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Five Facts You Need to Know About Youth and Sex

Sexual violence usually emerges around the age of 16.

It’s normal as parents to not want to think about your child having sex, let alone being sexually violent or forcing others to do things sexually. Unfortunately, our recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that not only do we need to be thinking about sexual violence, we need to be talking with our children about it as well. [1]

Here are five things that you need to know about young people and sexual violence:

1. Almost one in ten youth are perpetrators. Nine percent of youth between the ages of 14 and 21 have admitted to making someone do something sexual when they knew that the other person did not want to. (This is 9% of *all* youth – not just those who are having sex)

2. We asked youth who said they have tried to or made someone have sex with them, how old they were the first time. The most common age of initiation is 16 years old.

3. Girls are perpetrators: One in three youth who admitted to trying or making someone have sex with them was female.

4. Media matters. Youth who watch violent x-rated material are more likely to admit to being sexually violent. Trends also suggest intense exposures to violent media (people shooting, fighting, killing) and sexual media (people kissing, having sex) may be related to sexual violence.

5. Few perpetrators face consequences. We asked youth who had tried or made someone to have sex with them, what happened as a result. Two in three youth said nothing happened; no one found out. Only 1% were contacted by the police.

So, what to do?

1. Talk to youth about healthy sex and unhealthy sex. Healthy sex is when both people are ready and want to have sex. Unhealthy sex is when one or both aren’t ready, or are unsure about whether they want to have sex.

2. Know that rape is not just physically forcing someone to have sex – it also can be psychological coercion.[2] Remind youth that if they or their partner need to be convinced to have sex, then it’s not healthy sex.

3. Start talking to youth early – well before they are 16 years old about healthy and unhealthy sex. Even if you don’t want your children to have sex until they’re adults, it is still important to talk to them about sex. Sharing with them why you want them to wait may be really helpful for them to hear.

4. Be mindful of the media that youth are consuming. From a public health perspective, x-rated material may not be harmful (what you believe from a moral perspective is absolutely your choice). But *violent* x-rated material appears to be a marker for concern. If you discover that a child has been looking at sexual images where one person is physically hurting another person, talk to them about it. Also talk to them more generally about the amount of violence and sexual images they are consuming everyday through television, music, the internet, and games.

5. Create spaces and places that encourage bystanders (youth who hear about sexual violence others have experienced) to stand up and say something. As a community and a society, we need to be sure that those who are sexually violent meet consequences.

One more thing – give youth some perspective. When you’re young, it’s easy to feel like it’s either now or never. Assure youth that they have their whole lives ahead of them to have sex. If their partner says ‘no’, there will be many other opportunities for better, healthier sex in the future.

Learn more about our research at

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About the study: Findings are from the Growing up with Media study. We surveyed over 1,000 young people 14-21 years old who lived across the United States. Sexual violence was indicated if youth said they had kissed, touched, or done anything sexual with someone when they knew that the other person did not want to. Additionally, youth said they had tried, but were unable, to make someone have sex them when they knew the other person did not want to; if they had ever gotten someone to give in to sex when they knew that person did not want to; or made someone have sex with them when they knew that person did not want to have sex were marked as sexually violent.

The GuwM Study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (R01 CE001543; PI: Ybarra). Points of view or opinions in this bulletin are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of policies of the Centers for Disease Control.


[1] Ybarra ML, Mitchell KJ. Prevalence Rates of Male and Female Sexual Violence Perpetrators in a National Sample of Adolescents. JAMA Pediatr. 2013;():-. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.2629.

[2] Rape and Sexual Assault. Bureau of Justice Statistics. July 13, 2013 Accessed at: