Risk Factors

 
 

Risk factors for sexual assault are conditions, circumstances or characteristics associated with an individual or his or her environment that increase the likelihood of the individual becoming a perpetrator or a victim of sexual assault. The presence of one or more risk factors is not a cause of sexual assault, but it can increase the risk that sexual assault will occur.1

  • Various individual, relationship, community and societal factors are associated with an increased risk that a child or an adult will become a victim of sexual assault. A number of factors have also been identified as being associated with an increased risk of committing sexual assault.2,3
  • The greater the number of sexual assault risk factors, the greater is the likelihood that a person will be a perpetrator or a victim of sexual assault.2 However, the influence of a particular risk factor can vary depending on a person’s gender and stage of life.2
  • Identifying risk factors helps to better plan preventive interventions in the area of sexual assault by making it possible to target higher-risk groups and act on the risk factors concerned.

A word of caution on the interpretation of risk factors

Victims are not responsible for being sexually assaulted. However, certain characteristics can make a person more vulnerable to sexual assault. Individual risk factors must not serve to blame people who have been victimized, but to prevent sexual assault by helping to target people who are at greater risk and to act on the factors concerned. Responsibility for sexual assault always lies with the perpetrator.

Note on methodology: Generally speaking, the risk factors identified here apply mainly to sexual assault with physical contact. It should also be mentioned that many studies on the risk factors for sexual assault have focused on populations of victims and perpetrators who are known to the authorities and are receiving services. These populations are not representative of sexual assault victims and perpetrators as a whole.

Factors associated with an increased risk of being sexually abused during childhood (0-18 years of age)

  • Anyone can be sexually assaulted during his or her lifetime. However, children and young people with certain characteristics account for a larger share of sexual abuse victims.
  • Few factors have as yet been clearly identified by researchers as increasing the risk that a child or a young person will be sexually abused. However, it is well known that a child or young person’s stage of development and gender contribute to the risk.
  • In addition, certain characteristics have been identified as being more likely to be found in families where children experience sexual abuse. These characteristics may affect the parents’ ability to properly supervise their children. Family problems also seem to increase children’s vulnerability to sexual abuse by contributing to the presence of characteristics sought by perpetrators.3
  • The community and societal factors identified as being associated with an increased risk that children and young people will be sexually abused show that sexual abuse is a social phenomenon that concerns the population as a whole.
  • Identifying factors that are associated with an increased risk that children will experience sexual abuse helps to better plan preventive interventions in the area of sexual abuse by making it possible to target higher-risk groups and act on the risk factors concerned
  • Individual factors4,5,6,7 +

    Certain individual factors have been associated with an increased likelihood of being sexually abused as a child. The most consistently reported factors include: being female, being between the ages of 6 and 11 (for intrafamilial sexual abuse alone), being between the ages of 12 and 17 (for extrafamilial sexual abuse alone), having experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past, and having special needs (handicap, intellectual disability, chronic illness, mental health problems).

  • Relationship/family factors4,5,6,7,8 +

    Certain relationship factors have been associated with an increased risk of being sexually abused as a child. The most consistently reported factors include: limited supervision by parents, use of drugs and alcohol by parents, having parents with mental health problems, and being in a family where the mother’s spouse is not the child’s biological father (i.e. a stepfather family).

  • Community factors9,10+

    Community factors associated with an increased likelihood of being sexually abused as a child have been studied to only a limited extent thus far. However, some studies suggest that tolerance of sexual abuse and weak sanctions against sexual abuse within a community play a role in raising the risk.

  • Societal factors9,10+

    Various societal factors have been associated with an increased risk of being sexually abused as a child, in particular: hypersexualization of young people in a society, a history of denial in a society that child sexual abuse occurs, traditional norms regarding gender roles, the presence of an ideology of male sexual entitlement, weak legal sanctions against child sexual abuse, and social norms that support sexual abuse.

Factors associated with an increased risk of being sexually assaulted during adulthood

  • Anyone can be sexually assaulted during his or her lifetime. However, adults with certain characteristics account for a larger share of sexual assault victims.
  • The risk factors associated with being sexually assaulted during adulthood have been studied primarily for female victims and are related to a wide range of sexual assault situations, including intimate partner sexual assault in a conjugal context.
  • The community and societal factors identified as being associated with an increased risk of being sexually assaulted as an adult show that sexual assault is a social phenomenon that concerns the population as a whole.
  • Identifying factors that are associated with an increased risk of being sexually assaulted as an adult helps to better plan preventive interventions in the area of sexual assault by making it possible to target higher-risk groups and act on the risk factors concerned.
  • Individual factors9,10,11+

    Certain individual factors have been associated with an increased likelihood of being sexually assaulted as an adult. The most consistently reported factors include: being a woman, being young, having been maltreated in childhood, having already been a victim of sexual assault, using drugs or alcohol, and working in the sex trade.

  • Relationship factors9,10,11+

    Few relationship factors have been associated with an increased risk of being sexually assaulted as an adult. However, having multiple sexual partners has been mentioned as a factor that can contribute to the risk.

  • Community factors9,10+

    Community factors associated with an increased likelihood of being sexually assaulted as an adult have been studied to only a limited extent thus far. However, some studies suggest that tolerance of sexual assault and weak sanctions against sexual assault within a community play a role in raising the risk.

  • Societal factors9,10+

    Various societal factors have been associated with an increased risk of being sexually assaulted as an adult, in particular: traditional norms regarding gender roles, the presence of an ideology of male sexual entitlement, weak legal sanctions against sexual assault, and social norms that support sexual assault.

Factors associated with an increased risk of committing sexual assault

  • There are many factors that can lead a person to commit sexual assault.3
  • Most cases of sexual assault are symptomatic, at the individual level, of various unfulfilled needs, traumatic situations or events, and general development problems.3
  • The risk factors associated with sexual assault by men are better known than those associated with sexual assault by women. Unless indicated otherwise, the factors discussed here apply for the most part to male perpetrators of sexual assault against minors and adults. Certain risk factors are associated more specifically with sexual abusers of children.
  • Certain community and societal factors have been associated with an increased risk of committing sexual assault and thus show that sexual assault is a social phenomenon that concerns the population as a whole.
  • Identifying factors that are associated with an increased risk of committing sexual assault helps to better plan prevention of this type of assault by making it possible to identify individuals at greater risk of becoming perpetrators and act on the factors concerned.
  • Individual factors9,10,12,13,14+

    In childhood

    Being a victim of physical abuse*§ Witnessing family violence
    Poor family functioning§ Being sexually abused*§

    In adulthood

    Low self-esteem Sexual problems*§
    Psychological problems (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress)§ Social skill deficits*
    Antisocial personality* Personality disorders*
    Substance abuse* Use of alcohol
    Faulty thinking in regard to child sexual abuse (cognitive distortions)* Viewing child pornography whose content reflects sexual assault fantasies
    Belief in myths about rape Coercive sexual fantasies
    Behaviour problems Hostility towards women

    * Risk factors more specifically associated with child sexual abuse
    § Risk factors that also apply to sexual assault by women

  • Relationship/family factors9,10,11,12+

     
    Dependence on men§ Problems with intimate relationships*
    Associating with sexually delinquent peers Social isolation*
    Violent family environment Patriarchal family environment
    Poor family support  

    * Risk factors more specifically associated with child sexual abuse
    § Risk factors that also apply to sexual assault by women

  • Community factors9,10+

    Poor employment opportunities General tolerance of sexual assault within a community
    Weak community sanctions against perpetrators of sexual assault Poor institutional support (from police and the judicial system)
  • Societal factors9,10+

    High crime rate Social norms that support sexual assault
    Social norms that perpetuate female inferiority and sexual submission Social norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement
    High tolerance of crime and violence Weak laws and policies in the area of gender equality
 
 

References

  1. Baril, K. and Tourigny, M. (2009). La violence sexuelle envers les enfants. In M.E. Clément and S. Dufour, eds., La violence à l’égard des enfants en milieu familial (pp. 145-160). Anjou: Éditions CEC. (Available in French only)
  2. Jewkes, R., Sen, P. and Garcia-Moreno, C. (2002). Sexual violence. In E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A. Zwi and R. Lozano-Ascencio, eds., World report on violence and health (pp. 147-181). Geneva: World Health Organization.
  3. Tourigny, M. and Baril, K. (2011). Les agressions sexuelles durant l’enfance : Ampleur et facteurs de risque. In M. Hébert, M. Cyr, and M. Tourigny, eds., L’agression sexuelle envers les enfants Tome 1 (pp. 7-42). Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec. (Available in French only)
  4. Black, D.A., Heyman, R.E. and Slep, A.M. (2001). Risk factors for child sexual abuse. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 6(2-3): 203-229.
  5. Finkelhor, D., and Baron, L. (1986). High-risk children. In D. Finkelhor, ed., A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse (pp. 60-88), Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
  6. Wolfe, V.V. (2007). Child sexual abuse. In E.J. Mash and R.A. Barkley, eds., Assessment of Childhood Disorders (4th ed.) (pp. 685-748), New York: Guilford Press.
  7. Martin, A., Najman, J.M., Williams, G.M., Bor, W., Gorton, E. and Alati, R. (2011). Longitudinal analysis of maternal risk factors for childhood sexual abuse: early attitudes and behaviours, socioeconomic status, and mental health. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 45: 629-637.
  8. Putnam, F. (2003). Ten-year research update review: child sexual abuse. Journal of American Child Adolescence Psychiatry, 42(3): 269-278.
  9. World Health Organization (WHO), London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (2010). Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women. Taking action and generating evidence. Geneva: World Health Organization.
  10. Jewkes, R., Sen, P. and Garcia-Moreno, C. (2002). Sexual violence. In E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A. Zwi and R. Lozano-Ascencio, eds., World report on violence and health (pp. 147-181). Geneva: World Health Organization.
  11. Söchting, I., Fairbrother, N. and Koch, W.J. (2004). Sexual assault of women: Prevention efforts and risk factors, Violence Against Women, 10(1): 73-93.
  12. Whitaker, D.J., Le, B., Hanson, R.K., Baker, C. K., McMahon, P.M., Ryan, G., et al. (2008). Risk factors for the perpetration of child sexual abuse: A review and meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect,32: 529-548.
  13. Johansson-Love, J., and Fremouw, W. (2006). A critique of the female sexual perpetrator research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11: 12-26.
  14. Seto, M.C., Maric, A., and Barbaree, H.E. (2001). The role of pornography in the etiology of sexual aggression. Aggression and Violent Behavior,6: 35-53.