Thursday, July 7, 2016

Prevalence of Perpetration

There is no simple answer to the question, “How many sexual crimes are committed each year?”  It is extremely difficult to find any reliable measure for many reasons – sexual crimes are rarely reported; the definitions of sexual assault, rape, child sexual abuse, statutory rape, and other crimes vary from state to state; and how sexual crimes are recorded may vary from one municipality to another and even from person to person.  Even with these challenges, current measures of the incidence and prevalence of sexual violence provides important information necessary for better policies, more effective interventions, and evidence based prevention programs.   

The SOMAPI report from the DOJ SMART Office begins with a chapter by Jane Wiseman that provides an excellent overview of what is known about the incidence and prevalence of sexual crimes in the US [].  The chapter documents the wealth of information from a variety of different data sources including the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data, National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS), among many others.  Most of these sources report out information about the extent of victimization.  For example, incidence is defined as the number of separate victimizations and prevalence is defined as the number of people within a demographic group (e.g., women or men) who are victimized during a specific time period.  And advocates will quote statistics that state how many women are sexually assaulted in their college years (one-in-five; Not Alone) [] or how many children are sexually abused before the age of 18 (one-in-five girls and one-in-20 boys; Finkelhor) [].

However, given the growing focus on preventing the perpetration of sexual abuse and in particular ATSA’s focus on what we know about those who cause the harm, what do we know about the incidence and prevalence of sexually abusive behavior? 

Through NEARI Press, David Prescott, Steve Bengis and I reviewed a 2013 JAMA article by Michele Ybarra and Kimberly Mitchell on the prevalence of sexual abuse perpetrated by boys and girls. The authors found that 1 in 10 youths (9%) reported some type of sexual violence perpetration in their lifetime.  And for those who did perpetrate some form of sexually abusive behaviors, 16 years was the most common age of onset.  Here is the link to that NEARI Press commentary:

I have also looked into this question during my fellowship with the DOJ SMART Office and found that in the US, we rarely ask these questions about perpetration but in other countries, these questions are asked -- especially in war-torn countries. I would recommend an article by Jewkes, Fulu, Roselli & Garcia –Moreno that discusses this from a global perspective.

If we begin to look at the rates of perpetration (much higher than most people would expect, especially if the broader definition from public health is used) then we see the importance of early intervention with all youth, and especially with boys at the middle and early high school ages.

As ATSA members, we are constantly trying to say that one-size-does-not fit all; that people who abuse are people we know, etc.  If we begin to ask question about the rates of perpetration and begin using these statistics, it highlights a key role for those who work with offenders and youth with sexual behavior problems.  We have a unique skill in identifying behaviors that are healthy and also those of concern.  And even more, as clinicians, probation and parole officers, and other professionals in this field, we know how to talk about our concerns and also how to confront behaviors that may give us some concern.  As the focus of prevention slowly shifts towards preventing the perpetration of sexual harm, there is a growing need for these important skills. 

Joan Tabachnick

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