Study Identifies Risk Factors Linked to Sexual Violence in College-Age Women’s Relationships

A new study from Michigan State University has identified risk factors linked to sexual violence in young women’s first relationships in life.

The research team interviewed a large group of women between the ages of 18 and 24 who experienced partner violence in at least one prior relationship. To get a diverse sample, the researchers recruited participants from a university, a two-year college, and community sites serving low-income young women, including a county health clinic and a transitional living program. The participants were asked about all of their partner relationships, starting with their first relationship which began when they were around 15 years old on average.

“There’s this idea that sexual violence doesn’t happen in relationships – certainly not in young women’s first relationships – which is absolutely not the case,” said lead author Dr. Angie Kennedy, associate professor of social work at Michigan State. “We wanted to examine the most severe forms of sexual violence – rape and attempted rape – to better understand the specific risk factors linked to partner rape among young women. Our results can be used to inform prevention and intervention efforts aimed at reducing sexual violence among young people.”

The results showed consistent risk factors for partner rape across the three groups of women. During their first relationship, lower socioeconomic status, being of a younger age, and higher levels of physical abuse and coercive control predicted sexual violence. Key risk factors across all of the young women’s relationships include a greater age difference between them and their partners, as well as physical abuse and coercive control.

Additionally, the researchers found differences in the rate of sexual violence across the three groups of women. While young women from the university group had a higher rate of partner rape in their first relationship, their rate dropped significantly over the course of all of their relationships. In contrast, the two-year college students experienced an increase in partner rape of the course of their relationships.

“Most college-aged sexual assault research focuses on residential colleges and universities where there is dorm life, drinking on campus and co-ed living,” Dr. Kennedy said. “But there are more than 5 million students enrolled at two-year community colleges in the United States and even more who don’t pursue a higher ed degree. We need to get beyond four-year institutions and learn more about these other groups’ experiences with partner abuse.”

Dr. Kennedy holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Grinnell College in Iowa, a master of social work degree with a concentration in family systems from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in social work with concentrations in social policy and gender studies from the University of Illinois. She has been a Michigan State University faculty member since 2004.

The full study, “Predictors of Sexual Violence Across Young Women’s Relationship History,” was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. It may be accessed here.

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