What is sexual violence?
Sexual violence is sexual activity when consent is not obtained or not freely given. It is a serious public health problem in the United States that has profound impact on lifelong health, opportunity, and well-being. Sexual violence impacts every community and affects people of all genders, sexual orientation, and ages. Anyone can experience or perpetrate sexual violence. The perpetrator of sexual violence is usually someone the victim knows, such as a friend, current or former intimate partner, coworker, neighbor, or family member. Sexual violence can occur in person, online, or through technology, such as posting or sharing sexual pictures of someone without their consent, or non-consensual sexting.
For more information about sexual violence definitions, please see Sexual Violence Surveillance: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements, Version 2.0.
How big is the problem?
Sexual violence affects million of people each year in the United States. Researchers know that the numbers underestimate this significant problem as many cases go unreported. Victims may be ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid to tell the police, friends, or family about the violence. Victims may also keep quiet because they have been threatened with further harm if they tell anyone or do not think that anyone will help them.
Still, we do have data that show:
- Sexual violence is common. One in three women and one in four men experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes. Nearly one in five women and one in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape and one in 14 men was made to penetrate someone (completed or attempted) during his lifetime.
- Sexual violence starts early. One in three female rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11-17 years old and one in eight reported that it occurred before age 10. Nearly one in four male rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11-17 years old and about one in four reported that it occurred before age 10.
- Sexual violence is costly. Recent estimates put the cost of rape at $122,461 per victim, including medical costs, lost productivity, criminal justice activities, and other costs.
What are the consequences?
The consequences of sexual violence are physical, like bruising and genital injuries, and psychological, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
The consequences may also be chronic. Victims may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, experience re-occurring gynecologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and sexual health problems.
Sexual violence is also linked to negative health behaviors. For example, victims are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, use drugs, and engage in risky sexual activity.
The trauma resulting from sexual violence can have an impact on a survivor's employment in terms of time off from work, diminished performance, job loss, or being unable to work. These disrupt earning power and have a long-term effect on the economic well-being of survivors and their families. Readjustment after victimization can be challenging: victims may have difficulty in their personal relationships, in returning to work or school, and in regaining a sense of normalcy.
Additionally, sexual violence is connected to other forms of violence. For example, girls who have been sexual abused are more likely to experience other forms of violence and additional sexual violence, and be a victim of intimate partner violence in adulthood. Perpetrating bullying in early middle school is associated with sexual harassment perpetration in high school.
How can we stop sexual violence before it starts?
There are a number of factors that may increase or decrease the risk for perpetrating and/or experiencing sexual violence. To prevent sexual violence, we must understand and address the factors that put people at risk for or protect them from violence.
CDC developed a resource, STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence, to help communities take advantage of the best available evidence to prevent sexual violence. The strategies and approaches in the technical package are intended to impact individual behaviors, as well as the relationship, family, school, community, and societal factors that influence risk and protective factors for violence.
Different types of violence are connected and often share root causes. Sexual violence is linked to other forms of violence through shared risk and protective factors. Addressing and preventing one form of violence may have an impact on preventing other forms of violence.
Promote social norms that protect against violence
- Bystander approaches
- Mobilizing men and boys as allies
Teach skills to prevent sexual violence
- Social-emotional learning
- Teaching healthy, safe dating and intimate relationship skills to teens
- Promoting healthy sexuality
- Empowerment-based training
Provide opportunities to empower and support girls and women
- Strengthening economic supports for women and families
- Strengthening leadership and opportunities for girls
Create protective environments
- Improving safety and monitoring in schools
- Establishing and consistently applying workplace policies
- Addressing community-level risks through environmental approaches
Support victims/survivors to lessen harms
- Victim-centered services
- Treatment for victims of SV
- Treatment for at-risk children and families to prevent problem behavior, including sex offending
- Basile KC, Smith SG, Breiding MJ, Black MC, & Mahendra, R. (2014). Sexual violence surveillance: uniform definitions and recommended data elements, Version 2.0. Atlanta (GA): National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for
- Disease Control and Prevention.
- Smith SG, Zhang X, Basile KC, Merrick MT, Wang J, Kresnow M, Chen J. (2018). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 Data Brief— Updated Release. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Peterson C, DeGue S, Florence C, Lokey C. (2017). Lifetime Economic Burden of Rape in the United States. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 52(6): 691-701.
- Basile KC and Smith SG. (2011). Sexual Violence Victimization of Women: Prevalence, Characteristics, and the Role of Public Health and Prevention. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (5): 407-417.
- Preventing Multiple Forms of Violence: A Strategic Vision for Connecting the Dots. (2016). Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Espelage DL, Basile KC, Hamburger ME. (2012). Bullying perpetration and subsequent sexual violence perpetration among middle school students. Journal of Adolescent Health 50(1): 60-65.
Content last updated February 5, 2021