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Research Summaries

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Date Rape Among Adolescents and Youth Adults

Original artcle by: V.J. Rickert, Psy.D., and C.M. Weinmann, Ph.D.

Research demonstrates that most rape victims fall into the age group of 16-25 years, and most victims know their perpetrator prior to the rape. This article reviews the prevalence of date and acquaintance rape and the associated risk factors among adolescents and young adults. A variety of studies conducted over the last 50 years are reviewed. Rape prevention programs and recommended future directions of study are also discussed.

Rape has been broadly classified into two categories. Stranger rape is defined as nonconsensual sex between two individuals who did not know each other before the sexual act. Acquaintance rape has been defined as nonconsensual sex between two individuals who did know each other before the act. Date rape is considered a subset of acquaintance rape wherein nonconsensual sex occurs between two people who are in a romantic relationship.

Prevalence

Various studies indicate that lifetime prevalence of date/acquaintance rape ranges from 13%-27% among college-aged women and 20%-68% among adolescents sampled from a variety of settings. College students reported the lowest lifetime prevalence of date/acquaintance rape, and female street youth the highest. While most of the current literature has focused largely on the female victim, studies have also investigated the prevalence of males who reported committing sexual assault. One study found that 26% of college-aged men reported attempting date or acquaintance rape, while another concluded that 15% had forced intercourse against a woman's will.

Risk Factors

The impact of various risk factors on the occurrence of date or acquaintance rape was considered. Notable among these factors are:

  1. attitudes of men and women towards sexual assault;
  2. demographic characteristics of women;
  3. drug use;
  4. prior victimization of women; and
  5. contextual factors.

Attitude

Among college-aged women, attitudes regarding rape varied. Women who had previously experienced victimization were more accepting of both violence towards women and rape myths than women who had not experienced sexual aggression. Date rape was perceived as more permissible than stranger rape. Among high school students, sexual coercion was perceived as justifiable under certain dating conditions among both males and females. In a different study, conducted by random phone survey, many teens identified rapists as strangers and did not define sexual assault by an acquaintance or date as rape.

Demographic Characteristics

Younger chronological age, age at first date, and age at first sexual activity have all been shown to increase vulnerability to sexual assault in adolescent and young adult women. It is believed that women who begin dating early come into contact with a higher number of potential perpetrators. It is also suggested that sexual assault is a result of a power disparity between dating partners, making age difference of a couple a possible risk factor contributing to date/acquaintance rape.

Drug Use

The use of alcohol has been identified as a contributing factor to the occurrence of date/acquaintance rape. When under the influence of alcohol, men may be more likely to misinterpret friendly cues as sexual invitations, and women are more at risk of having diminished coping responses and being unable to ward off a potential attack. Studies also suggest that men perceive women who are drinking alcohol as more sexually available than women who are not. In this context, it is important to note that the use of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and Flunitrazepan (also known as Rohypnol) also increases women's vulnerability to date/acquaintance rape.

Prior Victimization

Having a history of past sexual abuse or prior sexual victimization appears to be one of the most important risk factors for date/acquaintance rape. Adolescents with a history of sexual abuse are five times more likely to report date/acquaintance rape than non-abused peers.

Contextual Factors

Factors which appear to increase the risk of date/acquaintance rape include who initiated the date, who paid expenses for the date, who drove on the date, the date location and date activity.

Prevention Programs

Various rape prevention programs targeting female, mixed gender, and male audiences are reviewed, exploring the programs' impacts on awareness of rape, strategies for preventing date/acquaintance rape, and behavior change.

Programs targeting college-aged female audiences have been shown to improve awareness of rape, dispel rape myths, teach effective strategies for preventing rape, and improve sexual communication. Studies have suggested that special prevention programs addressing the unique needs of women with a history of sexual assault may need to be developed. Programs designed for mixed gender audiences were found to be successful in changing rape-supportive attitudes. However, most evaluations of these programs focus on attitudinal changes and do not measure behavior change.

Programs targeting male-only audiences also appear to be successful in reducing commonly held beliefs that promote or condone coercive sexual behavior. Yet, some programs designed to address men who are already at high risk for sexual aggression were found to be less successful than those addressing mainstream men. In some cases, they actually had a "backlash" effect. Some men who had been through the program were reported to have a greater likelihood of sexual aggression after the prevention program than before exposure.

Future Directions

Longitudinal research designs are needed in order to further our understanding of sexual violence among adolescents and young adults as well as find ways to prevent it. Such studies could clarify the impact of environmental factors, attitudes, and behaviors on date and acquaintance rape. They would also assist in assessing the degree to which dating behaviors change among women who have been sexually assaulted after they have been victimized.

To facilitate cross-study comparisons, consensus needs to be reached regarding definitions of date/acquaintance rape, sexual aggression, and sexual assault. Furthermore, little is known about the prevalence among non-college-aged women and about the perpetrators of date/acquaintance rape. Further studies need to be conducted on difficult-to-reach populations in order to obtain a better understanding of date and acquaintance rape.

Primary and secondary date/acquaintance rape prevention programs need to continue to be developed and their impact systematically evaluated. Sensitive outcome measures must be developed to evaluate changes in attitudes and behaviors among prevention program participants. These measures will improve efforts to prevent date/acquaintance rape and also help community programs provide better care to its victims.

Implications for Practice

  • Date rape prevention programs should address the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

  • Definitions of "date rape," "rape," "sexual assault," etc. need to be made clear and consistent. The use of legal definitions may be helpful.

  • Both young men and young women need information about date rape prevention.

  • Women who have a history of victimization and men who are at high risk for sexual aggression may benefit from additional or separate educational interventions.
Rickert, V.J., Weimann, C.M. (1998) "Date Rape Among Adolescents and Young Adults." J Pediatric Adolescent Gynecology, 1998; 11: 167-175.