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Sexual Violence: Risk and Protective Factors

Risk factors are associated with a greater likelihood of sexual violence (SV) perpetration. They are contributing factors and might not be direct causes. Not everyone who is identified as “at risk” becomes a perpetrator of violence.

A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of becoming a perpetrator of SV. Understanding these multilevel factors can help identify various opportunities for prevention.

CDC conducted a systematic review of risk and protective factors for SV perpetration and identified a number of factors at the individual and relationship levels that have been consistently supported by research.  However, research examining risk and protective factors for SV perpetration at the community and societal levels remains very limited.  Thus, most risk factors identified at community and societal levels are theoretically-derived and based on findings from the World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health[PDF 246KB] (2002).

NOTE:  CDC focuses its efforts on preventing the first-time perpetration of SV. For information on risk and protective factors related to victimization, see the World Report on Violence and Health [PDF 247KB].

Risk Factors for Perpetration

Individual Risk Factors

  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Delinquency
  • Empathic deficits
  • General aggressiveness and acceptance of violence
  • Early sexual initiation
  • Coercive sexual fantasies
  • Preference for impersonal sex and sexual-risk taking
  • Exposure to sexually explicit media
  • Hostility towards women
  • Adherence to traditional gender role norms
  • Hyper-masculinity
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Prior sexual victimization or perpetration

Relationship Factors

  • Family environment characterized by physical violence and conflict
  • Childhood history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Emotionally unsupportive family environment
  • Poor parent-child relationships, particularly with fathers
  • Association with sexually aggressive, hypermasculine, and delinquent peers
  • Involvement in a violent or abusive intimate relationship

Community Factors

  • Poverty
  • Lack of employment opportunities
  • Lack of institutional support from police and judicial system
  • General tolerance of sexual violence within the community
  • Weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators

Societal Factors

  • Societal norms that support sexual violence
  • Societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement
  • Societal norms that maintain women’s inferiority and sexual submissiveness
  • Weak laws and policies related to sexual violence and gender equity
  • High levels of crime and other forms of violence

Tharp AT, DeGue S, Valle LA, Brookmeyer KA, Massetti GM, Matjasko JL. A systematic qualitative review of risk and protective factors for sexual violence perpetration. Trauma Violence Abuse. 2013; 14(2): 133-167. Available from

Jewkes R, Sen P, Garcia-Moreno C. Sexual violence. In: Krug E, Dahlberg LL, Mercy JA, et al., editors. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva (Switzerland): World Health Organization. 2002; 213–239.

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Protective Factors for Perpetration

Protective factors may lessen the likelihood of sexual violence victimization or perpetration by buffering against risk. These factors can exist at individual, relational, community, and societal levels. Research in this area is ongoing. The few protective factors identified by researchers to date are listed below.

  • Parental use of reasoning to resolve family conflict
  • Emotional health and connectedness
  • Academic achievement
  • Empathy and concern for how one’s actions affect others

Additional Resources


  • Abbey A, McAuslan P. A longitudinal examination of male college students’ perpetration of sexual assault. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2004; 72(5): 747-756.
  • Abbey, A, Parkhill M, Clinton-Sherrod A, Zawacki T. A comparison of men who committed different types of sexual assault in a community sample. J Interpers Violence. 2007; 22:1567-80.
  • Acierno R, Resnick H, Kilpatrick DG, Saunders B, Best CL. Risk factors for rape, physical assault, and post-traumatic stress disorder in women: examination of differential multivariate relationships. J Anxiety Disord. 1999; 13:541-63.
  • Basile KC, Hamburger ME, Swahn MH, Choi C,). Sexual violence perpetration by adolescents in dating versus same-sex peer relationships: Differences in associated risk and protective factors. West J Emerg Med. 2013; 14(4):329-340.
  • Borowsky IW, Hogan M, Ireland M. Adolescent sexual aggression: risk and protective factors. Pediatrics. 1997;100;7-DOI:10.1542/peds.100.6.e7.
  • East PL, Hokoda A. Risk and Protective Factors for Sexual and Dating Violence Victimization: A Longitudinal, Prospective Study of Latino and African American Adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2015; 44(6):1288-1300.
  • Farr C, Brown J,  Beckett R. Ability to empathize and masculinity levels: Comparing male adolescent sex offenders with a normative sample of non-offending adolescents. Psychol Crime Law. 2004; 10:155-167.
  • Forbes G,  Adams-Curtis L. Experiences with sexual coercion in college males and females: Role of family conflict, sexist attitudes, acceptance of rape myths, self-esteem, and the Big Five personality factors. J Interpers Violence. 2001; 16:865-889.
  • Howard DE, Wang MQ. Risk profiles of adolescent girls who were victims of dating violence. Adolescence. 2003; 38(149): 1-14.
  • Kaczkowski W, Brennan CL, Swartout KM. In good company: Social network diversity may protect men against perpetrating sexual violence. Psychology of Violence. 2016.
  • Loh C, Gidycz CA, Lobo TR, Luthra R. A prospective analysis of sexual assault perpetration: Risk factors related to perpetrator characteristics. J Interpers Violence. 2005; 20(10):1325-1348.
  • Malamuth NM. The confluence model as an organizing framework for research on sexually aggressive men: risk moderators, imagined aggression, and pornography consumption. In: Geen RG, Donnerstein E, editor.  Human aggression: theories, research, and implications for social policy. San Diego, CA: Academic Press; 1998. 229-45.
  • Mazar LA, Kirkner, A. Fraternities and campus sexual violence: Risk, protection, and prevention. Violence and Gender. 2016; 3(3): 132-138.
  • Rickert VI, Wiemann CM, Vaughan RD, White JW. Rates and risk factors for sexual violence among an ethnically diverse sample of adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158 (12):1132-9.
  • White JW, Smith PH. Sexual assault perpetration and reperpetration: From adolescence to young adulthood. Crim Justice Behav. 2004; 31(2): 182-202.

Literature Reviews

  • American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. Hostile hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation; 2001. Available from:
  • American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC:  American Psychological Association; 2007. Available from:
  • Crowell NA, Burgess AW, editors. Understanding Violence against Women. Washington: National Academy Press; 1996.
  • Greathouse SM, Saunders J, Matthews M, Keller KM, Miller LL. A Review of the Literature on Sexual Assault Perpetrator Characteristics and Behaviors. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015. Available from: [PDF 410KB]
  • Hall GCN, Barongan C. Prevention of sexual aggression: sociocultural risk and protective factors. Am Psychol. 1997; 52(1), 5(1).

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