Girls too coerce others into sex
A new study has found an impressive number of young people force others into having sex. Surprisingly, girls are almost as bad as boys.
Have you ever forced anybody to commit a sexual act? is a difficult question to ask any youngster. But clinical psychologist Jan Hendriks and criminologist Anne-Marie Slotboom did just that. This week, the results of their research will be published in the Dutch scientific publication, Tijdschrift voor Seksuologie. Their findings are remarkable: one out of ten boys and one out of every twelve girls they interviewed have used sexual coercion at one point.
Their acts varied from forcing a kiss or touching someone to involuntary genital intercourse or oral sex. The scientists also looked at whether education and ethnicity, such as Moroccan, Turkish, Antillean or Dutch descent, had any influence on such behaviour.
What is sexual coercion?
Few studies have been conducted into self-reported inappropriate sexual behaviour by young people. The phenomenon is notoriously hard to study because youngsters tend to respond in a socially desirable rather than truthful manner. Inappropriate sexual behaviour in adults has been studied in the United States and some prior studies in Germany and the Netherlands have focused on youth. A 2005 Dutch study of 4,000 young people showed that four percent of all boys and one percent of all girls had at some point forced sex on another individual. Later research yielded slightly higher numbers. According to Hendriks, these studies failed to specify what the researchers defined as sexual coercion. Thus, according to Hendriks, “answers depended on how the respondent defined it”.
Hendriks, who runs the youth department of a forensic clinic and is a professor of forensic psychiatry and psychology at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, together with Slotboom, a teacher and researcher at the same university, surveyed 833 boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 23. They divided them into three groups according to risk-profiles: high risk, medium and low.
The high-risk group was made up of juvenile delinquents incarcerated in youth detention centres for crimes of a non-sexual nature. Most of them only had lower levels of high school or professional education.
The medium-risk group was similarly educated, but drawn from schools, not detention centres. The last, low-risk, group was composed of upper level secondary school students and first year medical students at the VU. Nearly all the young people surveyed filled out the questionnaire. The juvenile delinquents were paid five euros for completing it.
Girls are just as bad
The scientists were surprised to find that more than 10 percent of all boys and 8 percent of all girls had at some time forced someone to commit a sexual act against their will. “The girls are almost as bad as the boys,” Hendriks said. “We didn’t expect that. And the numbers we found are far higher than those in earlier studies.”
The results could be somewhat skewed, Hendriks cautioned, because high-risk youth were overrepresented in the study. “But still,” he added “in the medium-risk group alone we found a far higher percentage than others had found before.”
The best-educated youth in the low-risk group barely reported any sexual coercion at all. The differences between the incarcerated youths and the medium-risk group were also striking. Twice as many boys drawn from the youth penitentiaries reported sexual coercion (17 percent) compared to the non-criminal lower educated group (8 percent), even though the juvenile delinquents were two years younger on average than the young people in the medium risk group.
Girls from the latter group actually reported more sexual coercion than the incarcerated girls. A fact that could be explained by the age difference.
Asking the right questions
Hendriks believes the difference with earlier studies can be explained by the more detailed questions he and Slotboom asked. “You can’t ask a young person whether he has used sexual coercion in the past. You should ask ‘Have you ever pressured someone into committing a sexual act?’ Some people feel that is normal behaviour and wouldn’t see it as coercion.”
The study added some shades of grey to the common black-and-white picture of boys as perpetrators and girls as victims of sexual coercion. “A surprising number of young people exhibited inappropriate sexual behaviour. The idea that all kids are well behaved except for a few insane sex offenders is definitely wrong.”
Hendriks and Slotboom also looked into whether certain other factors, like traumatic experience, sexual activity levels or peer pressure could be used as accurate predictors of the use of sexual coercion. Peer pressure to be sexually active proved a factor of influence for girls. In the high-risk group, abuse by a stranger increased the chance of the victim later using sexual coercion herself. In boys, sexual abuse by an acquaintance proved to have that effect.
Ethnicity did not prove to be a significant determinant of sexual coercion.