Understanding Factors Associated With Sexual Violence In Couples

Sexual violence within intimate relationships has been shown to occur across a diverse range of possible survivors with various ethnic, racial, age, sexual orientation, and physical ability categories; however, studies yield some insights into particular characteristics found at individual, dyadic, and societal levels that are related to these occurrences. We explicitly note that no characteristic or behavior of survivors of sexual violence excuses the offender's behavior, yet empirical research that sheds light on factors that may place an individual at greater risk for victimization or perpetration is important to consider, given its utility for providing guidance on prevention and intervention efforts.

Individual-Level Factors

Empirical findings indicate a high level of overlap of individual factors related to sexual violence offenders in stranger or intimate relationships. They include characteristics such as low social conscience, permissive attitudes, low levels of empathy, hypermasculinity attitudes, beliefs in rape myths, and perpetration of other forms of violence.19-24 Researchers purport that many of these attitudinal and behavioral factors that lead to a greater disposition to offend often co-occur with prior exposure to violence as a child, whether through experiencing childhood abuse or witnessing abusive behavior between parents or caregivers, which may lay a foundation for later adult behavior in relationships (Dean & Malamuth, 1997). Attempts have been made to categorize individual offenders by the pattern of sexual violence they exhibit within relationships. More recent approaches, however, have attempted to gain better insights into this behavior and in turn improve prevention and intervention efforts by considering the wide range of environmental, couple, and situational factors that may impact sexual violence perpetration.25

For survivors of intimate partner sexual violence, violence spans across sociodemographic and geographic boundaries,26 but a few studies have identified distinct factors that may place some survivors at greater risk. For example, in a community sample of women, low sexual refusal assertive-ness, drug use, and prior intimate partner victimization predicted intimate-partner sexual victimization, while heavy episodic drinking and number of sexual partners predicted victimization from nonintimates.27 Studies assessing demographic characteristics have found that marital rape can occur across the life span, but at least one study found that first-time rapes within a marriage occur most often before the age of twenty-five.26 Earlier research often reported mixed findings on greater risk for lower versus higher social class backgrounds, often because of a more limited focus on class.16,26 However, more recent research has highlighted the increased risk and more lethal forms of violence among low-income women, especially when considering compounded effects of race and gender.28

Survivors of intimate partner sexual violence are found across all racial and ethnic groups as well; however, African American and American Indian/Alaska Native women have been found to have slightly higher rates compared with white, Latina, and Asian women.26,29,30 Additionally, immigration status has been found to be associated with risk. This increased risk may stem from several issues, including the continuance of inequitable gender roles inherent in their own cultures, financial barriers to leav ing such relationships, and possible challenges with partners who may threaten deportation or use other coercive tactics.31,32 Other factors found to potentially impact risk for sexual violence include geographic location, with recent findings indicating increased risk for partners in rural areas;33,34 attachment styles, with anxiously attached partners more frequently reporting consent to unwanted sexual relations (Impett & Peplau, 2002); and physical conditions or related issues such as pregnancy, physical illness, and recent hospital discharge.35,36

Relationship Factors

When we discuss sexual violence in the context of intimate relationships, it is also important to consider characteristics of the couple that may increase risk for sexual violence. Many of these associated factors revolve around dynamics that create power issues within the relationship. These may include ill-matched power dynamics such as financial or educational status discrepancies, lack of dating experience for one partner, low relationship satisfaction, large age discrepancies between partners, perceived investment in the relationship, fear of losing a partner, level of commitment, and conflict and ambivalence about the future of the relationship.11,16,21,25,37

One of the most consistent predictors of an initial experience of sexual violence in an intimate relationship is the existence of other forms of physical abuse within the relationship.38-40 For example, findings from the NVAWS indicate that past physical and sexual violence offenses by a partner increase the likelihood of future violence offenses against a partner. An additional commonly reported risk factor for sexual violence and other forms of intimate partner violence is substance use (particularly alcohol) by one or both partners.42 Findings reveal that the prevalence of alcohol use among married or cohabitating male batterers is higher as compared to appropriate comparison samples.43

Social Factors

Social and environmental factors remain key domains as well in the continued perpetration and acceptance of sexual violence within long-term intimate relationships. The peer network of the offender is often a strong influencing factor in the initiation and continuance of violence within an intimate relationship. If an offender's network of friends condone violence against women through their own behavior or attitudes, an offender's behavior is more likely to go unchecked, resulting in increased risk for sexual abuse of a partner.33,34 Many of the peer network's and individual offender's beliefs and attitudes are shaped by general societal norms regarding sexual violence in general and specifically in intimate relationships. Survivors are faced with societal perceptions that often minimize the severity and need for consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence within long-term rela-tionships.35,44 This unfortunately can even carry over to survivors' perceptions of sexual offenses as well, with findings indicating that subgroups of survivors may only define their experiences as rape if their partners used force or have a greater likelihood of labeling an incident as rape if the offender was a stranger as compared to an intimate partner.8,44

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