The U.S. Department of Justice has released a national report called Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey (pdf). It’s being billed as the most comprehensive study to date on children’s exposure to violence in the United States. The resulting statistics are pretty terrifying. From the introduction:
More than 60 percent of the children surveyed were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly or indirectly (i.e., as a witness to a violent act; by learning of a violent act against a family member, neighbor, or close friend; or from a threat against their home or school) (for full details on these and other statistics cited in this Bulletin, see Finkelhor et al., 2009). Nearly one-half of the children and adolescents surveyed (46.3 percent) were assaulted at least once in the past year, and more than 1 in 10 (10.2 percent) were injured in an assault; 1 in 4 (24.6 percent) were victims of robbery, vandalism, or theft; 1 in 10 (10.2 percent) suffered from child maltreatment (including physical and emotional abuse, neglect, or a family abduction); and 1 in 16 (6.1 percent) were victimized sexually. More than 1 in 4 (25.3 percent) witnessed a violent act and nearly 1 in 10 (9.8 percent) saw one family member assault another. Multiple victimizations were common: more than one-third (38.7 percent) experienced 2 or more direct victimizations in the previous year, more than 1 in 10 (10.9 percent) experienced 5 or more direct victimizations in the previous year, and more than 1 in 75 (1.4 percent) experienced 10 or more direct victimizations in the previous year.
Again, those are a lot of really scary numbers, and there are a whole lot of statistics there to let sink in. But in short, our nation’s children are being abused, witnessing abuse, and being taught how to abuse, all at exceedingly high rates. With what we know about cycles of abuse, this only provides us with yet more reason to make the reduction of violence a major priority.
But due to the wide scope of this study and consequential difficulty of discussing it comprehensively, I want to focus in a bit on the results about sexual violence. Above, it states that 6% of children surveyed were victimized sexually within the past year. Again, I need to emphasize this: not in their lifetimes, but within the past 365 days.
And the numbers get scarier still when we consider that the above statistic includes children of all genders, and of all age groups. Thus, breaking the statistics down further provides a more detailed view:
Adolescents ages 14 to 17 were by far the most likely to be sexually victimized; nearly one in six (16.3 percent) was sexually victimized in the past year, and more than one in four (27.3 percent) had been sexually victimized during their lifetimes. The most common forms of sexual victimization were flashing or exposure by a peer, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually victimized: 7.4 percent of girls reported a sexual victimization within the past year, and nearly one in eight (12.2 percent) reported being sexually victimized during their lifetimes. Girls ages 14 to 17 had the highest rates of sexual victimization: 7.9 percent were victims of sexual assault in the past year and 18.7 percent during their lifetimes (Finkelhor et al., 2009).
It’s also certainly worth noting that with regards to sexual assault, peers were actually more likely to be the assailants than adults: 1.3% of all respondents had been assaulted by a peer within the past year, compared to .3% for adults known to the child, and 2.7% had been assaulted by a peer within their lifetimes, while 2.4% of lifetime assaults were committed by known adults.
This last tidbit does not surprise me. With the fact that I was raped as a teenager by another teenager, and that a really good chunk of rape survivors I know had a similar experience, I’m not exactly taken aback to learn that our society is teaching young people, undoubtedly primarily (but not entirely) young men, to be sexual predators. But it does send a chill down my spine.
The last piece of bad news is, as the survey’s authors themselves concede, that it’s incredibly likely that the numbers represented here are actually lower than the reality. They write:
The survey methodology has several limitations that may cause it to understate children’s actual exposure to violence. First, because the survey required the cooperation of the family, it ran the risk of missing those children who were most vulnerable to being exposed either to violence in general or to specific types of violence. Second, parents or caregivers who answer for younger children may not know about all of a child’s exposure to violence or may underreport or minimize certain types of victimization. Third, the screening and followup questions may miss some episodes of victimization and incorrectly classify others. Fourth, children may not recall some exposure to violence, particularly less serious exposure, or may not accurately recall the timing of their exposure (i.e., whether or not the exposure occurred within the past year).
All of these are excellent points. There are two others, though. Firstly, a lot of children’s abusers are actually their parents. And parents answering the survey were, I imagine, incredibly unlikely to report violence against their children when they themselves had perpetrated it. Probably even less likely than if it was perpetrated by a spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, extended family member, etc. And secondly, surveys on violence always hold the same, inevitable flaw: many victims of violence are too ashamed or afraid to admit it, even anonymously, or fail to recognize that what was done to them was violence, even when they have violence explicitly and broadly defined for them, as was done here.
And so, while I wish with all of my heart that it was not the case, I’m left to believe that as bad as things look here, they’re actually at least a little bit worse.
I have no grand conclusion here, no analysis of our culture of violence that I have not previously made, no concrete solutions that have not been laid out a million times. Indeed, it’s all I can do upon reading that close to 20% of our nation’s 14-17 year old girls have been sexually assaulted to not just break down and weep.
But I spend most of my time talking in anecdotes. A lot of us do, and that is in truth an extremely powerful thing. Because anecdotes connect with people, they outrage people, and they inspire people in ways that numbers seem to rarely do. And yet, sometimes I still think it’s important, when having these discussions, to step back and look at the bigger picture, and to arm ourselves with statistics. Because someone will always be demanding them later on down the line.