Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

Sexual Violence

(For Parents of Teenagers with Typical Development)

Note: This article's not just for you – share it with your teen.

There are so many erroneous beliefs about sexual violence that sometimes people experience sexual violence and don't realize it because they accept what is violent as "normal."

Defining Sexual Violence

We consider the following behaviors to be sexually violent:

Sexually harassing behaviors

    • sexual comments and jokes, name-calling, whistling
    • leering, staring
    • touching, pinching, poking, grabbing

Manipulating another into sexual activity by

    • lying ("I love you")
    • threatening ("If you don't, I'll find someone else who will")
    • persistent pressuring ("Come on, please, just this one time; it'll be okay...")
    • intimidating ("You're such a baby, when are you going to grow up?")

Forcing another into sexual activity through

    • physical harm
    • threats of physical harm
    • threats of physical harm to family, friends, pets, or anything else of value
    • screaming or other forms of verbal intimidation
    • the use of weapons or the threat of weapons

All of these behaviors are sexually violent, but it is not always easy to figure out which ones will have the greatest effect. How someone responds to sexual violence will vary from incident to incident (depending upon the severity of the violence and how often it is repeated) and from person to person. For example, it may be easy to say that rape will have a greater negative impact than whistling at someone, but is one forced kiss worse than a day-in, day-out barrage of sexually demeaning comments?

All of these behaviors involve one person being forced, manipulated, or coerced into unwanted sexual activity. All of these behaviors involve one person meeting their needs at another person’s expense.

All of these behaviors also involve an abuse of power. In our culture, there is power in age, size, popularity, gender, and sexual orientation. What do we mean by this? An older or bigger person generally possesses more power than a younger or smaller person. A popular person generally possesses more power than a loner or unpopular person. A male generally possesses more power than a female, and a heterosexual person generally possesses more power than a bisexual or gay person.

Using one’s power to dominate and control another – to do something that only one person wants – is violating the rights of another and is not okay. Using power to control another in a sexual way equals sexual violence.

Now you may not agree that sexually violent behaviors should include such things as making an unwanted sexual comment or telling a lie so a partner will go further sexually. But remember this: The same feelings are evoked, no matter what the behavior. These feelings include confusion, anger, embarrassment, hurt, shame, powerlessness, fear, and the feeling of being violated. It may only be the intensity that varies.

Sexual Violence: Truth or Myth

Let’s see just how much you know about sexual violence. Here are fourteen commonly held beliefs about sexual violence. Can you figure out which ones are true and which ones are myths?

1. Sexual violence happens only to females.

2. Sexual violence only means rape.

3. Someone who sexually violates another can also be a loving person.

4. One of the causes of sexual violence is exaggerated female and male sex role stereotypes.

5. Rape is an act of uncontrollable sexual desire.

6. Generally, sexual violence happens between people who don't know each other very well.

7. Pinching someone's buttocks can be an act of sexual violence.

8. Once someone realizes that they are being sexually violated, it is easy to leave the relationship.

9. Most rapes are committed by strangers.

10. Staying in a violent relationship is okay because it's usually possible to change your partner's violent behavior.

11. Making demeaning comments and/or telling sexual jokes about someone is a form of sexual violence.

12. It is rape if a female is fingered (someone puts their fingers inside her vagina) against her will.

13. Telling your partner that you love them (when you don't) so they will engage in sexual activity is a form of sexual violence.

14. 80-90 percent of all rapes involve alcohol.


1. Myth. While sexual violence is most often perpetrated by males against females, it is also perpetrated by females against males, males against males, and females against females.

2. Myth. Sexually violent behavior can include other acts besides rape. Sexual violence involves one or more people using power to dominate and control another. This can be evidenced through unwanted sexual comments, grabbing body parts, pressure, or manipulation into any kind of sexual activity as well as rape.

3. Truth. People who are sexually violent can also be sensitive, affectionate, attentive, and caring when they are not being violent.

4. Truth. Stereotypical behavior for males includes being in control and dominant. Females are stereotypically taught to be submissive and to take care of the needs of other people. Acting out these sex role stereotypes can result in a male feeling that it is within his rights to exert his power over a female and a female feeling that she should do what he wants or feeling too scared to challenge his control. This can lead to sexual violence.

5. Myth. Rape is an act of power and control, not sexual desire. In a dating situation, it is the result of one person expecting sex, not having their expectations met, and feeling angry that it didn't happen. They then act out by forcing their partner to have sex (or to engage in other sexual acts involving penetration). At that point, the behavior is the result of the anger and/or a need to be in control and has little to do with desire. It is similar to physically beating someone up; it is an angry response to a situation.

6. Myth. Sexual violence can be a part of any kind of relationship. It can occur between friends in the hallway at school, between people who are just getting to know each other at a party, or between a couple who have been with each other for a long time. Sexual violence may be a one time thing that occurs between two people or it can be a repeated pattern between an established couple.

7. Truth. If that person did not want that kind of attention, it can be experienced as sexual violence. The person who pinched may have thought that they were flirting, and may have had no intention of hurting the other. The other person, however, never had a chance to say "yes" or "no." It could have been embarrassing or demeaning to be pinched and it could have felt like a violation. In that case, the impact of that behavior, not the intent, is what makes it a sexual violation. In another instance, the pinching could have been a way to humiliate or to exert power over another and then both the intent as well as the impact would make it sexual violence.

8. Myth. By the time a person realizes that they are being sexually violated, they may be feeling committed to the relationship and the violator and find it very difficult to leave.

9. Myth. In 84 percent of all rapes, the perpetrator knows the victim.

10. Myth. The only behavior you can control is your own. You can do specific things that put you in less risky situations, but you can't control how someone else will behave. You can't make someone commit a sexually violent act or prevent them from doing so; they are responsible for their own behavior.

11. Truth. Demeaning comments and/or sexual jokes are a way for one person to dominate and hurt another. Putting someone down and making fun of them is an abuse of power, it is meeting a need to be cool or funny or popular or a way to express anger at someone else's expense.

12. Truth. Although rape laws vary somewhat from state to state, it is generally true that rape involves one or more persons compelling another into a sexual act without consent, through threats or coercion. A sexual act is considered to be penile-vaginal sex, anal sex, or oral sex as well as any intrusion of the genital or anal opening by any body part or any object.

13. Truth. Lying is a form of exploitation. It is a way to manipulate another to meet one's own needs.

14. Truth. Drinking affects communication, reasoning skills, and self-control. For the attacker, alcohol may reduce inhibitions and lead to acts of violence which would not have happened if they weren't drinking. Furthermore, alcohol may diminish abilities to correctly interpret verbal and nonverbal cues from a partner. This can lead to misinterpretation or incorrect assumptions that they want sex, which can lead to rape. For the victim, alcohol may diminish the ability to pick up and act on warning signs and gut feelings. It may also inhibit their ability to speak with strength and clarity.

Final Questions

How well did you do? More importantly, how well will you do in recognizing sexual violence in your own relationships and in the relationships of those around you? And how willing are you to talk about sexual violence when you see it happening?


Adapted from Lesson 1 in Sexual Violence in Teenage Lives: A Prevention Curriculum by Judy Cyprian, Katherine McLaughlin, and Glenn Quint, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, 1995

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