The NCSL Blog


By Emily Heller      

With recent headlines about sexual assaults on college campuses and other incidents, state policymakers may be interested in how they can address sexual violence in their communities.

A new resource from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence—highlights programs and policy options at the community and state levels.

Below are some highlights from the package, which provides an overview of the issue, as well as prevention strategies leaders may consider to reduce sexual violence and its consequences.

What Is Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence includes attempted and completed rape, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact and other unwanted sexual experiences (e.g., verbal harassment).

Percent of women estimated to have experienced rape or attempted rape

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence, 2016.

Who Does It Affect?

Sexual violence affects millions of people every year, including victims, their families, communities and states. The CDC reports that approximately 1-in-5 women in the U.S. has experienced rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, and approximately 44 percent have experienced other forms of sexual violence.

Sexual violence also affects men, with approximately 11 percent having experienced unwanted sexual contact and 13 percent having experienced other unwanted sexual incidents (e.g., verbal harassment). Youth and adolescence may be times of particular vulnerability to sexual violence.

Sexual violence disproportionately affects some racial and ethnic and sexual minority groups. Multiracial women and American Indian/Alaska Native women, for example, are more likely to have experienced rape or attempted rape during their lifetime, compared to other groups.

Nearly 75 percent of bisexual women have experienced a form of sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime, compared to about 44 percent of women overall. Similar disparities exist for men as well, with multiracial men, bisexual men and gay men disproportionately affected by sexual violence.


What Are the Costs?

Sexual violence results in significant health, social and economic costs. In addition to physical injuries, victims may experience psychological consequences including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims of sexual violence, on average, have more and costlier medical care visits compared to non-victims. 

Sexual violence can also affect productivity, including ability to work, diminished performance and job loss. Loss of productivity can influence the earning power and economic well-being of victims of sexual violence.

There are also significant costs to states. One 2009 study in Iowa, for example, found that costs stemming from sexual violence totaled $4.7 billion annually (or about $1,580 per resident) in quality of life, work loss, medical and criminal justice costs.

Similarly, a Utah study found that in 2011, sexual violence-associated costs totaled almost $5 billion, or nearly $1,700 per Utah resident. In 2005, costs associated with sexual assault in Minnesota totaled more than $8 billion. 

What Policies Can Help Prevent Sexual Violence?

Policymakers may wish to consider a variety of options to prevent sexual violence in their communities, including:

  • Support evidence-based prevention interventions. Evidence-based interventions refers to programs that have been rigorously evaluated and shown to be effective. The CDC maintains and updates a list of programs they identify as effective or promising, many of which focus on youth or young adult populations. Policies can promote or require evidence-based programs, including funding for such programs.

Effective programs may focus on teaching skills to prevent sexual violence, such as healthy relationship skills. For example, Safe Dates, a school-based prevention program for 8th and 9th grade students, has been shown to reduce sexual violence perpetration and victimization throughout a four-year follow-up period.

Some initiatives also focus on promoting healthy sexuality through comprehensive sex education, which may include promoting communication, respect and consent. At least three states considered legislation in 2016 regarding teaching affirmative consent (ensuring verbal consent before engaging in sexual contact) in sex education classes.

NCSL maintains information on policies related to teen dating violence and sex education in schools.

  • Target environments and circumstances with high risk for sexual violence. State policies may focus on creating safe spaces in schools and workplaces. For example, policies may concentrate on improving safety and monitoring for sexual violence in schools, including on college campuses. Policies may also be implemented in conjunction with school-based programs like Shifting Boundaries, which uses classroom and school-wide interventions, such as hot-spot mapping of unsafe areas in need of extra surveillance.

Other policies target financial, employment and housing instability, as well as gender inequality issues, which increase a woman’s risk of experiencing sexual violence. Advocates for policies in these areas focus on strengthening economic supports for women and families, supporting paid family and medical leave, establishing and consistently applying workplace policies (e.g., proactive sexual harassment prevention policies), and providing leadership and empowerment programs to improve girls’ educational and employment opportunities.

  • Invest in further evaluations to build the evidence base. While several programs and policies have demonstrated effectiveness in tackling sexual violence, much is still unknown when it comes to preventing this public health issue. Compared to other types of violence (e.g., youth violence) and other public health topics (e.g., HIV prevention), the evidence base for sexual violence prevention is less developed. Policymakers may wish to consider investing in rigorous evaluation of sexual violence prevention approaches, in order to identify additional strategies that are effective in different communities and among different populations in their states.

To learn more, check out the CDC’s STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence.

Emily Heller is a research analyst in NCSL's Health program.

Email Emily

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.