One in 16 US girls and women were forced into their first experience of sex, either physically or through other kinds of pressure.
The figure comes from an analysis of a regular national survey of health and family life carried out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Laura Hawks of Harvard Medical School and colleagues analysed the responses from 13,000 women aged between 18 and 44 who answered the survey in the past eight years. About 6.5 per cent said that their first experience of vaginal sex with a man wasn’t voluntary. The researchers used the term “forced” for those who answered “not voluntary”.
About half of these respondents said they had been held down. About a quarter had been physically harmed and a quarter physically threatened – although there was overlap between the groups.
About half reported being verbally pressured, such as being told the relationship would end unless they had sex, and a fifth said they had been given alcohol or drugs.
Even when no physical coercion was used, the average age of women forced into sex was 15 and the average age of men was 27, says Hawks. “You’re automatically getting a picture of a huge power imbalance,” she says.
There was less of an age difference for those who first had sex voluntarily: the average age was 17 for the women and 21 for the male partner. Those forced were also poorer and had less formal education on average.
A previous version of the survey in 1995 found a slightly higher prevalence of forced first-time sex at 9 per cent. This research involved a younger age group of 15 to 24 year olds and the question was worded slightly differently.
“We have known for decades that the prevalence of coercive sex is really high,” says Petra Boynton, a social psychologist based in the UK, who wasn’t involved in the work.
The findings show the importance of sex education including covering the subject of consent, says Boynton. In some parts of the US, sex education focuses on promoting abstinence, which she says can be counterproductive in helping reduce rape. “Abstinence-only sex education often implies that all boys are predators and girls are unable to have a say,” she says.