How common is forced first time sexual contact among girls and women in the U.S., and what is the impact on reproductive, gynecological, and overall health of the victim? If you are like me, you are likely saying the same thing: It’s too common and the impact is horrific.
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine set out to answer this question. The study captured the answers of 13, 310 American women 18-44 years old. 6.5% of women reported unwanted sexual contact as their first sexual experience, which translates to over 3 million women nationwide. On average, a girl’s forced sexual initiation was 15.6 years old. The study was clear that forced sexual contact of any kind is rape. Full stop.
The authors of the study are aware of the limitations of the data as well as acknowledge the numbers will be much higher if they asked women of all ages. Dr. Laura Hawks, the lead author of the study told NPR, “You can imagine that if we asked this of women of all ages, the absolutely number would be many millions higher.” The study found that women who voluntarily had sex for the first time were 6 years older than women who were forced into sexual relationships.
The study also seems to assume that the attacker, described as an assailant or partner, was a man. While this is often the case, people need to remember that women can be assailants too. Nor should it be assumed that all people with vaginas are women. Transgender men and folks like me who have vaginas but identify as nonbinary are also at risk and experience high rates of sexual assault. I was sexually abused for 10 years by a woman.
Also, the authors’ of the study took data from a survey provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the National Survey of Family Growth. While the annual survey is valid, the data was collected before the #MeToo movement, meaning girls and women who withheld information about their own sexual abuse may feel more empowered if asked today. And no survey can ever gather information from women and girls too scared to tell their truth.
That is not the fault of the victim and not a reflection of a faulty study. Rather, it’s a sad and disgusting truth of the rape culture we live in. The number of victims is more than we will ever know and until a massive shift happens in the way we talk about sex with our kids, particularly our cisgender males, this will not change. The most telling statistic in the study for me was this: 56% of those who took the survey said they were verbally pressured into having sex. 16% reported that their partner threatened to break up with them if they didn’t have sex.
We need to talk to our kids early about sex, sexual health, and consent. Unless there is enthusiastic agreement, sexual contact of any kind is not consensual. This is not just for our teenage and college-aged boys to understand. This is for husbands and partners too. Women don’t owe anyone any sexual favors—not even their boyfriends or husbands. No one is entitled to have another person “satisfy them.” Fuck that noise. Find some YouPorn and use your goddamn hand.
Men need to stop being fucking babies when they are told no.
We also need to flip the script on the idea that virginity in women is something to lose or give away. This is incredibly problematic in cisgender, heterosexual relationships because it creates an idea in boys and men that a girl’s virginity is something to take or win. Sex is not a conquest or contest. Sexual violence is about power and control. Sexual safety can’t happen until men control themselves and gain power over their desires and “needs.” It is not up to women to find ways to protect themselves, it’s about men being rapists.
In addition to the emotional and psychological trauma created from rape being a first time (and any time) sexual experience, the study showed that women who were forced into their first sexual encounter were more likely to have unwanted pregnancies (30.1% vs. 17.3%), endometriosis (10.4% vs 6.4%), pelvic inflammatory disease (8.1% vs. 3.4%), and problems with ovulation or menstruation than those who had sex voluntarily their first time. Women who were raped also reported higher rates of abortion, illicit drug use, mental health struggles, and overall poorer health.
Men need to stop being f-ing babies when they are told no.
Again, none of this is surprising, but it highlights a need for future sexual partners, doctors, and health care providers of all kinds to be more sensitive to the fact that the person they care about and care for has likely experienced forced sexual initiation.
Going to the gynecologist is a trigger for me. Pelvic exams are painful. My body tenses and makes it worse. My doctor is amazing and sensitive to my history of sexual trauma, but an uncomfortable health exam should not include lost days due to anxiety, depression, and shame. It’s not fair that an office visit meant to keep me healthy stirs up so much that makes me feel unwell.
I am far from alone. According to RAINN, an American is raped every 92 seconds.
The study published in JAMA sadly confirmed that a woman’s first sexual experience is too often one she didn’t want. The long-term negative health consequences are reminders and problems she doesn’t want either.
Women don’t owe anyone any sexual favors—not even their boyfriends or husbands.
The conclusion is one we already know: “These findings highlight the possible need for public health measures and sociocultural changes to prevent sexual violence, particularly forced sexual initiation.”
The question now is, what will we do about it?