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Can We Prevent Adolescent Sexual Violence?

Prevention is possible to protect teens from peer sexual assault.

In September 2018, the high-profile hearing to address sexual assault allegations against Bret Kavanaugh provoked discussions in several areas, including sexual violence among adolescents. Mr. Kavanaugh, a then U.S. Supreme Court nominee, was accused by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of sexually assaulting her while both were in high school in the 1980s. Several graduates from the same high school expressed their support to Dr. Blasey Ford stating in a letter that her experience “is all too consistent with stories we heard and lived while attending Holton” high school. This story is one that also resonates with the experiences of other boys and girls across the U.S. It is estimated that by age 18, about 18% of girls and 3% of boys have experienced sexual assault or abuse by another adolescent. However, estimating the true prevalence of peer sexual violence is difficult, as teenagers are often reluctant to disclose such abuse and may do so only several years later.

Research shows that adolescent sexual offending is often transient. The vast majority of youth convicted of sexual offenses do not re-offend sexually; indeed, 97% of youth convicted of sex crimes are not convicted of new sex crimes. Such low recidivism rates for sexual offenses suggest that many of these events were influenced by situational factors rather than deeply rooted predatory traits. Situational factors can include judgment impaired by alcohol and other drugs. Further, adolescents who sexually offend may not have a clear understanding of signs of consent or mutual interest. They may also be ignorant or minimize the potential consequences of their actions for themselves and for victims.

The long-term consequences of peer sexual violence can be severe for both the victim and the aggressor. Adolescents convicted of sexual offenses may face imprisonment and registration as a sex offender, which impacts several aspects of their lives, including their ability to go to school and hold a job many years after the offense. Victims of sexual assault may experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These psychological consequences may also impact other important aspects of adolescent lives such as school performance, sports, and leisure time with friends. There is also growing evidence that childhood experiences of trauma and abuse have long-lasting consequences on mental, physical, and even financial health in adulthood.

While treatment and support are imperative for victims of sexual violence, prevention programs are crucial to avert this type of violence from happening in the first place. Several dating and peer violence-oriented programs targeting peer-on-peer sexual aggression are emerging and show promise. Among those are Shifting Boundaries, Safe Dates, Green Dot, and Coaching Boys into Men. These educational programs have shown promise in curbing the incidence of peer sexual violence by addressing multiple strategies to support adolescents’ healthy decision making. Among the strategies used by educators are teaching the characteristics of positive and consensual sexual interactions, refusal skills, bystander intervention, and promoting social norms against sexual violence. Attending to the built environment to eliminate “hot spots” where bad behavior festers is also a growing prevention strategy. Adolescent sexual violence is a serious public health problem that can be prevented. As every adolescent deserves a healthy sexual development, educational efforts should be made to ensure adolescents’ healthy, safe, and positive sexual and romantic interactions.

Luciana C. Assini-Meytin, PhD, is a Research Associate at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health