NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Almost one in 10 U.S. teens and young adults admits to having coerced or forced someone into sexual behavior, according to a new study.
Nine percent of youth reported committing some sort of sexual violence, researchers found. That included kissing or touching someone while knowing the person didn't want them to or forcing someone to have sex.
"Hopefully it really does start a conversation about sexual violence in adolescents," Michele Ybarra, the study's lead author from the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, California, said.
"I think we've sort of assumed that it doesn't really start until adulthood," she told Reuters Health.
More than one million people are victims of sexual violence in the U.S. each year, Ybarra and her colleague Kimberly Mitchell, of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, write in JAMA Pediatrics.
Previous research has found people may commit sexual assault beginning at a young age. Few studies, however, estimate how many people perpetrate sexual violence.
For the new study, the researchers questioned 1,058 young people between the ages of 14 and 21 across the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 via an online survey.
"Nine percent of our young people … said they have either tried or were successful in making someone do something sexual when they didn't want to," Ybarra said.
Four percent of all respondents reported attempting or successfully forcing someone to have sex against their will. Eight percent reported kissing or touching someone when the person didn't want them to and three percent said they had coerced someone into having sex.
Most youths who said they had committed sexual violence first did so at age 16.
Boys were more likely than girls to perpetrate sexual violence at age 15. By the time they were 18 and 19, however, males and females were equally likely to commit sexual violence.
"It doesn't surprise me that they find high rates of sexual assault perpetration in an adolescent sample," Toni Abbey, who was not involved with the new study but has researched sexual violence, wrote in an email to Reuters Health.
Abbey, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, cautioned that it's hard to know what youth were counting as rape when they filled out the survey. The respondents, for example, may not have understood certain terminology.
"I still view these acts as immoral and undesirable, but we do not know if these participants' understanding of the word ‘force' and ‘unwilling' would constitute rape," she said.
"Again, that does not make any form of sexual intimidation acceptable; but terminology is important when it has criminal justice system implications."
Ybarra said it will be important for future studies to back up these findings to ensure they are valid. Researchers should also look at how female perpetrators of sexual violence differ from their male counterparts.
"We as a society need to work together to reduce that (perpetration) rate," she said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/Ms92Cy JAMA Pediatrics, online October 7, 2013.