Social scientists from Michigan State University have identified the primary risk factors associated with sexual violence in young women’s first relationships in life.

“There’s this idea that sexual violence doesn’t happen in relationships — certainly not in young women’s first relationships — which is absolutely not the case,” said Angie Kennedy, associate professor of social work and lead author.

“We wanted to examine the most severe forms of sexual violence — rape and attempted rape — to better understand the specific risk factors linked to partner rape among young women. Our results can be used to inform prevention and intervention efforts aimed at reducing sexual violence among young people.”

For the study, the researchers interviewed 148 women between the ages of 18 and 24 who had experienced partner violence in at least one relationship. To get a diverse sample, the researchers recruited participants from a university, a two-year college and community sites serving low-income young women, including a county health clinic and a transitional living program.

In the interviews, the participants discussed all of their relationships, starting with their first, which began when they were around 15 years old on average.

The findings showed consistent risk factors for partner rape across the three groups of women. In first relationships, having lower socioeconomic status, being of younger age, and higher levels of physical abuse and coercive control predicted sexual violence.

Key risk factors across all of the participants’ relationships included a greater age difference between the young women and their partners, as well as physical abuse and coercive control.

“Rape or attempted rape in a relationship isn’t typically an isolated incident. It’s usually connected with other forms of abuse or coercion,” Kennedy said. “Young age and higher age difference between adolescent girls and their male partners may make them more vulnerable to experiencing abuse, particularly partner rape.”

The results also reveal differences in the rate of sexual violence across the three groups.

While participants in the university group had a higher rate of partner rape in their first relationship, their rate dropped significantly over the course of all of their relationships in comparison to the two-year college students, who experienced an increase in partner rape over the course of their relationships.

These findings suggest that experiences with partner abuse, much like the three groups of young women, are diverse.

“We shouldn’t assume that young women are all alike in terms of what they go through, or that experiences are consistent across all relationships. For prevention and intervention efforts to work, we will need to take this diversity into account,” Kennedy said.

Previous research on this subject has mostly focused on sexual assault as it relates to college campuses. The new study, however, looks at young women’s first relationships as well as all of their relationships over the course of adolescence and emerging adulthood; it’s also the first to compare these different groups in terms of their experiences with partner abuse.

“Most college-aged sexual assault research focuses on residential colleges and universities where there is dorm life, drinking on campus and co-ed living,” Kennedy said.

“But there are more than 5 million students enrolled at two-year community colleges in the United States and even more who don’t pursue a higher ed degree. We need to get beyond four-year institutions and learn more about these other groups’ experiences with partner abuse.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Source: Michigan State University