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Defining the Problem and the Population
Status of Current Sexual ASSAULT Services
Funding and Technical Assistance

Sexual Assault Victims/Survivors:
Defining the Problem and the Population

Sexual violence is a serious public health problem in the United States, affecting people of every age and background. The World Report on Violence and Health, conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), broadly defines sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic a person’s sexuality, using coercion, threats of harm or physical force, by any person regardless of relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”

In plain terms, sexual violence occurs any time a person is forced, coerced, and/or manipulated into any unwanted sexual activity. Included within this definition is a wide range of sexual acts such as rape, incest, child sexual assault, ritual abuse, date and acquaintance rape, statutory rape, marital or partner rape, sexual exploitation, unwanted sexual contact, sexual harassment, exposure, human trafficking and voyeurism. Experiencing sexual violence violates a person's trust, autonomy and feeling of safety. One in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused before the age of 17 (Briere & Elliott, 2003).

Answers to the following questions are provided below:


Sexual assault is a pervasive social problem with 18% of women and 3% of men experiencing a completed or attempted assault during their lifetime. More than half of victimizations occur before the survivor reaches the age of eighteen. The National Crime Victim Survey (2000) noted that adolescent females age 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to report sexual assault, rape, and attempted rape. (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).


Research shows that two thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the survivor, such as an acquaintance, friend or intimate partner. In fact, approximately 15% of sexual assaults are committed by an intimate partner. Many sexual assault survivors experience multiple negative outcomes such as psychological distress, physical health problems, and difficulties in life functioning (Gutner, Rizvi, Monson, & Resick, 2006; Kilpatrick & Acierno, 2003). After homicide, sexual violence is the most costly violent crime in the U.S., costing $151,423 per incident in 2008 (DeLisi et al., 2010). Researchers estimate that the health care costs associated with violence and abuse fall between $333 and $750 billion annually in the U.S., which is 17 to 37% of the total health care dollar (Dolezal et al., 2009).


Laws defining sexual violence in the state codes vary significantly across the country, as do the protections afforded to victims in civil and criminal courts.  Teen victims of dating or relationship abuse continue to experience significant barriers to accessing the protections that do exist, either because they do not fit into any of the “relationship” categories specified in the law or due to their status as minors.  Based on a 2009 report issued by Break the Cycle, just nine states (California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) allow minors to obtain protection or restraining orders without the involvement of a parent, guardian or other adult if they meet certain requirements, like age or relationship to abuser.

Sexual assault can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces you to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. Examples of this are voyeurism (when someone watches private sexual acts), exhibitionism (when someone exposes him/herself in public), incest (sexual contact between family members), and sexual harassment. Sexual assault or rape may happen to anyone, including women, men, children, elderly, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, persons with disabilities, Deaf persons, etc. Legal definitions for sexual assault are more precise and vary by state. For more information regarding the laws in your state visit:

What is statutory rape?

Statutory rape is the crime of sex with a minor when the sex is consensual (agreed to by both parties), not forced. This is rape because the minor is considered to be too young to legally consent to sex or sexual contact. The age at which a person is too young to consent to sex or sexual contact varies by state, and often varies by different crimes.  For example, if an adult has "consensual sex" with a person under the age of 12, that might be rape in the first degree, carrying a heavy sentence.  If an adult has "consensual sex" with a person who is 16 years old, then that might be rape in the third degree and carry a lighter sentence.  Also, for a 16 or 17 year old victim, the adult may have to be more than 5 or 10 years older than the victim, depending on the state. For more information regarding the laws in your state visit:


DeLisi, M., Kosloskia, A., Sweena, M., Hachmeistera, E., Moorea, M., & Drury, A. (2010). Murder by numbers: Monetary costs imposed by a sample of homicide offenders. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21, 501-513.

Dolezal, T., McCollum, D., & Callahan, M. (2009). Hidden costs in health care: The economic impact of violence and abuse. Eden Prairie, MN: Academy on Violence and Abuse. Retrieved from:

Gutner, C.A., Rizvi, S.L, Monson, C.M. & Resick, P.A. (2006). Changes in coping strategies, relationship to the perpetrator, and posttraumatic distress in female crime victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 19, 813-823.

Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2006). Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimization: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey, NIJ, CDC.

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