1 in 16 women are coerced or forced into their first sexual experience, according to a new study

Trigger warning: This post discusses sexual assault and rape.

According to a new study from Harvard Medical School, the first sexual experience for 1 in 16 women in the United States (about 3 million women) was forced or coerced intercourse during their early teens. Of the women surveyed, 7% reported that their first sexual intercourse encounter was involuntary. Researchers found that most of these experiences occurred at age 15, on average, and with men who were often several years older.

Almost half of the women who said intercourse was involuntary stated that they were held down. Even more than half of these women also said they were verbally pressured into having sex against their will.

As the Associated Press reports, the research team surveyed 13,310 adult women, aged 18 to 44, between 2011 and 2017, prior to the rise of the #MeToo movement. Although the survey did not explicitly use the word “rape,” the questions provided and answers given unequivocally depict rape.

"Any sexual encounter (with penetration) that occurs against somebody’s will is rape. If somebody is verbally pressured into having sex, it’s just as much rape," lead author Dr. Laura Hawks, an internist and Harvard Medical School researcher, said per AP News.

The study is published in full in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers also found that in the years after these coerced or forced sexual experiences, a number of the affected women went on to have unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and more issues with their reproductive health in comparison to women who did not have a coerced or forced first sexual experience.

Although the study could not directly link forced sex to reproductive health issues, 16% of women who experienced forced sex reported poor health, which was double the rate of their peers who did not experience forced sex.

It should be noted that the study lacks information on women’s health and any prior abuse experienced before their first sexual encounter. Further, it lacks data on any later sexual violence experienced, all of which may contribute to the health problems reported by some of the women surveyed.

Even so, the results of this study are deeply concerning.

“Experiencing rape at first sexual encounter is an extreme loss of autonomy over one’s sexuality,” Hawks said. She added that young boys must be taught communication skills to prevent them from pursuing sex, “with someone who is an unwilling participant.”

The #MeToo movement is “a promising sign that we’re more willing as a society” to acknowledge and address sexual violence, Hawks concluded.

If you are a sexual assault survivor and need help, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to speak to a trained counselor. You can also chat online with a counselor here. Both services are available 24/7.

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