Risk and Protective Factors

Key points

  • Many factors can increase or decrease the likelihood of someone experiencing or perpetrating violence.
  • Risk factors can increase the risk of experiencing or perpetrating violence and protective factors can reduce the risk.
  • Preventing sexual violence requires understanding and addressing risk and protective factors.

What are risk and protective factors?

Sexual violence is not often caused by a single factor. Instead, a combination of factors at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels can increase or decrease the risk of violence.

Risk factors are characteristics that may increase the likelihood of experiencing or perpetrating sexual violence. However, they may or may not be direct causes.

Protective factors are characteristics that may decrease the likelihood of experiencing or perpetrating sexual violence.

Understanding and addressing risk and protective factors can help identify various opportunities for prevention.

Watch the Moving Forward video to learn more about how increasing what protects people from violence and reducing what puts people at risk for it benefits everyone.

Risk factors for perpetration

Individual risk factors

  • Alcohol and drug use.1
  • Delinquency.1
  • Lack of concern for others.1
  • Aggressive behaviors and acceptance of violent behaviors.1
  • Early sexual initiation.1
  • Coercive sexual fantasies.1
  • Preference for impersonal sex and sexual risk-taking.1
  • Exposure to sexually explicit media.1
  • Hostility towards women.1
  • Adherence to traditional gender norms.1
  • Hyper-masculinity.1
  • Suicidal behavior.1
  • Prior sexual victimization or perpetration.1

Relationship risk factors

  • Family history of conflict and violence.1
  • Childhood history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.1
  • Emotionally unsupportive family environment.1
  • Poor parent-child relationships, particularly with fathers.1
  • Association with sexually aggressive, hyper-masculine, and delinquent peers.1
  • Involvement in a violent or abusive intimate relationship.1

Community risk factors

  • Poverty.1
  • Lack of employment opportunities.1
  • Lack of institutional support from police and judicial systems.1
  • General tolerance of sexual violence within the community.1
  • Weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators.1

Societal risk factors

  • Societal norms that support sexual violence.12
  • Societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement.12
  • Societal norms that maintain women's inferiority and sexual submissiveness.12
  • Weak laws and policies related to sexual violence and gender equity.123
  • High levels of crime and other forms of violence.1
  • Negative attitudes or beliefs against groups of people due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability, social class, or country of origin (e.g., homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, xenophobia).4567891011
  • Negative and usually unfair beliefs (e.g., stigma) against people who exchange sex.12

Protective factors for perpetration

Individual protective factors

  • Emotional health and connectedness.1
  • Academic achievement.1
  • Empathy and concern for how one's actions affect others.1

Relational protective factors

  • Families where caregivers work through conflicts peacefully.1
  1. Tharp, A. T., DeGue, S., Valle, L. A., Brookmeyer, K. A., Massetti, G. M., & Matjasko, J. L. (2013). A systematic qualitative review of risk and protective factors for sexual violence perpetration. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 14(2), 133-167. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838012470031
  2. Jewkes, R., Sen, P., & Garcia-Moreno, C. (2002). Sexual violence. In Krug, E. G., Dahlberg, L. L., Mercy, J. A., Zwi, A. B., & Lozano, R. (Eds.), World Report on Violence and Health. (pp. 213–239.). Geneva (Switzerland): World Health Organization.
  3. Baron, L., & Straus, M. A. (1989). Four theories of rape in American society: a state-level analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press
  4. Aosved A. C., Long P. J. (2006). Co-occurrence of rape myth acceptance, sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, classism, and religious intolerance. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 55(7–8), 481–492. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9101-4
  5. Crenshaw K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039
  6. Estefan, L. F., Ports, K. A., & Hipp, T. (2017). Unaccompanied children migrating from Central America: Public health implications for violence prevention and intervention. Current trauma reports, 3, 97-103.
  7. Satter, D. E., Kollar, L. M. M., on Missing, P. H. W. G., & Sook, D. O. G. D. (2021). American Indian and Alaska Native knowledge and public health for the primary prevention of Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons. Department of Justice journal of federal law and practice, 69(2), 149.
  8. Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (2012). Social dominance theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology, 2.
  9. Stotzer, R. L. (2008). Gender identity and hate crimes: Violence against transgender people in Los Angeles County. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 5(1), 43-52.
  10. Testa, R. J., Sciacca, L. M., Wang, F., Hendricks, M. L., Goldblum, P., Bradford, J., & Bongar, B. (2012). Effects of violence on transgender people. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(5), 452.
  11. Stults, C. B., Javdani, S., Greenbaum, C. A., Barton, S. C., Kapadia, F., & Halkitis, P. N. (2015). Intimate partner violence perpetration and victimization among YMSM: The P18 cohort study. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 2(2), 152.
  12. Sanders, T. (2016). Inevitably violent? Dynamics of space, governance, and stigma in understanding violence against sex workers. In Special issue: Problematizing prostitution: critical research and scholarship (Vol. 71, pp. 93-114). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.