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Sexual Violence: Risk and Protective Factors

Risk factors are associated with a greater likelihood of sexual violence (SV) perpetration. They are contributing factors and might not be direct causes. Not everyone who is identified as “at risk” becomes a perpetrator of violence.

A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of becoming a perpetrator of SV. Understanding these multilevel factors can help identify various opportunities for prevention. Protective factors may lessen the likelihood of sexual violence victimization or perpetration either directly or by buffering against risk. These factors can exist at individual, relational, community, and societal levels.

CDC conducted a systematic review of risk and protective factors for SV perpetration and identified a number of factors at the individual and relationship levels. However, research examining risk and protective factors for SV perpetration at the community and societal levels is limited. The risk factors identified at community and societal levels are based on findings from the World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health [246KB, 36Pages, Print Only](2002).

NOTE: CDC focuses its efforts on preventing the first-time perpetration of SV. 

Risk Factors for Perpetration

Individual Risk Factors

  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Delinquency
  • Lack of empathy
  • General aggressiveness and acceptance of violence
  • Early sexual initiation
  • Coercive sexual fantasies
  • Preference for impersonal sex and sexual-risk taking
  • Exposure to sexually explicit media
  • Hostility towards women
  • Adherence to traditional gender role norms
  • Hyper-masculinity
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Prior sexual victimization or perpetration

Relationship Factors

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

Community Factors

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

Societal Factors

  • Societal norms that support sexual violence
  • Societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement
  • Societal norms that maintain women’s inferiority and sexual submissiveness
  • Weak laws and policies related to sexual violence and gender equity
  • High levels of crime and other forms of violence

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Protective Factors for Perpetration

  • Parental use of reasoning to resolve family conflict
  • Emotional health and connectedness
  • Academic achievement
  • Empathy and concern for how one’s actions affect others

Additional Resources

Research

  • Basile KC, Hamburger ME, Swahn MH, Choi C,). Sexual violence perpetration by adolescents in dating versus same-sex peer relationships: Differences in associated risk and protective factors. West J Emerg Med. 2013; 14(4):329-340.
  • East PL, Hokoda A. Risk and Protective Factors for Sexual and Dating Violence Victimization: A Longitudinal, Prospective Study of Latino and African American Adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2015; 44(6):1288-1300.
  • Kaczkowski W, Brennan CL, Swartout KM. In good company: Social network diversity may protect men against perpetrating sexual violence. Psychology of Violence. 2016.
  • Mazar LA, Kirkner, A. Fraternities and campus sexual violence: Risk, protection, and prevention. Violence and Gender. 2016; 3(3): 132-138.
  • Greathouse SM, Saunders J, Matthews M, Keller KM, Miller LL. A Review of the Literature on Sexual Assault Perpetrator Characteristics and Behaviors [410KB, 97Pages, Print Only]. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015.
  • 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.

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