Contemporary Family Structures and Sexual Victimization


Scholarship continues to emphasize the importance of family structure when examining social determinants of sexual victimization. What is less understood, however, is the role contemporary family structures play in life sexual victimization. Therefore, this study examines the link between contemporary family structures and two forms of sexual victimization, verbal and forced. Our independent variables are family (parental) structure, childhood parent involvement, current parent-child relationships, and family history. Findings from our analysis indicate that there is no difference between respondents with same-sex-parents, adoptive parents, and step-parent family structures when compared to those with two parent families. Results also indicate that risk of verbal coercion increased for single parent structures and risk of both verbal coercion and physical force increased for divorced parent family structures when compared to respondents in two parent families. Our results suggest increased parental involvement, close parent-child relationships, and family history all decrease the risk for both forms of victimization.

Table of Contents: 


    Every year, there are approximately 237,868 victims of sexual assault in the United States (age 12 and over). It is important to note that these numbers are approximations because only 40% of rapes are reported to the police (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) 2014). These victims are at additional risk for residual consequences, as evidenced by studies that show that childhood victimization increases the probability of recurrent abuse later in life, and increases the risk that the victims will become abusers themselves (McCabe and Smallbone, 2003). Furthermore, victims of sexual assault are also more likely to report increased non-abuse related emergency room visits, more chronic health issues, and symptoms of anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and depression (Leserman, 2005; RAINN, 2014).

    When examining factors that are linked to sexual victimization, scholars have consistently highlighted the importance of family structure (Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984). Although the studies have provided interesting insight into the role of the family with regard to sexual victimization, studies continually overlook the complexities of family structures in the United States. In light of this fact, the purpose of this study is to examine the role of different contemporary family structures on two forms of sexual victimization, verbal and forced.

    Literature Review

    Family Structure and Sexual Victimization

    In 2010 there were 433,350 children that experienced serious violent crime, with 807,680 experiencing simple assault, all within their own home (Smith and Truman 2012). In the same year, family households with at least one member experiencing these categories of crime inside their own home numbered 1,162,520. Serious violent crimes and simple assault categories do include sexual violence numbers. Victimization rates have shown a plateau in numbers over the past decade, making this information highly significant to current studies. From 2005 to 2010, in 78% of sexual violence offenses involving an offender, that offender was a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance (Berzofsky et al. 2013). These prevalence rates show us that thousands of children and other members of families are becoming sexually victimized close to home and within their own families.

    Another aspect to consider is the possible connection between family structure and lifelong risks of sexual victimization. Studies have shown that family structure is related to sexual victimization even in adulthood. One limitation of those studies is that the research only report family structure of the adult victim at the time of assault, and not the family structure they experienced during childhood. For example, in a study done through the National Crime and Victimization Survey (Berzofsky et al. 2013), rates varied results by marital status of female rape and sexual assault victims; 4.1 out of every 1,000 never married women in the survey had been victimized, 4.4 per 1000 divorced or separated had been victimized, and 0.6 per 1000 of married women had been victimized. This shows that current family structure has and effect. However, there are too few studies looking into connections between childhood family structure and becoming sexually victimized in adulthood. Our study aims to help fill this gap and look for possible correlations between the two.

    Previous study has shown that when looking at family structure and sexual victimization, non-traditional families show higher numbers of child sexual victimization when compared to traditional two-parent biological families (Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984). Being raised without one’s biological father and spending significant time away from one’s biological mother during childhood have both been associated with child sexual abuse (Cole 1995, Collings 1991, Finkelhor 1980, Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984, Gwirayi 2012). Living with only one biological parent increases the risk of child sexual victimization (Holms and Slap 1998, Gwirayi 2012) by twice the rate of living with two biological parents (Black, Heyman, and Slep 2000; Boney-McCoy and Finkelhor. 1995). Single-parent families (Berger 2004, Dubowitz 1999, Lauristen 2003) or stepfamilies (Turner, Finkelhor and Ormstad, 2007) have shown to be at higher high risk for child sexual abuse (Gwirayi 2012).

    Children living in divorced, single-parent or stepfamilies have been up to three times more likely to be sexually victimized than children in traditional family structures (Bahali et al. 2010, Black et al. 2001, Brown et al. 1998, Gwirayi 2012, Sidebotham and Heron 2006). These rates go even more in-depth in the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect where 30% of sexual abuse cases were perpetrated by stepfathers (Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984). Results for stepmothers revealed that only 1% of sexual abuse was attributed to a stepmother (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect 1981, Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984). Mothers in second marriages are more likely to have sexually victimized children than mothers married to the child’s biological father (Black, Heyman and Slep 2000; Paveza 1988).

    There have also been studies on victims of child sexual abuse with extra-familial perpetrators, but the victim’s family structure was still relevant. In a study of patterns of adult psychopathology related to childhood sexual abuse, 105 abused women, both clinical and nonclinical, were surveyed to see if child sexual abuse patterns are independent of other family environment properties (Nash et al. 1993). Of the women surveyed, 29% of clinical patients and 19% of nonclinical women had stepfathers; 0% of clinical patients and 23% of nonclinical had stepmothers (Nash, et al., 1993). Significant effects were only found for having a stepfather (Nash et al 1993). This shows that family structure, specifically related to stepfamilies with remarried mothers, significantly affect the likelihood of sexual victimization.

    As discussed earlier, studies have shown a correlation between current family structure and sexual victimization. According to Berzofsky et al. (2013), adult women that are divorced or separated are at the highest risk of becoming sexually victimized. In a population based survey of 281 female registered voters in a North Carolina city, results revealed that single or divorced or having children raised women’s risk of sexual assault (Coker et al. 2002; Elklit and Shevlin 2010).

    Addison, Millar, Reist, and Stermac (2002) conducted a study of risks of repeated sexual victimization in women with histories of different childhood histories. The researchers found that 76% of women experiencing adult forced sexual assault (FSA), and 56.10% experiencing adult sexual coercion (SAC) had been sexually abused in childhood (Addison et al. 2002). They also found that 46.70% of FSA victims, as well as 36.70% of SAC victims, experienced this child sexual victimization with a family member as the perpetrator (Addison et al. 2002). In terms of family structure, the majority of the women reported they were raised by mothers and fathers (Addison et al., 2002). This study shows that family and family structure are connected to sexual victimization and its perpetuation into adulthood.

    Theories for Family Structure and Sexual Victimization

    The high numbers of sex offenders reporting to have been abused themselves is consistent with the predictions of developmental theory. The family has the greatest impact on development during formative years in childhood, influencing basic cognitive, affective, and moral patterns (Coughlin and Vuchinich 1996; Moffit 1993; Morrison and Cherlin 1995; Patterson et al. 1991; Simons, Wu, Conger, and Lorenz, 1994). Sexual offenders that were abused as children are repeating sexual performances they learned in their years of developmental susceptibility. Developmental theory explains conditioned perspective and behavior towards sex that perpetrators experienced themselves.

    Belskey (1980) discusses an ecological perspective that includes multiple dynamics and factors influencing child sexual victimization (Sinanan, 2011). There are various levels, including the child as the ontogenic system, and the family as the microsystem. The other levels include the child’s community (the exosystem) and culture (the macrosystem), making family structure a component that interacts with all of the systems in perpetuation of child sexual victimization.

    Other theories involve stepfamilies directly. Social evolutionary theory suggests that parents have a more natural aversion to incestuous abuse because of natural selection’s inhibition against negative physical effects of inbreeding (Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984). This could possibly lead them to a lower threshold of negative feelings towards sexual abuse of stepparents toward their stepchildren. Tension between the dynamics of stepfamily relationships play into stress theory, and can lead to discrepancies when solving loyalty and authority issues (Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984, Nelson and Nelson 1982). Resource theory suggests that power dynamics when attempting to regulate social systems can leave a stepparent looking for ways to gain authority, even if it is by force (Giles-Sims and Finkehor 1984, Goode 1971).

    Other Potential Factors for Family and Sexual Victimization

    Some studies have required control variables to reveal correlations between sexual abuse and family structure. Sedlak (1997) found that family structure was only correlated to child sexual abuse when age was controlled. Sedlak discovered that family structure correlations are dependent on the age of the child being victimized in certain situations (Black, Heyman, and Slep 2000). Social class has been found to be a pivotal factor in multiple studies (Finkelhor and Giles-Sims, 2011; Sinanan, 2011). Families with an annual income of less than $30,000 are at increased risk of child sexual victimization (Black, Heyman, and Slep 2000; Finkelhor et al. 1997).

    As discussed in Belskey’s (1980) ecological theory earlier, the outside factors of a child’s community and culture affect sexual victimization in the family. This means that they function under the learned norms and expectations within these structures, therefore performing a function rather than allowing their basic family structure to spur victimization.

    Many studies have looked at family dynamics in terms of cohesion and adaptability when considering sexual victimization. Adaptability is defined as the “ability of a family system to change its power structure, role relationships, and relationship rules in response to situational and developmental stress” (Bischof, Stith, and Wilson 1992, 318). Tests of cohesion asses the “degree to which family members are separated from or connected to their family and is defined as the emotional bonding that family members have toward one another” (Bischof, Stith and Wilson 1992, 318). This has seen effects when reviewing multiple categories of sexual victimization, such as forced sexual assault and coercion, in relation to family closeness (Addison et al. 2002).

    Limitations in Previous Literature

    There are studies of intra-familial and extra-familial sexual victimization, but a limitation mentioned in the literature, is that many studies combine the two in their definition of victimization (Black, Heyman, Slep 2000). It is also important to remember that sexual victimization is not always a male crime with a female victim. For example, in a survey by Scharfer et al., (2012) about 20% to 30% of child sexual abuse victims were male, with a third of male cases having female perpetrators. Many studies focus on female victims and correlates of sexual victimization. For example, in a study by Addison, et al. (2002) women were the only focus of study when looking at risks of repeated sexual victimization in adulthood after childhood family experiences. Even though males were only 9% of all rapes or sexual assault victimizations in the U.S. from 1995 to 2010, this percentage demonstrates that such violence exists, therefore creating a need for studies on the topic (Berzofsky, et al., 2013). Male sexual victimization is an underreported, understudied, and disregarded issue resulting in a gap and limitation in the literature.  



    The New Family Structure Study (NFSS) is surveyed a nationally representative sample of individuals between the ages of 18 and 39 living in the United States. In all, 20,711 people were sampled with 12,756 of the sample completing surveys. Among the respondents, 219 had same-sex parents, 186 lived with adoptive parents, 657 had parents that were not married but cohabiting, 52 had mothers who were having a relationship with another man, 212 did not have relationships with another man, and the rest lived with biological families. Our sample resulted in 1,641 respondents relevant to our study.

    Although this particular dataset was intended to measure the life-long general health effects of being raised in a same-gender parental structure, it thoroughly encapsulates nearly every possible family structure scenario. Unlike prior studies on the effects of family structure on general health, the New Family Structure Study is the only dataset that includes not only same-gender parents, but also other non-traditional parental structures like non-married cohabitations of the parents and disrupted marriage cooperation scenarios. Previous studies regarding family structure and sexual victimization did not have the advantage of having access to a dataset that offers such a complete range of family structure possibilities, and therefore were limited in a manner that this victimization study is not.

    Measures and Variables

    Dependent variables. We analyzed two measures of sexual victimization. Verbally coerced sexual victimization is a dichotomous variable coded 1 for respondents who reported at least one incident of being badgered or pressed, in a non-physical way, to have any type of sexual activity that they did not want to have. Physical sexual victimization is also a dichotomous variable coded 1 for respondents who answered affirmatively to the question “Have you ever been physically forced to have any sexual activity against your will?”

    Independent variables. The primary independent variable is family structure. For this study, we use six categories that are based on a series questions regarding family origin and experiences. The six groups included are: lived in two parent household from 0 to 18; parent divorced later-after age 18 and parents are not married at present; single parent (biological parents divorced or never married before age 18); step family (parents were never married or divorced and custodial parent remarried); adopted (adopted by one or two non-biological family members); and same sex relationship (lived with parent in a same-sex relationship).

    We also include three indexes that represent current and past parent and family relationships parental involvement before 18, current parent relationships, and family history. Parent involvement as a youth is a 10 point index that included the following items: “My [parent] knew who my friends were,” “My [parent] knew what I was doing after school,” “My [parent] knew how I spent my money,” “I talked with my [parent] about how I was doing with school work,” “My [parent] asked me about my day at school,” “I kept secrets from my [parent] about what I did with my free time,” “When I got home, I told my [parent] what I did with friends,” “My [parent] talked with the parents of my friends,” “My [parent] talked with my friends when they came to our house,” “My [parent] was warm and responsive; our relationship was comfortable.” Responses were reverse recoded where appropriate and ranged from 0 (never) to 4 (always). The mean of the 10 responses served as the final scale. Current parental involvement is a 7 point index that included the following questions:

    1. “How often do you talk openly with your [parent] about things that are important to you?”
    2. “How often does your [parent] really listen to you when you want to talk?”
    3. “How often does your [parent] explicitly express affection or love for you?”
    4. “Would your [parent] help you if you had a problem?”
    5. “If you needed money, would you ask your [parent] for it?”
    6. “How often is your [parent] interested in the things you do,” and 
    7. “Does your [parent] show interest in your own children and family?”

    Responses were reverse recoded where appropriate and ranged from 0 (never) to (always). The mean of the 6 responses served as the final scale.

    The final index, family relations, includes 8 items as follows:

    1. “My family relationships were safe, secure, and a source of comfort."
    2. “We had a loving atmosphere in our family.”
    3. “All things considered, my childhood years were happy.”
    4. “There are matters from my family experience that I’m still having trouble dealing with or coming to terms with.”
    5. “There are matters from my family experience that negatively affect my ability to form close relationships.”
    6. “I feel at peace about anything negative that happened to me in the family in which I grew up.”
    7. “My family relationships were confusing, inconsistent, and unpredictable.” and
    8. “I don’t feel like I can depend on my family.”

    Responses were reverse recoded where appropriate and ranged 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). The mean of the 8 responses serves as the final measure of family relations.

    Control variables. We also control for a number of individual and family level measures that have been shown to play a meaningful role in sexual victimization. Family measures include number of siblings, number of times married, and parents education. Individual level measures include current annual income, religious affiliation, respondent’s education, race/ethnicity, region, current relationship, gender, and sexuality.   

    Analytic strategy. Binary logit models are used to estimate the effect different forms of family structure have on two types of sexual victimization. Two models for each outcome are used to fully and sequentially explore the role of family structure on sexual victimization. Model one includes the main independent variables along with all expressed control variables. In model two we include all variables included in the baseline model, along with measures of parental and family relations. The binary logit models for this study can be expressed in the following way:

    where p represent the probability of victimization, divided by 1 - p, which is the probability of non-victimization. The logit models were estimated with a as the constant, X1as a matrix of the covariates outlined above and B as a matrix of the estimated coefficients of these covariates. All analyses are weighted in order for results to be generalized to the population.


    Descriptive Analysis

    Table 1 provides means, standard deviations, and range for all variables included in the analysis. For sexual victimization, 32% had been verbally pressured to have sex against their will, while 19% of respondents had been physically forced to have sex at some point. Of the respondents who had been victimized, 69% were female and 31% were male. The majority of the respondents who were victimized were (68%), 11% were Black, 13% were Hispanic, and 4% were multi-racial and other. For family structure, 46% had lived with their biological parents in childhood, 6% had divorced parents, 26% lived in a single-parent household, 13% had a stepfamily, 6% lived with same-sex-partner parents, and 4% lived with adoptive parents.

    Multivariate Analysis

    Table 2 binary logit estimates for the effect family structure has on being pressured to have sex, when controlling for all other variables. In model 1 of Table 2 results demonstrate that respondents from divorced families had increased odds for verbal sexual victimization by (exp(.62)-1)) 86%. In a similar fashion, the odds for respondents raised in a single parent family experiencing verbal sexual victimization  increased by (exp(.68)-1)) 98%. In model 2 of Table 2, both the family relations index and previous and current parental involvement were included in the model. Findings from model two illustrate that both family and parental measures modify the effect being from a divorced and single parent household. In other words, the relationship between both single parent and divorced families and verbally sexual victimization attenuated. Turning to the remainder of control included in this study homosexuals, the spiritual but not religious, other races and relationship statuses, and those that reported an annual income between $25,000  to $49,999 were at increased odds for experiencing verbal sexual victimization.  Furthermore, respondents with parents who had a high school diploma, had less than less than a high school diploma, males, respondents with a high school diploma, and increase in current parental involvement, previous parent involvement, and family relations all decreased the odds of reporting verbal sexual victimization.

    Table 3 provides the binary logit estimates for the effect of family structure on forced sexual violence. Findings from model one indicate that respondents from divorced households were more likely to reported being physically forced to have sex when compared to respondent who grew up in a two-parent households. For the remaining family structures, results demonstrate no significant difference when compared to those raised in a two-parent household. With regard to our control variables, those who self-identified as homosexual, married more than once, respondents with some college, and those living in the South had increased odds for reporting physical sexual violence. Results also indicate males those never married, and an increase in family relations all decreased the odds of reporting physical sexual violence.


    In this study, we chose to test correlations between childhood family structure and lifelong risk of becoming sexually victimized. Our results have shown significant effects of different family structures on sexual victimization that have important implications for future research. The findings on family structure itself revealed specific trends, and after using a control of family relationships and dynamics, the results indicated a decreased risk of victimization with increased quality of family variables. Other variables were found to be significant along with our variables of interest.

    In family structure, divorced parent households revealed increased likelihood of being both verbally pressured into sex and being physically forced to have sex at some point in life when compared to the reference group (both biological parents). Single-parent structures, compared to the reference group, showed an increased risk of being verbally pressured into sex; however, in physically forced sex, there was no difference. This shows consistency with previous studies about single-parent families and sexual victimization, but gives a deeper insight as to the type.

    As seen in previous research, biological family structures did have lower sexual victimization risk than other family structures. Interestingly, non-traditional structures involving step-parents, adoptive parents, and same-sex parents had the same low risk. In previous studies, non-traditional family structure has been combined into one category, assuming non-traditional family structures are alike. Our research separated these structures into separate categories and considered current possibilities for parent relationships. Thus, our results present a more modern concept of American families.

    The respondent’s current family structure also resulted in certain risk levels. Those who identified their relationship as “other” had an increased likelihood of verbal pressure to have sex. This was also true when considering sex that is physically forced. Those who had lived in a never married family structure were less likely to be sexually victimized by physical force by over 53%, but not by verbal coercion.

    Males were least likely to be sexually victimized in either category, which is consistent with previous studies. Those who identified as homosexual had an overwhelmingly higher risk of becoming sexually victimized in both categories than those identified as heterosexual. The race at the highest likelihood of sexual victimization was “other”. They also had an overwhelming likelihood of victimization compared to the other listed races of White, Black, Hispanic, and multi-racial. If parents had either less that high school level or high school diplomas, there was a significantly lower risk of sexual victimization for respondents. If the respondent’s level of education was high school graduate to some college, it also lowered their chances of being verbally pressured into sex; yet; if the respondent had at least some college, they were at an elevated risk of being physically forced into sex at some point.

    The number of marriages of the respondent seemed significant as well. If they were married more than once, they proved more likely to have been verbally pressured and physically forced into have sex. Household income was seen to increase the risk of sexual victimization in both categories for the respondents that answered $25,000-$49,000. When looking at religion, those who were spiritual but not religious were highly likely to be victimized by verbal coercion, but those that identified as other were at high likelihood to be victimized by physical force. Region was significant with those being physically forced to have sex more likely to live in the south.

    Once family relationships and dynamics were controlled with family structure, the likelihood of sexual victimization decreased dramatically. This held true with most of the other tested independent variables. Such results reveal that more cohesive family dynamics, regardless of structure, lower the risk of sexual victimization. The closer your family relationships are, the lower your chances of becoming sexually victimized throughout your lifetime.

    This shows that further study into family dynamics, beyond family structure, is valid and necessary. This could lead us to more preventative measures for sexual victimization, especially if we can use the information from this study and future ones to increase risk awareness. Sexual victimization is a prevalent problem that affects hundreds of thousands of people every year. It is important to research violence to look into every possible aspect of this topic. Once predictors of sexual victimization can be identified, we can stop the under-reporting, psychological aftermath, and further health issues.


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    Table 1: Means, standard deviations, and range for variables included in the analyses (N=1641)

    Table 2: Binary logit estimates for verbally pressured to have sex

    Table 3: Binary logit estimates for physically forced to have sex