Millions of American Women First Experienced Sex as Rape, According to Bleak Study

Abuse Forced

Having a traumatic, first sexual experience can wreak havoc on your mind and body, even well past the immediate aftermath of an act of sexual assault. Unfortunately, for millions of women in the US, their first experience with sex was defined by rape. A study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine determined that 1 in 16 US women currently aged 18 to 44 — just over 3 million women — were raped the first time they experienced sex. 

On average, the women reported being just over 15 years old when bearing this initial, traumatic sexual encounter, nearly two years younger than women who had consensual experiences. About half of the survey respondents reported being raped by a larger, older assailant, whose average age was 17. The researchers came to their alarming conclusions based on responses gathered in a nationally representative survey. 

“You can imagine that if we asked this of women of all ages, the number absolutely would be many millions higher,” Dr. Laura Hawks, the lead researcher of the study, told NPR. Her study defined rape as being coerced or forced into having sex, whether through physical, verbal, or pharmacological means. “The definition of rape is any sexual encounter that’s unwanted or nonconsensual,” Hawks explained. “And when a [woman or girl] is coerced into having sex that she doesn’t want to have, that is still considered a rape.” 

Non-Consent Rape METOO
(Ted S. Warren | AP file photo) Marchers speak out against sexual harassment as they take part in a Women’s March in Seattle on Jan. 20, 2018. According to a study published Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, the first sexual experience for many U.S. women was forced or coerced intercourse in their early teens, encounters that for some may have had lasting health repercussions.

Beyond acknowledging the prevalence of rape in this formative context, the researchers wanted to highlight the unique burden that this places on the bodies of women, long after the attack. Women whose first sexual experience was rape were more likely to suffer from long-term health complications, beyond the invisible emotional trauma and mental health conditions. Some of these complications include having a higher incidence of STDs, HIV, conditions like endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. 

The findings of this study support the idea that OBGYNs can play a critical role in addressing sexual assault. “A practicing physician is likely to see several patients each week who have experienced this form of trauma,” the authors wrote in the study. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for example, recommends that clinicians recognize that the physical symptoms of pelvic pain, significant menstrual cramps, and sexual dysfunction — such as pain during sex or issues with arousal — can be indications of a history of sexual assault. Being able to identify victims of sexual assault can not only protect victims from further abuse, but also can help to effectively address their medical symptoms and improve what may otherwise be a traumatic or anxiety-ridden experience with a doctor.