent and nature of and reasons for it in the U.S. comes from three sources: the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and surveys of and interviews with women and men conducted by academic researchers. First, the good news: sexual violence in the U.S. has fallen by half in the past 20 years (RAINN, 2021). Despite the high numbers, women are safer today than they were 25 years ago, when people thought society was much safer. That should make the high number of incidents that do occur all the more startling. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 319,950 incidences of rape or sexual assault occurred in the United States in 2020 (Morgan, 2021). As reported by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, research indicates one in six women in the U.S. has been the victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in her lifetime. Victims are disproportionately young, with 54% between the ages of 18-34 and female (90%), with women between 18 – 24 most at risk of attack (RAINN, 2021).
Perhaps reflective of statistics, sexual violence is more prevalent than other crimes on college campuses. Women who live on campus are three times more likely to be assaulted compared to all women. Among undergraduate students, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (RAINN, 2021). However, most of these assaults are not reported. Victims cite a number of reasons why, including a belief it was a personal matter, not trusting the police, fear of reprisal, and not wanting to get the perpetrator into trouble (RAINN, 2021). Of the women who said they were raped, only 12.5% reported the crime to law enforcement or college officials (New, 2016). Thus, at a campus of 10,000 students of whom 5,000 are women, about 1,050 will be raped or sexually assaulted over a period of 4 years.
Aside from the immediate trauma of the assault, victims of sexual violence usually experience long-term effects as well. Post-traumatic stress disorder can last for months if not years, and even a lifetime if untreated, a significant number consider or attempt suicide, and many turn to legal and illegal drugs to self-medicate. A majority say relationships with family and friends are impacted, too (RAINN, 2021).
The public image of rape is of the proverbial stranger attacking a woman in an alleyway. While such rapes do occur, most rapes actually happen between people who know each other. A wide body of research finds that 75% of all rapes and sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman knows, including husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends, and ex-boyfriends, and only 19% by strangers (RAINN, 2021). This means that a woman is 4 times more likely to be raped by someone she knows than by a stranger.
Due to the serious nature of this crime, numerous studies have looked at male perpetrators of assaults against women to determine if there are common factors. Most were inconclusive. However, in a review of existing studies four characteristics did emerge (Greathouse, 2015):
- Several studies have found that men’s endorsement of rape myths, hostility toward women, endorsement of traditional gender roles, and hypermasculinity are related to sexual assault perpetration against women;
- Individuals who think their peers would approve are more likely to commit sexual assault;
- A history of early sexual encounters, numerous sexual partners, or a previous history of sexual assault; and
- One or both parties had been drinking alcohol in about ½ of the assaults.
Organizations like RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) are working to educate the public and change norms about sexual intimacy. For more information on the RAINN Hotline, go to their website: RAINN Hotline
Changing norms about sexuality has caused society to redefine what is and is not acceptable behavior. Similar to when laws became more protective of rape victims in the 1970’s, and marital rape became a crime in all states in 1993, ideas about consent have made society redefine sexual violence that occurs between people who are friends or by a romantic suitor through the use of coercion, threat of violence, or incapacitating drugs. Sometimes referred to as date or acquaintance rape, victims typically do not report their assault. They feel embarrassed or even responsible because they may have been drinking when the assault happened; some are even unsure if what occurred was a crime. (It was.)
Three cultural beliefs—that women enjoy being forced to have sex, that they ask or deserve to be raped, and that men should be sexually assertive or even aggressive—combine to produce a cultural recipe for rape (Franiuk, Seefelt, & Vandello, 2008). Although most men do not rape, the cultural beliefs and myths described help account for the rapes that do occur. Recognizing this, the contemporary women’s movement began attacking these myths back in the 1970s, and the public is much more conscious of the true nature of rape than a generation ago. That said, much of the public still accepts these cultural beliefs and myths, and prosecutors continue to find it difficult to win jury convictions in rape trials unless the woman who was raped had suffered visible injuries, had not known the man who raped her, and/or was not dressed attractively (Levine, 2006).
Using Your Sociological Imagination
How do you think the rate of rape and intimate partner violence can be reduced?
What structural changes and underlying cultural attitudes can be introduced, altered and/or enforced to achieve this goal?
What would the feminist perspective say about the issues of rape and intimate partner violence?
In contrast to the cultural explanation above, the structural explanations for rape emphasize the power differences between women and men, similar to those outlined earlier for sexual harassment. In societies that are male dominated, rape and other violence against women is a likely outcome, as they allow men to demonstrate and maintain their power over women. Supporting this view, studies of preindustrial societies and of the 50 states of the United States find that rape is more common in societies and states where women have less economic and political power (Baron & Straus, 1989; Sanday, 1981).
Think Like a Sociologist
According to the 2020 Criminal Victimization Report filed by the U.S. Bureau of Justice, people making less than $25,000 had the highest reported rates of all forms of violence, while people making over $200,000 had the lowest reported rates (Morgan, 2021). Assuming such acts of violence are primarily based in one’s household or community, this data implies that people who are in poverty are more violent and, by extension, commit more sexual assaults. However, scandals about privileged men who had harassed, sexually abused or assaulted victims for years, sometimes decades, before being brought to justice have come to light in recent years. These men include Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, U.S. gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, beloved comedian Bill Cosby, wealthy and well-connected financier Jeffrey Epstein and singer R. Kelly. Recall as well, the story in Chapter 6 about Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman but received a light sentence from the judge and was released for good behavior after serving three months.
Are poor people more likely to commit violent sex crimes than rich people, or are wealthy people more likely to use their positions and resources to evade suspicion and avoid prosecution?
How would a conflict theorist interpret such events?
Other Forms of Gendered Violence
Sexual assault is not the only form of violence directed against women. will be covered in greater detail in the review of marriage and family in Chapter 12, and it should be noted that all genders can be victims. However, girls are more likely to be victims of unwanted sexual abuse, where the perpetrators use force, use threats or take advantage of them (Smith, et. al., 2021). is yet another form of gendered violence. This practice occurs when an individual uses obsessive tactics, contacts or tracking against another person where the attention is unwanted and fearful. The first stalking laws were passed in the 1990’s. In a 2017 report, 15.8% or about 1 in 6 women said she had experienced stalking in her lifetime, typically by a current or former romantic partner, with 84% of the victims being stalked only by male perpetrators (Smith, et. al., 2021). Finally, some 21% of women reported in a 2017 Pew survey they had been sexually harassed online, and more than half had received unwanted sexually explicit images. Nearly ⅓ later said they found the experience extremely upsetting (Duggan, 2020).
Sexual Orientation and Violence
Attitudes related to diverse sexual orientations have changed over time in the U.S. For instance, in the 1988 General Social Survey, when asked if it is wrong for same-sex adults to have sexual relations, 75% of respondents stated that it was “always wrong.” By 2016, almost 30 years later, only 39% gave this answer, and in the 2018 survey only 31% agreed. Although this figure represents a substantial decline from the survey’s earlier findings, it is clear that almost ⅓ of Americans remain sharply opposed to homosexuality. Not surprisingly, then, sexual orientation continues to be the source of abuse and discrimination directed toward members of the LGBTQ+ community.
These individuals experience various forms of abuse, mistreatment, and discrimination that their heterosexual counterparts do not experience. In this respect, their sexuality and gender diversity is the source of a good deal of inequality. For example, compared with heterosexual youth, sexual minority and transgender youth reported greater victimization of every kind, including bullying, sexual harassment and sexual violence (Norris, 2019). LGBTQ+ people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crimes compared to the non-LGBTQ+ population, with LBT women five times more likely than non-LBT women (Flores, 2020). After a disturbing trend that saw an increase in hate crimes based on sexual orientation, incidents had decreased by 2021. However, violence based on gender-identity bias against transgender people increased 20% in 2021 (FBI, 2021). A 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality found half of respondents had been verbally harassed, and 9% had been physically assaulted for being transgender (James, 2016).
The Victimization of Boys and Men
It’s important to note that men also report being sexually assaulted and raped, with the rape of men in the military and prisons and jails a serious issue. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), men and boys who are sexually abused or assaulted experience the same trauma as any victim, but also face additional challenges because of societal attitudes and stereotypes about masculinity (2021). Approximately one in ten rape victims is male, and in their lifetime approximately 3% of men will be victims of rape or attempted rape (RAINN, 2021). As for boys, approximately 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault by an adult (RAINN, 2021). Perpetrators can be any gender or sexual orientation, and use force, coercion or psychological tactics, though it is worth noting that little research has been done on the perpetrators of male sexual assault (Greathouse, 2015). After being assaulted, victims feel a myriad of emotions, from feeling less of a man, to embarrassment, depression, powerlessness, and shame. Many do not think they will be believed.
Think Like a Sociologist
Consider these two stories:
“Kelsey Peterson, a 25-year-old sixth-grade math teacher and basketball coach at Lexington Middle School, was arrested in Mexico and the 13-year-old boy she allegedly ran away with was turned over to his relatives, a prosecutor said Saturday” (AP, 2019).
“A 50-year-old Tennessee man accused of kidnapping his 15-year-old former student was arrested in Northern California — and the teenage girl was recovered safely after she was missing for more than a month, authorities said Thursday” (Silva, 2017).
How does the language used to describe both crimes reflect society’s attitudes about female vs. male sexual predators, or male vs. female victims?
Media as an Agent of Socialization
Clearly, violence associated with gender and sexuality is a social problem in the U.S. An important question to explore is why we see the degree of violence we do targeting these groups? What underlying factors in our social institutions are the root cause of violence against women and LGBTQ+ people? One powerful source that transmits attitudes and beliefs about sexual norms is the media.
It would be inaccurate to pin all of the blame for gendered violence against the media. The culture in the United States has long been noted for its acceptance of violence in general. Children who witness violence among adult partners at home may come to see this as normal behavior. Peer influence results in attitudes related to gender violence. For instance, research has shown that men in fraternities are more accepting of sexual violence compared to non-members (Seabrook, 2019). However, the media deserves examination for the many ways it influences the culture about sexual mores.
An ad from 1871 for Pearl Tobacco is the earliest known use of sex in advertising. Library of Congress – Public Domain
Advertisers have found that sex sells, and so will use images of women in provocative poses to sell everything from blue jeans to light bulbs. Researchers who studied how women and men were presented in 740 ads found women were portrayed as more flawless, passive, and dismembered compared to men (Conley, 2011). As noted earlier in the chapter, women and LGBTQ+ people are unlikely to be the main characters on television shows. Worse, though, is how they are regularly depicted. A study of male and female characters on television programs found that male characters were more often the perpetrators of crime, women more often the victim, with White women having the greatest chance of being raped or sexually assaulted, attacked by a stranger, suffering serious harm or being killed (Parrott, 2015). While several female musicians in recent years sing of empowerment and agency, they are still held to different standards and portrayed doing more sexually suggestive movements, with suggestive posing and facial expressions, particularly in music videos – though some genres such as country are less likely to do so compared to hip-hop and R&B (Karsay, 2019). Finally, in video games women are shown as non-essential characters, usually in revealing clothing and indulging in sexually explicit behavior (Ivory, 2006). As for sexual minorities, as described in the previous section, the media’s portrayal of the LGBTQ community was historically homophobic and continues to rely on stereotypes that are degrading. Certainly, such portrayals devalue members, and allow bullying, harassment and violent behavior to be seen as more acceptable.
Despite statements from the gaming industry to increase women’s presence in video games, as of 2019 only 10% of new releases centered on a woman as the main character (Sarkeesian, 2019). Free for commercial use, DMCA
The most blatant example of gendered violence in the media is found in . Despite some claims of it being a high-brow appreciation of the female form, those who object – which ranges from religious moralists to feminists – decry the impact of these images on the moral order and condemn pornography for its sexual objectification of women. This is especially true of hard-core pornography that glorifies sexual violence against women. While the link between pornography and violence against women exists (though the extent depends on many variables), efforts to contain pornography are met with freedom of speech protectionists. We can say that much of what we call pornography still degrades women by depicting them as objects that exist for men’s sexual pleasure and by portraying them as legitimate targets of men’s sexual violence. These images should be troubling for any society that values gender equality. The extent of pornography in the United States may, for better or worse, reflect our historical commitment to freedom of speech, but it may also reflect our lack of commitment to full equality between women and men. Even if, as we have seen, the survey evidence shows growing disapproval of traditional gender roles, the persistence of pornography shows that our society has a long way to go toward viewing women as equally human as men.
In 2011, in response to Canadian police officer in Toronto, Ontario stating that women should “avoid dressing like sluts,” in order to prevent being sexually assaulted, the first “SlutWalk” rally was held. Now a transnational movement, walks are held worldwide to call for an end to rape culture and the victim blaming for people who have been sexually assaulted. Similarly, since the 1970’s, Take Back the Night rallies have been held, calling for an end to sexual violence. Richard Potts – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) – Flickr
When searching for ways to reduce violence directed at women and sexual minorities, as well as sexual abuse in general, the sociological perspective suggests three approaches. First, by understanding the context when such violence occurs, we can better understand the characteristics perpetrators have in common and address them. Second, by recognizing patterns in our culture that contribute to inaccurate beliefs about sexual assault, intimate partner violence and other predatory behavior, we can change how these topics are discussed at home, with peers, at work or school and how they are presented in the media. Third, by accepting that underlying all of these issues is inequality that legitimizes or downplays the seriousness of such violence, we can try to empower those most likely to be victimized.
Section 10.4 References
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violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner
being forced to have sex
occurs when a minor is forced into sexual interaction by someone 18 years and older, such as an adult exposing themselves to a minor, having sexual contact with or sending obscene messages to a minor, sex trafficking or child pornography
occurs when an individual uses obsessive tactics, contacts or tracking against another person where the attention is unwanted and fearful
the portrayal of written or visual sexual material used to cause sexual excitement