According to a study published Monday, which surveyed women ages 18 to 44 in the United States, more than 3 million women experienced rape as their first sexual experience, resulting in long-term health consequences.
The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that most respondents were adolescents when they were raped, and that these women were more likely to suffer worse long-term health outcomes than women who had sex voluntarily for the first time.
Researchers based their analysis on an annual survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the National Survey of Family Growth, that asks women ages 18 to 44 about their first sexual experience, whether it was voluntary and how old they were. 6.5% — or one in 16 American women — of respondents reported experiencing rape as their first sexual encounter.
Survey respondents who reported being raped also reported more health problems, including reproductive health concerns such as unwanted pregnancies and abortions, endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, as well as poor overall health.
According to the study, survivors of sexual abuse also suffer from various mental health problems, such as higher rates of depression, anxiety and sleeplessness. Women who had been raped were also more likely to answer yes to a survey question asking if they had difficulty completing tasks because of a physical or mental health condition than women who had sex voluntarily for the first time.
Among the 6.5% of respondents who indicated their first experience with sex was rape, sometimes reporting multiple types of coercion, more than 26% said they were physically threatened during the encounter and 46% said they were held down. Over half (56%) said they were verbally coerced and 16% said their partner threatened to end the relationship if they refused to have sex, according to the study. Additionally, of the respondents who indicated that they were raped, the average age of most survivors was about 15 when the incident occurred, while the average age of the assailant was 27.
“It’s quite alarming, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg because this study is only including women aged 18 to 44,” says Dr. Laura Hawks, the main author of the new study. “You can imagine that if we asked this of women of all ages, the number would absolutely be many millions higher.”
Another reason these statistics might be an underestimate is because the data used in the study was collected before the #MeToo movement that led to more open conversations about sexual violence. “More women may feel more comfortable identifying their experiences of sexual violence today than they did just a few years ago,” Hawks says.
The new study does not include information on women’s relationships with the men they had their first sexual experience with, such as whether they were strangers or in a relationship.
Sources: JAMA Internal Medicine 9/16/19; NPR 9/16/19