Rape and Sexual Assault

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

What is rape?

The definition of rape is unlawful sexual activity involving sexual intercourse that happens by force or under the threat of harm. It is important to note that the threat of harm may take many different forms, like the threat of physical harm, loss of employment, reputation, or social status. Other facts about this form of sexual violation include that about 15% of women and 3% of men over 17 years of age report being raped at some time during their lifetime. About 10% of rapes are committed by more than one attacker. Rape occurs in a variety of contexts. It takes place in some societies in the form of childhood marriage, is used to torture and demoralize others in times of war, and is sometimes perpetrated by members of the military on their own colleagues.

States tend to legally define first-, second-, and third-degree rape and sexual assault based on the age of the victim and the perpetrator, and/or the amount of force, brutality, and threat inflicted on the victim. Unfortunately, rape is grossly underreported to law enforcement. The approximately 92,000 reported cases of rape each year reflect only a portion of the actual number of rapes that occur. Individuals of all races, religions, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic levels can be the victim of rape. While women of Native American/Alaskan and of mixed race apparently report being sexually assaulted at higher rates than women of other races, it is unknown if that is because it is reported at higher rates or actually indicates a higher rate of sexual victimization for individuals in those ethnic groups.

A majority of victims of sexual victimization indicate that the perpetrator is known to them, like an acquaintance as in date rape, or by a family member or friend. More than 7% of women and about 0.3% of men are the victim of marital rape or rape by a former spouse, current or former partner they live with, or by a date at some time in their life. Men who perpetrate spousal rape tend to be motivated by having a position of power in their marriage, to minimize or deny their abusive actions, and to use their children to manipulate their wife and impose male privilege.

Women on college campuses are at more risk than other women, in that about one in five college women are the victim of rape during their college career. Most sexual assaults occur in private areas like a home, hotel, or vehicle rather than in a public place. When rape is committed against a person who is under a certain age, it is called statutory rape.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/23/2015

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