The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Vulnerable and Violated

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Which teenagers are most exposed to the terrible trauma of rape? To answer this weighty question, community-health scholars from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston recently pored over data collected from 1,634 ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged adolescents enrolled in high schools in southeast Texas.

The researchers find a lifetime history of forced sexual assault among 8.3 percent of the girls in this study, 9.0 percent of the boys. Further investigation fails to establish any linkage between a history of such assault and the adolescent students’ gender or age or between such a history and the educational attainments of the students’ parents. One troubling correlation does emerge, however: “adolescents in non-traditional households (living with one parent, grandparents, or other) were more likely to report rape than youth living with both parents.”

The researchers indeed stress that students’ “living arrangements” were “strongly associated with sexual assault.” And the character of this association is patently clear: “As students moved further away from traditional households, the more likely they were to report a history of victimization. . . . Compared to children living with both parents, those living with one parent were 2.5 times more likely to report a history being forced into sexual intercourse. Further, adolescents living with their grandparents were 3.18 times more likely, and those living with another relative or a nonrelative were 5.54 times more likely to report a history of sexual assault victimization than were adolescents living with both parents.”

Because of “the substantially large number of children living in nontraditional households,” The researchers understandably believe that the markedly elevated risk of rape among adolescents living in such households counts as “an important finding with substantial implications.”

At a time when Census officials indicate that more than 2.6 million American children are living in a grandparent-headed household and many millions more live with a single parent, the implications of this study are chilling. With good reason, Freeman suggests that “sexual assault intervention programs should account for a teenager’s living situation; and prevention efforts may benefit from targeting individuals in non-traditional households.” But a larger wisdom should impel Americans to look for ways to reinforce wedlock in ways that will leave fewer teens vulnerable to the horror of rape by putting fewer of them in broken homes in the first place.

(Daniel H. Freeman Jr. and Jeff R. Temple, “Social Factors Associated with History of Sexual Assault Among Ethnically Diverse Adolescents,” Journal of Family Violence 25.3 [April 2010]: 349–56.)