Professor Marshall

LESSON 9: Sexual Violence

Sexual Violence


Sexual violence is a serious social issue in the United States as well as around the world. There is no universal description or definition of sexual violence. Some places refer to sexual violence as sexual assault. Sexual violence may be defined very differently country to country. For example, in the United States we consider honor killings to fall under the category of sexual violence; in some Middle Eastern countries however honor killings are considered to be necessary to preserve family honor. Another example would be considerations of violence towards sex workers. Here in the United States, while some people may have moral objections to sex workers, we still understand that when violence is committed against them which is sexual in nature, these victims deserve the full weight of all laws designed to protect them. In some other countries, sex workers are not afforded any rights under the law, and when something violent occurs they may not have the right to file a police report or to seek any kind of justice.

For this lesson, we're going to concentrate on some pressing issues related to sexual violence in the United States. We'll be taking a look at sexual harassment, rape, intimate partner violence, and sexual child abuse. Along with these issues of sexual violence, will also be exploring our understandings of "consent" and will learn about sexual rights. This lesson is not intended to be all-encompassing – for that, we'd need to write a book. However you will be presented with information that hopefully gives you a basic understanding of these areas; you are encouraged to continue to explore and research these issues.

From a sociological perspective, data on sexual violence is difficult to generalize. Because of the intimate nature of these types of crimes, it is assumed that significant underreporting occurs. We have made some great progress in recent decades, as law enforcement agencies become more educated about these issues and as laws are crafted to protect the victims and targets of this type of violence. We do however still have a long way to go. Many victims are reluctant to come forward to report or prosecute these types of crime due to the climate of victim blaming that exists in our society toward them. Only when we are able to reframe the way we see these types of crimes and the way we behave towards the victims of these types of crimes can we hope to gain a better understanding of the seriousness as well as the prevalence of these types of crimes in our society. Victim blaming drives reporting of these kinds of crimes underground.

You may not be aware, but the ages at which sexual violence begins are often very young. 70% of male victims are first raped before the age of 18. 1% of girls, by the time they reach second grade, have been forced into sexual acts; likewise for 4% of boys in the same age range. A current survey in the United States indicates that statistically significant numbers of women and men report having been forced to have sex at some point in their lives.

Recall that in a previous lesson comparisons between collectivist and individualistic cultures were defined:

  • Collectivist culture - culture in which individuals define their identity in terms of the relationships they hold with others
  • Individualistic culture - culture in which people define their identity or sense of self in terms of personal attributes (such as wealth, social status, education level, and marital status) and promote individual over group goals

Recall also that we determined that our society today is an individualistic culture, meaning that our own personal rights are more closely identified with than those of the groups who make up our society.

Cultural Influences on Sexuality

SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) defines human sexuality as "a dimension of our personality that encompasses our sexual beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, and knowledge."

Our sexual behaviors are strongly influenced by culture. What we think to be appropriate, our sexual scripts, and our understandings of human sexuality are taught to us through our culture. To understand how culture teaches us about sexuality we only need to do a cross-cultural comparison. What we find is that every society places restrictions on sexual behaviors, however the sexual behaviors that are restricted vary culture to culture. For example, very restrictive societies will try to control pre-adolescent sexual behavior such as self-stimulation, while other cultures tend to be more relaxed about this type of behavior, viewing it as normal. Our concept of what is "right" or "normal" (and thus, "wrong" or "abnormal") about sex and sexual behavior is grounded in what we are taught within the boundaries of our own culture.

Taking a cultural point of view of sexuality stresses the importance of norms and values. In the United States, there are a couple of dominant cultural values which influence how we view sexuality:

  • Individualism--seeing the individual as more important than the collective or the group.
  • Masculinity/femininity--how we view ourselves as we relate to others who are similar and dissimilar to us.
  • Religion--religion continues to have a strong influence in our society even while people in our society (according to myriad research) identify themselves as "non-religious."

Cultural influences on sexuality are also related to variables such as age, geographic region, race/ethnicity, class, and so forth. Thus we see that culture encompasses nearly every facet of sex and sexuality, and continually shapes, informs, and reinforces our views about ourselves and others.

Until the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, the United States was classified as a sexually restrictive society. Even now attitudes here are much less permissive regarding sex and sexual behavior than in some other places around the world; we still lag behind many other wealthy countries with regard to how we view sex in our society. Even after the sexual revolution, we continue to have distinct differences in the way we view sex and sexual behavior here as compared to other industrial and post-industrial Western countries.

As we learned in a previous lesson, religion has a powerful hold on our understandings of sexuality. Even though our society is increasingly secular, religious beliefs about sexual behavior can still subject us to feelings of guilt as religious forces continue to have powerful influence on how we think about sex and sexual activity. Most religions do tend to restrict and regulate sexual behavior in a variety of ways; the primary ways would be to sanction marriage as an activity that is only acceptable between a man and a woman and to control reproductive functions (such as restrictions on methods of birth control). More extreme forms of Christianity in the United States may offer additional "guidance" regarding the marital relationship and acceptable gender roles and sexual scripts. Some members of our society may be comfortable following these guidelines, while others may find them difficult to tolerate. Of course, these types of rules and guidelines are difficult to enforce — no one knows what goes on in the marital bedroom except for those that are there, and in any case, there may be a gap between what is considered "normal" and real-life practice. Extreme religious interference in marital relationships may lead to psycho-sexual problems for individuals in our society.

Sexual scripts, in particular sexual scripts for women, have changed dramatically in the last 50 years. With the sexual revolution and availability of reliable methods of contraception we have seen some loosening of sexual attitudes over the years. Emancipation of women has had a dramatic impact not only on how women view sex, but also how men view sex. In addition these rapid changes in sexual scripts and cultural attitudes may be interpreted by some as encroaching on traditional notions of how society should be ordered. This can result in a variety of actions, both sanctioned and unsanctioned/criminalized, against members of our society who go against the heteronormative standard.

Theories of Sexual Violence

What factors contribute to sexual aggression and violence in some individuals? What factors contribute to sexual aggression and violence in society?

Sexual violence/sexual assault occurs in many different contexts and also has a variety of causes and complicating factors. This makes it very challenging to find one unifying theoretical perspective which can describe sexual violence in a comprehensive way. Thus, at points in time both historical and contemporary, we have used theories to try to define and understand sexual violence in our society.

Psychopathology and Psychodynamic Models

Freud's psychodynamic theory suggests that the components of society are in constant turmoil with each other. The id, the ego, and superego constantly battle with each other for control of the individual's behaviors. Freud's thinking paved the way for understanding sexual violence from a psychopathological perspective.

The psychopathology model dominated the field of sexual assault research for many, many years, however in the 1970s feminists and activists began to advocate for a better awareness and understanding of exactly what sexual assault is, how it occurs, and what to do about it. Psychopathology models discussed sexual assault in terms of there being some sort of mental illness or chemical imbalance involved for perpetrators of sexual violence. This point of view suggested that because of issues such as mental illness being outside of the control of the individual they could not, as a result, control their sexual impulses. This point of view also asserted that rape and rapists in society were relatively rare. Treatment models were medically oriented and included psychotherapy, hormone injections, castration an electric shock.

Once this point of view became challenged and we gained an increased awareness of sexual assault in our society, strict psychopathological models were mostly abandoned.

Even though psychopathological models have been abandoned there is still a general belief in our society that rape must be the result of some sort of irresistible sexual impulse. While we know this to be inaccurate, many don't believe it to be a fact. We believe this myth in part because we believe that men have difficulty controlling their sexual selves. We also often believe that women somehow provoke sexual violence. This type of thinking contributes to our understanding of rape in a very dichotomous and dangerous way. It leads us to believe that some people are "truly" raped and that many people "falsely" report rape.

Evolutionary and Bio-medical Theories

Evolutionary views of rape and sexual aggression include ideas about rape being an adaptive strategy or adaptive behavior. Some research suggests that some form of forced sexual contact has occurred since "the beginning" of humankind. This position is criticized by feminist theorists who support the view that rape is about power and control. In general, evolutionary theories posit that males have learned over time to be aggressive and dominant towards women. Aggressiveness was passed on generation to generation as younger males learned from older males and some genetic coding took place. In today's world, there is outrage when we propose these types of theories. Evolutionary theories assert that we inherit the desire to reproduce and that this also influences sexual aggression. Just as most of the time, male animals are sexually agressive toward female animals, this perspective proposes that most sexual crimes are or will be committed by males.

Bio-medical theories suggest that there is a hormonal connection to sexually aggressive and violent behavior. This theory suggests that sexually aggressive individuals produce more testosterone than others and there have been numerous studies in the past which suggest significant reduction in sexual assault recidivism rates for individuals who are thought to have higher than normal levels of testosterone and who have subsequently been chemically castrated in an effort to control these violent behaviors.

We must note however that these types of bio – medical and evolutionary theories are not meant to excuse, condone or encourage sexually violent or aggressive behavior. They are simply one group of theories which attempt to explain why sexually agressive and violent behavior occurs. In other mammals sexual aggression or violence may be an anthropomorphized phenomenon. Non-human mammals do not have the capacity, at least as far as we know, to understand how behavior relates to emotions on a highly evolved level. On the other hand, humans do have the ability to understand the connection between their behavior and the emotions of others. Thus, bio – medical and evolutionary theories, while perhaps helping us to understand sexual aggression from a historical context, must be understood within a socio-– historical framework. Our understandings of sexuality change over time, as do our understandings and acceptance or rejection of sexual aggression and violence.

Cognitive/behavioral Theories

This group of theories suggest that cognitive distortion or irrational beliefs about sexuality help individuals to initiate and continue sexually deviant behaviors. Conditioning is an important part of this type of perspective, for example, when exposure to negative sexual stimuli results in orgasm, orgasm becomes the reinforcer for deviant sexual behavior. Learning theory falls under this approach to understanding sexual deviance and aggression. Learning theory suggests that children who are sexually abused learn sex through inappropriate ways; when exposed over a long enough period of time, learning theory suggests that children internalize his type of behavior and become sexual deviants. Further, physical and emotional sexual violence against children over time results in behaviors in adulthood which are inappropriate. Sex offenders often suffer from depression, low self-esteem, and public ridicule. When this happens over time these traits begin to distort the offender's view of the world and also encourage sexually violent and aggressive behavior.

Modeling is also part of learning theory, and suggests that sexually aggressive and violent individual have somehow learned these behaviors from their environments. Modeling suggests that people learn behaviors from watching someone else behave in the same way, or by internalizing the motives of abusers. While difficult to estimate, we do know that a higher than normal percentage of sexually aggressive and violent people have themselves been sexually abused in the past. This does lend itself to some credibility with regard to learning theory and modeling behavior.

Feminist Theories

Commodification theory discusses sexual aggressiveness as a crime of property, where sexual activity is a commodity which is stolen from a woman. Researcher Katharine Baker asserts that we should think of sexual activity as a commodity that is being taken and she further asserts that men are taught that sexual desires are like hunger which needs to be satisfied; in her research with rapists she notes that many of them raped women just "because they were there."

Control theory examines rate of sexual aggression not as a matter of sexuality but as an expression of control of men over women. Feminist theorists use control theory in their research discuss issues of gender role stereotyping and the connection to sexual aggression in our society. In our society when we condone the aggressive behavior of men in many different ways, control theorists assert that sexually aggressive or violent behavior is one way that men learn to exert control over women.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a near constant in the news in the United States. The term "sexual harassment" is a relatively new one, coming onto the political and social scene with the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s. It can be challenging to understand sexual harassment because it involves a large range of behaviors in a variety of settings. This can also make it difficult for the target of harassment to describe what she or he experienced. Additionally, behavior and motives of harassers (both male and female) vary between cases. Essentially however, there are two broad categories of harassing behavior:

  • Public harassers, who are flagrant in their attitudes towards colleagues, subordinates, students, etc.
  • Private harassers, who cultivate a respected image on the surface, but whose demeanor changes dramatically when alone with their target.

Some researchers further clarify harassers into sub-types (and harassers may have characteristics of more than one category):

    • Gets sexual thrills from the humiliation of others
    • May become involved in sexual extortion
    • Frequently harass just to see how targets respond
    • May target others for rape
    • Most common
    • Engages in harassing behavior as an ego boost
    • AKA territorial harassers
    • Seeks to maintain privilege
    • May happen on the job or in other locations
    • AKA the street harasser
    • Harasses others in public places
    • Includes verbal and nonverbal behavior, frequent sexual remarks, and comments on physical appearance

Impacts and Effects

Harassment deprives targets of many social and economic concerns. Impacts and effects of sexual harassment can vary. Ranging in severity and duration, some incidents may occur only once and be simply annoying, in which case sexual harassment may be relatively easy to address. Other situations, which are more frequent, last for longer durations of time, or are more severe can cause significant psychological issues. Some targets of harassment experience myriad forms of retaliation if they resist which can include social isolation and bullying (including online). Social support for targets seems to be one factor which mitigates some psychological damage.

Harassers may be coworkers who are regularly seen, or they may be infrequent colleagues. The frequency with which a target must engage with a harasser on a professional level also has significant impacts on the target. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars in educational and professional opportunities are lost, mostly for girls and women who are the targets of sexual harassment in schools and in the workplace.

Dealing with Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment, by definition, is unwanted. A recent issue of sexual harassment at Comic-Con has spurred quite a bit of conversation.

There are a number of ways for targets to work toward resolution. Regaining feelings of emotional and social health and stability is important. Therapy, stress management techniques and coaching, along with the support of friends, family and others is key. Counseling, both emotional and legal is recommended. Reporting is also essential. In some studies where women on the job have tried to mitigate sexual harassment on their own, increased and intensified harassment ensued. Attempting to avoid harassers (such as separation by gender in a workplace cafeteria or break room), going along with harassment (such as laughing at sexual jokes or comments), and other individual coping strategies are not likely to be effective and may have unexpected negative consequences for the target. Those who try to deal with sexual harassment on their own, regardless of what they do, seem to be in a no-win situation.

Targets may be impacted in a variety of ways. Impact may manifest in psychological, academic, professional, financial and social ways:

  • Public sexualization
    • Occurs when groups of people (such as non-harassing coworkers) begin to "evaluate" the target in relationship to the harasser's framing of the situation
    • The target's sexuality becomes a sort of scale by which the he or she is rated
    • The target's "worth" is evaluated in terms of the sexual attention he or she gets by the harasser or by the risk the target creates for the harasser's career
      • The target becomes the accused and his or her private life comes under attack.
  • Objectification and humiliation
    • Public scrutiny
    • Gossip
    • Defamation of character and reputation
    • Firing or refusal of job opportunities
      • Loss of career
      • Loss of income
      • Relocating to another job or career
      • Shunning
  • School performance
    • Decreases as a result of stress conditions
    • Absenteeism increases
    • When the harasser is a school official
      • Dropping courses, changing majors, or leaving school
  • Public scrutiny
    • The target's manner of dress, lifestyle, and private life come under attack
  • Psychological concerns
    • Loss of trust
    • Emotional and physical health impairment
    • Effects on sexual life and relationships
    • Extreme relationship stress
      • Sometimes resulting in divorce
    • Withdrawal, depression, panic attacks, sleeplessness and/or nightmares, shame and guilt, difficulty concentrating, fatigue or loss of motivation, eating disorders (weight loss or gain), alcoholism, abuse of drugs, feeling betrayed and/or violated, feeling angry, feeling powerless, loss of confidence and self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidal thoughts or attempts, suicide


Retaliation against a target who reports is common. Those who speak out may be labeled troublemakers or attention seekers. Similar to cases of rape or sexual assault, the victim often becomes the accused, with their appearance, private life, and character subject to fall under intrusive scrutiny and attack; targets risk hostility and isolation from those around them. Other women may not be sympathetic to targets of sexual harassers. In cases with a male harasser and female target, some research suggests that the internalized sexism of other women and/or jealousy over the sexual attention the target is receiving may encourage some women to react with hostility towards the target. Other women may respond with hostility toward the target in an attempt to deflect harassment to which they may also be subjected.  In some cases, women have projected hostility toward targets in order to bond with their male coworkers.


Education programs, both in school and the workplace, combined with other forms of socialization (for example, religious institutions, families, media and peer groups) help to prevent sexual harassment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. Most employers with at least 15 employees are covered by EEOC laws (20 employees in age discrimination cases). Most labor unions and employment agencies are also covered. The laws apply to all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits.

The EEOC explains "sexual harassment:"

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include "sexual harassment" or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person's sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

EEOC HANDOUT on PROTECTED STATUSES (Womens' and Veterans' Issues in Employment Practices)

Sexual Consent

Sexual consent encompasses words and/or actions we use to show voluntary and freely given agreement to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activities. Consent is not viable if a person is incapacitated or powerless to give it. The issue of consent (or consensual sex) may be broached when there is doubt about whether both people want sex to occur. Being sure that you have your partner's consent is an important part of having a mutually satisfying and ethical experience. Respect the feelings that each of you have.

Consent is a topic that should be discussed whenever you're thinking about a possible sexual encounter. Engaging in a sexual act without the other person's consent is considered sexual assault or rape. Both people in a sexual encounter must agree to it, and at any time, either person may decide to stop—this constitutes a withdrawal of consent. You are not obligated to any additional behaviors if you withdraw your consent (if you choose to say "no" after consenting, or you may choose to say "no" to specific behaviors in which you do not want to participate), and giving consent once does not obligate you on any other occasions.

Consenting means only that at this particular time, you would like to engage in this particular sexual behavior. To determine if someone is giving consent, you must be able to answer two questions:

  1. Does the person want to give consent?
  2. Is the person capable of giving consent?

Of course, the easiest way to determine consent is to verbally ask--this eliminates the uncertainty of guessing and trying to interpret signals. In some cases, consent may be given non-verbally by actively engaging in the sexual act—this "implied" consent is much more difficult to gauge. If you feel that your partner has become more hesitant or uncomfortable (either physically, verbally, or non-verbally through body language cues), you must stop.

Circumstances of Non-consent

If your partner ever says no during sex or asks you to stop, you must stop immediately. Saying no is not a game and it is not a signal that someone is "playing hard to get."

You should also understand: certain circumstances make it impossible for a person to legally give consent. These circumstances usually involve cases in which a person is not mentally or physically capable, for a variety of reasons, of choosing whether to engage in sexual behavior:

  • A person who is drunk or high on drugs cannot give consent
    • Even when/if someone seems eager to have sex, doing so can legally be considered sexual assault or rape under this condition
  • A person who is legally too young cannot give consent
    • The age at which a person can give consent varies by country and by state.
    • Having sex under the age of consent is legally considered statutory rape, even when/if the person says that she or he wanted to engage.

Sexual Rights

As a human being, you are entitled to certain rights. Some of your rights relate to sexuality or sexual acts. Your entitlement of these rights should not be questioned, and if anyone does question your rights to these things (particularly an intimate partner) they likely do not have your best interests in mind. Your partner also has these rights. Respect on the part of both partners is part of having positive relational and sexual experiences. Positive sexual experiences are consensual. Violating the sexual rights of another person is disrespectful and may be non-consensual.

You have the right to:

  • Make your own decisions about being sexual regardless of your partner's wishes
    • It is YOUR choice to be sexual or not be sexual
  • Make your own decisions about birth control and protection regardless of your partner's wishes
    • You choose whether to use birth control and how to protect yourself
    • This includes telling your partner that you will not have sex without birth control or without protection from STIs
  • Stop sexual activity at any time, including during or just before intercourse
    • You decide what you are comfortable with
  • Engage in only those activities in which you want to participate
  • Tell anyone that you are not comfortable with specific behaviors
    • Others should not force you to experience affection the way that they would like
  • Ask your partner about sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STDs/STIs)
  • Tell a partner what you would like
  • Talk to your partner about your wants and needs
    • This includes telling your partner she or he is being too rough
  • Self-pleasure
    • It's not dirty, wrong, or shameful
  • Sexual autonomy, sexual integrity, and body safety
    • You make decisions about your sexual life
  • Be sexual without violence of any sort
  • Sexual privacy
    • Make your own decisions about sex as long as you don't interfere with the sexual rights and safety of others
  • Sexual equity
    • Sexual discrimination based on your gender, sexual orientation, age, race, social class, religion, or physical and emotional disability is illegal
  • Sexual pleasure
    • It is not shameful; it is part of being human and who you are
  • Sexual education
    • Education will make you safer
    • Education will help you know when to seek help
    • Sexual information and education is based upon scientific inquiry
  • Sexual health care
    • To be treated for sexual problems
    • To seek preventive care to keep you healthy


From the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN):

Rape Statistics 1

Rape Statistics 2

Rape Statistics 3

Rape Statistics 4

Rape is oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse or other forms of penetration by one person with or against another person, the victim, without the consent of the victim. Legally, there are different types of rape from forcible to statutory, and these definitions vary by state. It's impossible to characterize all rapists, but they tend to be longtime criminals and have a certain number of risk factors in common. Rapists often fall into the categories of anger rapists, power rapists, sadistic rapists, and they often know their victims. Some startling statistics about rape in the United States (from the US BJS):

Average number of rape cases reported in the US annually


Percent of women who experienced an attempted or completed rape

16 %

Percent of men who experienced an attempted or completed rape

3 %

Percent of rapes that are never reported to authorities

60 %

Percent of college rapes that are never reported to authorities

95 %

Percent of rapes where both victim and perpetrator had been drinking

47 %

College Rape Statistics

Percent of college women who reported an attempted rape

12 %

Percent of college women who reported being raped

20 %

Rape Perpetrator Statistics

Percent of victims raped by a friend or acquaintance

38 %

Percent raped by "an intimate"

28 %

Percent raped by a stranger

26 %

Percent raped by a relative

7 %

Rape Location Statistics

Perpetrators home

30.9 %

Victims home

26.6 %

Perpetrator and victims shared home

10.1 %

At a party

7.2 %

In a vehicle

7.2 %


3.6 %

In a bar

2.2 %

Men and women tend to hold different ideas about what constitutes rape. Just as we have sexual scripts that we use in consensual relationships, there are also rape scripts which include information about the types of conduct that make "rape" and which define conduct and characteristics of perpetrators. Rape scripts also discuss how we see rape as a sequence of events. Men and women tend to have quite different rape scripts.

Research on opposite sex rape shows that women are more likely, when exposed to sexual scenarios, to be able to identify that a rape has occurred. When men are exposed to the same scenarios, they generally indicate that a rape did not occur and that the women may have made false assumptions. Men also tend to place responsibility on the victim of the rape. This may be because generally speaking men identify with men and women identify with women.

With regard to rape myths, men are more likely to believe them than are women. Men sometimes believe that if women aren't fighting back they must be "asking for it." They also often times factor into their decisions what females are wearing. In addition, men are less likely to identify the psychological damage the rate may cause. It is important to note that not all men feel this way for think this way, however in myriad research studies significant percentages of men do hold these views.

There is also a difference in attitudes about rape when we factor in race/ethnicity. At least two recent studies have concluded that young Asian adults are more likely to hold victims responsible for rape than our young Caucasian adults. With regard to victimization of young women, young white women have a higher percentage of rape while intoxicated than other races or ethnicities.

Rapists have certain individual factors that put them at greater risk of becoming or being a sexual offender. These factors, which is been researched by several sociologist, include the witnessing or experiencing of sexual violence as a child, having attitudes are beliefs that support sexual violence, alcohol or drug or abuse, having views about gender roles that are "traditional," and also having beliefs that manipulation with a relationship partner is acceptable. Some rapists sincerely believe that women "want to be forced" to have sex and that women actually want to be forcefully overcome. Thus, in their minds they believe that when women are resisting, they are only doing so to protect their reputations, and if they actually want the rapist to continue. This is the "no means yes" mentality. Motivations for rape come from a variety of places however most rapists exhibit some level of anger, power, or sadism. Anger rapists are motivated by their own personal anger or rage and oftentimes act out of victims who are representations to him they can direct their angry actions. Power rapists feel the need to dominate and assert their strength over their victims. Sadistic rapists become sexually aroused when they humiliate, mutilate, or otherwise cause pain and suffering to their victims.

Some feminist scholars assert that high prevalence of rape in American society is a reflection of our cultural norms. One case study which points to the cultural norm of victim blaming we have in our society can be seen in this New York Times article, which centers on the rape of an 11-year old girl in Texas. Note how the journalist, James McKinley, highlights quotes which frame the incident in terms of blaming the victim, pointing to her appearance (seeming older than her actual age) and the way she was dressed (wearing make-up). He also centers part of his writing on poverty, and in doing so, paints a picture of the rape as being an isolated incident which happened in part due to poverty--as part of the cost of living in a poor neighborhood. As sociologists, the questions we want to know when researching this type of case study re-frame the incident as evidence to highlight the phenomena of rape:

  • Why is time being spent on describing the victim's clothing and behavior?
  • What were the environmental factors which contributed to this crime?
  • What culturally accepted norms, values and standards about sexual violence contributed to this situation?
  • How is the criminal justice system approaching this case?

As you can see, sociologists look at myriad factors which contribute to rape; using this case as a case study and applying macro-level questions to the events helps us to shift our focus from thinking about the act of rape as isolated incidents, and instead to see it as an act which is condoned by cultural values and norms.

The prevalence of alcohol and drug use often contributes to higher rates of rape on college campuses. Many rape victims experience rape trauma syndrome, a form of posttraumatic stress disorder, and every victim copes in his or her own way.

Family Violence

In most states, domestic violence/family violence is defined as any physical abuse, or threat of abuse, between intimately involved partners, roommates, or family members. In some states, the legal wording extends to include anyone with whom you have had a child, whether or not they live with you or have EVER lived with you. Domestic violence does not have to happen inside of the home--it can (and often DOES)-- happen outside the home. What makes it "domestic violence" is the relationship of the people involved. It does not matter where the violence occurs.

Domestic violence is often thought about as being inflicted from a husband to a wife, but it can also include violence from a teenager to a parent, from a wife to her husband, between siblings and other family members, between former and current love interests (you are the uniting factor in the middle), and between GLBT partners, even when not living together. Family violence includes many aspects of the problematic nature of the family hierarchy.

Law enforcement and the courts use domestic violence as an umbrella term for a wide variety of combinations of other crimes. Generally, practitioners recognize three different (but intertwined) broad areas of violence in the family. This is sometimes referred to as the "Domestic Violence Umbrella." What laypersons often refer to as "domestic violence" is the type of family violence that occurs between adult partners in an intimate relationship. But, for practitioners and researchers, domestic violence encompasses three main areas:

Family Violence Umbrella

For purposes of this lesson, we concentrate on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and child sexual abuse.

Theories of Family Violence

Family Violence Umbrella

There are many general theories in the fields of psychology, sociology, feminist studies, and women's and gender studies which can be applied to family violence. Below is a sampling of some of the most used schools of thought and theories.

The Classical School of Crime and Deviance

Classical theories about criminal and deviant behavior are based on the idea that people CHOOSE to engage in criminal or deviant behavior. The classical school of thought is drawn from the work of Cesare Beccaria (18th century), who suggested that since people have "free will" they could make the choice to engage (or not engage) in behaviors. He also suggested that laws which spelled out penalties for "bad" behavior needed to be clear in order for people to understand the penalties of behaving outside of the law.

There are two concepts that are essential to this approach: control and punishment. When we think about these two concepts in terms of family violence, what we see is that there is a direct relationship to contemporary laws which have been crafted in an attempt to control and punish those who commit acts of family violence. In a very short amount of time, we've gone from family violence being a private act to being one of public wrong. Because of the crafting of family violence as a social problem, we were able to take these acts out of the private sphere and into the public purview.

Rational Choice Theory (RCT) falls under the classical school and states that offenders do a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether or not to act. Theorists who interpret family violence under this perspective believe that the benefits to committing family violence outweigh the costs. What this means is that the offender sees his/her actions as somehow benefiting the relationship or the family.

RCT focuses on interventions and strategies to reduce family violence.

Deterrence Theory focuses on the swiftness of punishment for family violence crimes, and asserts that punishment must be specific and rapidly administered in order to be effective. Deterrence may be specific (prevention efforts that target specific offenders, such as mandatory arrest laws) or general (when a non-offender is impacted by the arrest of an offender).

The Positivist School of Crime and Deviance

Positivist theories about criminal and deviant behavior are based on the idea that a CURE for the problem can be found. Further, these theories assert that through scientific research, the organic beginning of any criminal or deviant act can be identified. Positivist theorists look at problems from biological, psychological, and sociological points of view—and none alone will provide an answer. Positivist theorists assert that a combination of these points of view are likely responsible for family violence.

Both the Classical and the Positivist schools of thought are important facets of the study and deterrence of family violence and lead us to a more robust way of incorporating theory into the study of family violence:

Feminist Theory

Perhaps the most well-known theory of intimate partner violence is the cycle of violence theory proposed by Lenore Walker in the 1970s. She conducted interviews with women who had survived abusive relationships, and came up with a three phase cycle which predicted the pattern that each of these abusive relationships tended to go through:

Cycle of Violence Theory

Cycle of Violence Theory

The HONEYMOON is the period of time at the beginning of a relationship where things are going well. The abuser charms the victim, buying things and paying attention. In this phase, the victim feels loved and accepted.

The TENSION BUILDING phase is when things begin to get tense, and the abuser may become short tempered and jealous of the victim's outside relationships and friendships. In this phase, there is little a victim can do to appease the abuser, and victims often describe this phase as "walking on eggshells."

The BATTERING phase happens when the attack happens. In addition to physical assault, victims may be threatened, coerced, and intimidated. In this phase, victims are often too frightened to speak out or to seek help.

Once the battering phase is over, the honeymoon begins again. Walker asserted that this cycle becomes shorter in duration, with battering phases becoming more and more frequent.

While Walker's sample was a very small, non-representative group of victims, this theory remains as one of the most used and cited theories in the study of family violence.

Multidimensional Theories

Family Systems Theory focuses on the family and tries to identify problems that are a byproduct of dysfunctioning family relationships. In this theory, the roles of each family member are considered with regard to violence in the family, whether perpetrator, victim, or viewer of violence. For example, in a home where a mother is physically abusing a child, a father's refusal to intervene might be seen as a contributing factor to repeated acts of abuse.

Imitation and Reaction models show us that when parents are abusive toward each other, there is a higher likelihood that they will abuse their own children. In addition, older children may be more apt to abuse younger siblings when parents are abusive toward each other. In research from 1977, it was observed that when parents are violent and children are exposed, boys tend to become more aggressive and girls tend to withdraw. This may give us a clue into why boys exposed to parental violence offend more violently than do girls (Gosselin 88).

Since none of the multidimensional models are restricted to one school of thought, they are somewhat confusing to use as a practical framework for extensive research. More and more theories make it confusing to determine what works and what doesn't. One thing that is good about multidimensional theories is that they cause researchers to look "outside the boxes" of classical and positivist frames of reference. No one theory is the answer, and moreover, researching family violence from many theoretical foundations may be the best approach.

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. The term "intimate partner violence" describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.

IPV can vary in frequency and severity. It occurs on a continuum, ranging from one hit that may or may not impact the victim to chronic, severe battering.

There are four main types of intimate partner violence (Saltzman et al. 2002, as qtd in CDC):

  • Physical violence is the intentional use of physical force with the potential for causing death, disability, injury, or harm. Physical violence includes, but is not limited to, scratching; pushing; shoving; throwing; grabbing; biting; choking; shaking; slapping; punching; burning; use of a weapon; and use of restraints or one's body, size, or strength against another person.
  • Sexual violence is divided into three categories: 1) use of physical force to compel a person to engage in a sexual act against his or her will, whether or not the act is completed; 2) attempted or completed sex act involving a person who is unable to understand the nature or condition of the act, to decline participation, or to communicate unwillingness to engage in the sexual act, e.g., because of illness, disability, or the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or because of intimidation or pressure; and 3) abusive sexual contact.
  • Threats of physical or sexual violence use words, gestures, or weapons to communicate the intent to cause death, disability, injury, or physical harm.
  • Psychological/emotional violence involves trauma to the victim caused by acts, threats of acts, or coercive tactics. Psychological/ emotional abuse can include, but is not limited to, humiliating the victim, controlling what the victim can and cannot do, withholding information from the victim, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the victim from friends and family, and denying the victim access to money or other basic resources. It is considered psychological/emotional violence when there has been prior physical or sexual violence or prior threat of physical or sexual violence. In addition, stalking is often included among the types of IPV. Stalking generally refers to "harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly, such as following a person, appearing at a person's home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person's property" (Tjaden & Thoennes 1998, as qtd in CDC). Learn more about stalking.

GLBT Communities

Domestic violence in the GLBT community is a serious issue. The rates of domestic violence in same-gender relationships are roughly the same as domestic violence in heterosexual relationships, however it is again important to recall that what we know about partner violence is only that which gets uncovered by either law enforcement or self-reporting. And, as in opposite-gendered couples, the problem is likely even more underreported than in opposite-sex relationships.

GLBT individuals often face a system which is hostile towards them and those involved in same-gender battering frequently report being afraid of revealing their sexual orientation or the nature of their relationship to law enforcers or other service providers. Police officers, prosecutors, judges and others to whom a GLBT victim may turn to for help may have difficulty in providing the same level of service as to a heterosexual victim. Not only might personal attitudes towards the GLBT community come into play, but these providers may have inadequate levels of experience and training to work with GLBT victims. Less than adequate legal definitions and laws are also problematic.

While many aspects of LGBT domestic violence are similar to those experienced by heterosexual victims, it is not in all ways identical. Perpetrators often attempt highly specific forms of abuse based on identity and community dynamics, including:

  • "Outing" or threatening to out a partner's sexual orientation or gender identity to family, employer, police, religious institution, community, in child custody disputes, or in other situations where this may pose a threat.
  • Reinforcing fears that no one will help the victim because s/he is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or that for this reason, the partner "deserves" the abuse
  • Alternatively, justifying abuse with the notion that a partner is not "really" lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (i.e. the victim may once have had, or may still have relationships, or express a gender identity, inconsistent with the abuser's definitions of these terms). This can be used both as a tool in verbal and emotional abuse as well as to further the isolation of a victim from community.
  • Telling the survivor that abusive behavior is a normal part of LGBT relationships, or that it cannot be domestic violence because it is occurring between LGBT individuals.
  • Monopolizing support resources through an abuser's manipulation of friends and family supports and generating sympathy and trust in order to cut off these resources to the survivor. This is a particular issue to LGBT people and others living in small insular communities, where there are few community specific resources, neighborhoods or social outlets.
  • Portraying the violence as mutual and even consensual, especially if the partner attempts to defend against it, or as an expression of masculinity or some other "desirable" trait.
  • Depicting the abuse as part of sado-masochistic (S/M) activity. Domestic violence can exist in S/M relationships but it is not implicit, nor unique to this type of relationship. Domestic Violence is not S/M, nor should any non-consensual violent or abusive acts that take place outside of a pre-arranged scene or in violation of pre determined safe words or boundaries be considered part of, or justified as, a normal S/M relationship.

Although much advancement has been made in the provision of services, the enforcement of the law, and the equality of protections available to those in GLBT relationships over the last decade, there are still many issues that this minority group must face when choosing to report (or to remain silent) about intimate partner violence. 


Anger tends to be a very misunderstood emotion. Anger is a secondary emotion which often follows fear, depression, stress, fatigue, or a perceived threat or personal attack on one's personhood. The situation which causes the anger is not the problem; the unhealthy response is the problem. In the state of Florida, as with many other states in the US, there is some discussion about how to prevent IPV. Most states have some sort of outreach and education program, but for the perpetrators of IPV, programs are widely varied across states and their effectiveness is questionable. In general, programs may be broken into two distinct areas: Batterers' Intervention Programs (BIPs) and Anger Management Programs (AMPs), and there are clear differences between the two.









Who is served by this program?


Domestic violence batterers only

# of Sessions

2-8 sessions (for some AMPs, offenders may complete in one session)

29 weeks

Does program stay in contact with the "victim"?


Yes, as mandated by statute, BIPs must notify victims of the progress of the offender and if the offender quits attending, the victim must be advised

Is program monitored by a state agency?



Is program affiliated or linked with a domestic violence victims' service agency?


Yes, BIPs are monitored by the state, and must submit information about completion rates

Does program assess abusive men for lethality?



Program Emphasis

AMPs teach participants that anger is a healthy, natural emotion that needs to be managed and concentrates on techniques that the offender can use to manage how they feel

Participants learn how to recognize choices they make to abuse and encourage batterers to understand their beliefs about violence; BIPs teach alternatives to violence

Facilitator requirements


Annually; 20 hours of specialized DV training and BIPs continuing education

As you can see, AMPs are not designed for batterers. While AMPs assess participant competence in specific areas (emotional intelligence, stress management, anger management, and communication skills), they are suited to teaching about anger in general and not to the specific dynamics of IPV, thus AMPs are inappropriate for domestic abusers. AMPs are appropriate for perpetrators of stranger or non-intimate partner violence, road rage, simple battery, and workplace violence. It is also important to understand that traditional couples counseling, family therapy and mediation are also inappropriate as the primary intervention for batterers. Domestic violence is not a symptom of a disturbed, individual relationship: domestic violence is a crime.

In the state of Florida, BIPs is the only approved program for offenders. Batterers enroll in BIPs in three ways:

  1. when they are ordered to attend by the court after being found guilty of domestic violence.
  2. when they have adjudication withheld by the court for domestic violence.
  3. when they plead nolo contendere to a crime of domestic violence.

BIPs programs are guided by state statute and must meet the following criteria:

  • Batterers who are enrolled must attend at least 24 of 29 weeks.
  • Programs are based on a psycho-educational model that addresses tactics of power and control by one person over another
  • Offenders must pay the cost of attending
  • Offenders must take responsibility for their acts of violence
  • Offenders must pay to attend the program.

It is preferred that the court send batterers to programs as specified in statute and listed above, but judges do not always comply with this guideline. Instead, some judges elect to send batterers to AMPs. Many clinicians and social workers feel that AMPs are not appropriate for myriad reasons. One reason is that AMPs often involve the target/partner of the violence in the offender's treatment.

  • Coercive tactics by the offender can continue during treatment, and it is questionable that the partner/target should be involved in a treatment program which is designed to address the psychological issues of a batterer.
  • AMPs are not monitored as programs for mitigation for family violence
  • AMPs may also teach the victim of violence that they need to recognize the offender's triggers and adjust their own behavior so that the offender does not become angry and abusive (a form of victim blaming)

To better understand the differences in IPV and anger in general, you should ask yourself these questions

  • Why don't batterers also beat up their bosses, their friends, their coworkers?
  • Why do batterers only beat their partners and children?

Dating Violence

Another area of recent concern is that of dating violence. Generally, dating violence is considered a form of Intimate Partner Violence, even though some would argue that the definition of IPV puts dating violence outside of the purview of this problem. However dating violence presents in many of the same ways as IPV, and is considered a part of IPV by most practitioners due to the significant similarities between the two types of partner violence.

What is Dating Violence?

Dating violence is a pattern of abusive behaviors used to exert power and control over a dating partner. Calling dating violence a pattern doesn't mean the first instance of abuse is not dating violence. It just recognizes that dating violence usually involves a series of abusive behaviors over a course of time. Every relationship is different, but the one thing that is common to most abusive dating relationships is that the violence escalates over time and becomes more and more dangerous for the victim. The definition of dating violence also points out that at the core of dating violence are issues of power and control.

What is a Partner?

"Partner" might mean different things to different people, particularly across generations. The relationship may be sexual, but it does not have to be. It may be serious or casual, monogamous or not, short-term or long-term. The important thing to remember is that dating violence occurs within an intimate relationship.

What Does Dating Violence Look Like?

Teens and young adults experience the same types of abuse in relationships as adults. This can include:

  • Physical abuse: any intentional use of physical force with the intent to cause fear or injury, like hitting, shoving, biting, strangling, kicking or using a weapon
  • Emotional abuse: non-physical behaviors such as threats, insults, constant monitoring, humiliation, intimidation, isolation or stalking
  • Sexual abuse: any action that impacts a person's ability to control their sexual activity or the circumstances in which sexual activity occurs, including rape, coercion or restricting access to birth control

While teens experience the same types of abuse as adults, often the methods are unique to teen culture. For example, teens often report "digital abuse" — receiving threats by text messages or being stalked on facebook or MySpace.

Ten Warning Signs of Dating or Intimate Partner Abuse

While there are many warning signs of abuse, here are ten of the most common:

  1. Checking your cell phone or email without permission
  2. Constant put-downs
  3. Extreme jealousy or insecurity
  4. Explosive temper
  5. Financial control
  6. Isolating you from family or friends
  7. Mood swings
  8. Physically hurting you in any way
  9. Possessiveness
  10. Telling you what to do

Each state is charged with defining sexual violence, and with creating programs to address education and public awareness. In Florida, the state Department of Health administers the Sexual Violence Prevention Program, which covers an array of services. The SVPP does not work with offenders; it does outreach into communities in an effort to proactively impact sexual violence rates.



Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, each State provides its own definitions of child abuse and neglect based on minimum standards set by Federal law. In 2003, legislation was introduced which identified a minimum set of acts and behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. These two pieces of legislation are the Federal Child Abuse Prevention Act (CAPTA) and the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act. Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as:

  • Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or
  • An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

Child sexual abuse is any sexual activity to which a child cannot consent. The sexual contact is often achieved through force, trickery, or bribery and involves an imbalance in age, size, power, and knowledge. The effects of CSA vary depending on the age of the child during the abuse, the length of the abuse, and the relationship between the child and his or her abuser, but the impacts are often both short term and long term, and have a detrimental impact on the child's life.


  • Includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child's genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.
  • Is defined by CAPTA as "the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children"

Children are affected both physically and emotionally I sexual abuse and sexual assault. Abused children also, like many adults, have become adept at hiding their abuse. They may fear telling people because they don't want to be blamed for what has happened, it is also common form of user to be a family member; children may be fearful of reporting someone that they love. In addition, child sexual abuse may be overlooked by a family member who may be unwilling to admit that the abuses occurring within the family dynamic.

There are some risk factors that are closely associated with the propensity to sexually abuse a child: adults who have certain mental health issues such as depression, those who have a history of being abused as children, and those who have a history of using their own intimate partners are at a greater risk for offending against their own children or other children.

Children who are abused often suffer the impacts of their abuse for the rest of their lives. Some victims of CSA develop sexual difficulties, relationship difficulties, and/or drug/alcohol addictions. Many victims of CSA run away from home, or attempt to commit suicide. The longer abuse occurs to a child from a caregiver or parent, and the earlier that the abuse begins in that relationship, the more significant the long-term damages will be. If you suspect that a child is being abused (in any way, including emotional neglect) you are required by the state of Florida to report it.


As with any social problem, issues related to sexual violence are complex. Research in this arena, while more abundant today, is still woefully under-funded. For most victims of sexual violence, the effects are long-lasting. Victims may suffer from posttraumatic stress and other anxiety orders which can have debilitating effect on a person's quality of life. It's important for us to understand that sexual assaults have both physical and psychiatric effects. Rape victims often report social phobias, sleep disorders, subsequent sexual dysfunction, and generalized fear and anxiety. While every victim has his or her own response to rape, almost always depression in some form is present.

Effects can be an expression of love and a pleasurable experience. They can also be used as a weapon. Different people have different perceptions about what constitutes sexual violence and how it should be handled. It is important for you to know that today there are many resources in our society to assist victims of various forms of sexual violence and aggression.