Two-thirds of the Belgian population (aged 16 to 69) have experienced some form of sexual violence during their lifetime, according to the results of a large-scale study conducted by the universities of Ghent and Liège in cooperation with the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology.
For the first time in Belgium, researchers questioned, both via an online survey and face-to-face interview before the Covid-19 crisis, more than 5,000 people about their experience with sexually transgressive behaviour and the impact it had on them.
The study "UN-MENAMAIS" (Understanding the Mechanisms, Nature, Magnitude and Impact of Sexual Violence in Belgium) shows that 64% of the Belgian population between 16 and 69 years old have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives.
"It concerns all possible forms of unwanted sexual behaviour. This can range from sexually tinged remarks, and being forced to undress to being touched and/or raped," researcher Ines Keygnaert (UGent) said.
All genders, sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds
Among people aged 16-69, mainly women (81%) already experienced sexual violence, but almost half (48%) of the male participants reported that they did as well.
Two in five women, and one in five men, have experienced 'hands-on' sexual violence - meaning there was physical contact between perpetrator and victim - with 16% of women and 5% of men reporting having been raped.
Additionally, 80% of people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community were exposed to some form of sexual violence in their lives. 79% experienced 'hands-off' sexual violence, such as sexual harassment or other forms without physical contact between perpetrator and victim. 42% experienced hands-on sexual violence, of which 24% were (attempted) rapes.
For asylum seekers residing in Belgium, the rate rises to over 84%, and for 61%, the violence occurred in the last 12 months that they already were in Europe or Belgium.
Elderly people also experience sexual violence
The experts want to draw specific attention to the research results on sexual violence against the elderly, as today (15 June) is the International Day against Elderly Abuse.
"Many of us assume that from a certain age, older people are asexual and can therefore no longer become victims of sexual violence," said Keygnaert. "However, our research shows that more than a third are sexually active, and another third experience physical tenderness without penetration."
Almost half (44%) of participants over 70 years old reported having been a victim during their lifetime, and one in 12 (+/- 8.5%) said they had been a victim in the past 12 months: 7% reported hands-off, 2.5% hands-on sexual violence and 0.6% (attempted) rape.
"They also indicate that during care, for example, they are touched or kissed where they do not want to be," she said, adding that if it is assumed an older person can no longer be a victim, the follow-up care will also be less good.
Among the elderly, the number of women and men who experience sexual violence were about the same.
"Often, the perpetrators of sexual violence towards older people are young people, for example a caregiver or a family member," said Keygnaert. "Sexual violence is not only about lust, but mainly about power. The older person is in a dependency relationship with the perpetrator."
Additionally, older victims continue to suffer from mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and risky alcohol use, as a result of sexual violence earlier in life.
Less than half of the older victims ever talked about their experience with someone from their social network, 6% sought professional help and only 4% reported the violence to the police.
What is the impact?
"We see that sexual violence is carried over the generations, so we must focus on prevention. At school, topics such as sexual consent, relationship building and positive sexuality should be given a place," said Keygnaert, adding that as early as childhood, people should learn to set and accept boundaries.
"However, such courses can also be given to adults and the elderly," she stressed.
Sexual violence has an impact on mental health, regardless of the age of the victim. The study found a link with depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide attempts.
Most victims did not seek help: about 30-40% tells someone in their environment, only 7% sought professional help, and just 4% files a complaint with the police.
Almost 70% of the 1951 doctors surveyed have treated at least one victim of sexual violence during their career, but the victims usually do not report until several years later.
"Victims often do not file a report for fear that they will not be taken seriously or will not be believed because they cannot provide physical evidence," said Keygnaert.
According to the researchers, we are currently in a transitional phase in which different forensic models are applied, but "irrespective of the forensic model, victims are systematically confronted with secondary victimisation (re-victimisation due to police, judicial and medical attitudes and practices, etc.) as a result of the lengthy legal process about which they receive little information."
Victims of sexual violence can call 1712 anonymously, chat on nupraatikerover.be (in Dutch) or surf to seksueelgeweld.be (in Dutch, French and German) for more information.
If you have been having suicidal thoughts, or are worried about someone else, contact one of the help organisations listed here.