Prevalence of Sexual Assault

Last updated June 2019

It is difficult to obtain clear statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault around the world. This is due to an number of factors, including both the large number of sexual assaults that go unreported as well as varying definitions of rape and sexual assault across countries. The Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women has noted multiple scenarios under which standard rates of underreporting may be exacerbated, including before, during, and after armed conflict and among women refugees.[1] Looking at the causes of underreporting, a joint statement by international women’s human rights bodies and personnel found:

Too often, national legislations are not in line with international standards on the prohibition of rape and understanding of sexual violence as a violation of the right to physical and psychological integrity. Rape cases have the highest rates of attrition and the acquittal rate is very high. At the same time, prevention and protection systems are largely inadequate or non-existent.  The result is the concealment and underreporting of rape….[2]

Further, women may fear that they would be blamed for the assault, penalized for extramarital sex, or believe that reporting would place them or their families in danger of retaliatory violence. Such fears impact rates of reporting. In the U.S., the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 2016, only 23% of victims of sexual assault or rape reported the crime to law enforcement.[3]

Despite this underreporting, available statistics indicate that sexual assault is a pervasive problem in all societies. In a report on violence against women, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that in high-income countries, 12.6% of women experience non-partner sexual violence.[4] The report looked at rates of non-partner sexual violence on the regional level in low- and middle-income countries, finding higher rates in Africa (11.9%) and the Americas (10.7%) and lower in Europe (5.2%), South-East Asia (4.9%), and the Western Pacific (6.8%).[5] In the same report, the WHO looked at rates of intimate partner sexual violence along with physical violence among women who had ever been or were presently in a relation, finding 23.2% prevalence in high-income countries and rates ranging from 24.6% to 37.7% in low- and middle-income countries.[6]

Regional and country-based measurements also provide some data on prevalence. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the U.S. revealed that 36.3% of women had experienced contact sexual violence[7] at least once in their life.[8] In the same study, 19.1% of women reported experience rape at least once in their lives, with 1.2% reporting having been the victim rape within the 12 months prior to the survey.[9] A survey of women in E.U. member states revealed that 11% of women had been a victim of sexual violence at least once after age 15.[10] The survey results led researchers to estimate that around 3.7 million women had been the victim of sexual violence in the E.U. in the year leading up to the survey.[11]

[1] Dubravka Šimonovic (Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women), Vision-Setting Report, ¶¶ 37, 62, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/32/42 (Apr. 19, 2016).

[2] International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women, OHCHR (Nov. 22, 2017),

[3] Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. DOJ, Criminal Victimization, 2016: Revised 7 (2018).

[4] World Health Organization, Global and Regional Estimates of Violence against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-Partner Sexual Violence 19 (2013).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 17.

[7] Contact sexual violence was defined by the survey as a “combined measure that includes rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, and/or unwanted sexual contact.” Sharon G. Smith et al, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010–2012 State Report 17 (2017).

[8] Id.

[9] 18.

[10] European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Violence against Women: An EU-Wide Survey 21 (2014).

[11] Id.