Security issue: Sexual assault

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In a vast majority of the cases, victims of sexual assault are female

Sexual assault is assault of a sexual nature on another person, or any sexual act committed without consent. It includes (in most jurisdictions):

  • Rape
  • Attempted rape
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Elderly sexual assault
  • Sexual harassment
  • Groping
  • Domestic violence
  • Bestiality

Each of these categories are described in more detail in the Wikipedia page on sexual assault.


In the context of the Securipedia, we will focus on sexual assault by strangers in the urban public space. This precludes domestic violence and (for all practical purposes) bestiality.

Almost all (93%) sexual assaults are commuted by men and the vast majority (86%) of the victims are female.[1]

Rape is generally believed to be primarily motivated by the need of exerting power. Forced sexual acts of various kinds are used to satisfy the variations of those needs. Power, anger, and control are motives, and rape is the intent.[2]

For female victims of sexual assault, the most frequently reported locations where the assault had taken place were the either the victim’s home or someone ele's home (40%), and a public venue (37%), such as a place of entertainment, including car parks.[1]

Contributing circumstances

Known circumstances to influence the likelihood or effect of assault, are presented in the table below:

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Use of alcohol and/or drugs Increases levels of vulnerability and aggression. The use of alcohol, particularly in bars or other public places increases the risk of sexual assault in two ways. First, researchers believe alcohol decreases men’s inhibitions against using violence and increases their sexual interest, and thus their propensity to commit rape. Second, when women are intoxicated, they may pay less attention to cues that would normally alert them to potentially dangerous situations. As a result, they may fail to take precautions or may take risks that they would not otherwise take (e.g., walk home alone, accept a ride from a stranger). Further, a victim’s ability to resist an attack is compromised when she is intoxicated. In most cases of sexual assault by strangers where alcohol is involved, the victim voluntarily drinks and is not drugged or rendered intoxicated[3].
Presence of disabled women Increases vulnerability. Among developmentally disabled adults, as many as 83% of the females and 32% of the males are the victims of sexual assault[4]. A study of North Carolina women found that women with disabilities were four times more likely to have experienced sexual assault in the past year than women without disabilities[5].
Abandoned/secluded areas and low traffic volumes (cars and/or pedestrians) Decreases likelihood of detection. A decreased perceived risk of detection decreases the perceived need for restraint of unwanted behaviour. Deserted, out-of-sight locations and large, publicly accessible parkings are amongst the most popular locations for sexual assault[1].
Low level of social monitoring Decreases level of social correction. A decreased perceived risk of detection and correction decreases the perceived need for restraint of unwanted behaviour[1].
Low level of physical monitoring (e.g. cameras) Decreases likelihood of detection. This reduces the possibilities of intervening and increases the likelihood of the conflict escalating. Low levels of physical monitoring contributes to less enforcement of the law, which undermines other efforts to prevent assault and other crimes occurring.
Long reaction times or inadequate action of intervention force Decreases likelihood of apprehension Untimely or inappropriate reactions to violence lead to a perception of little control, which will increase perceived risk for the public and decrease perceived risk for the perpetrators. Also, reducing the impact of an assault (by timely intervention) will also be impossible and lead to greater effects of incidents.
High levels of unemployment Increases likelihood of targeting High levels of unemployment are correlated with higher levels of property crime [6].
High levels of sexual assault in the vicinity Increases likelihood of targeting. The distance to known places where offenders live matters. On average, robbers travel 2,1 km to commit their crimes[7], and the chance of a neighbourhood to be chosen reduces with every km distance from the offender's home.
Incompatible zonings Increases of the likelihood of conflict. Incompatible zonings, and activities therein, can increase the likelihood of vulnerable groups and potential offenders meeting. The composition and compatibility of adjoining land uses should be sufficiently considered by urban planners.
Low levels of social capital Likelihood of offences. A low level of social capital within the community (trust, friendliness, civic involvement, etc) often reflects in elevated street levels of crime, including (sexual) assault[8].
Presence of excitement Unknown. Places of entertainment are locations that are frequently reported in Sexual assaults[1].

Socio-economic causes

Together with alcohol consumption, poverty is one of the few socio-economic causes that increases the risk of vulnerable groups such as women, children, adolescents and homosexuals[9] becoming victims of physical violence.


Social impact

Psychological and emotional impact of sexual assault can be described as immediate and short-term impacts, medium-to-long-term impacts, and forms of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[10]. Besides, psychological, emotional and physical impacts, we also can distinguish social and community impacts, because sexual assault can impact on the way the victim/survivor interacts with those close to them and the community as a whole.

  • Interpersonal relationships with intimate partners, as well as friendships and family relationships, can all be affected following sexual assault. Difficulties with communication, intimacy, trust, sexual relations and enjoyment of social activities can all be adversely affected. Over-protectiveness of the victim may also be an issue[11].
  • Women may particularly avoid social situations with men, due to a heightened awareness of the potential for violence that some men are capable of.
  • Research has shown that women regularly feel vulnerable in their local communities and in public spaces as a consequence of the fear of rape[12].
  • Work life may also be disrupted, due to avoidance of social situations and feelings of low self-worth and self-doubt[13].
  • The reactions of family, friends and partners can help or hinder the recovery of the victim/survivor. Negative reactions can lead to avoidant coping styles associated with less successful recovery, while supportive reactions can assist with recovery and healing [14].
  • The criminal justice system and health service providers (including counsellors) can also contribute to what has been termed "the second rape". This is when victim/survivors receive victim-blaming, disbelieving and/or minimizing responses to their disclosure, or do not receive the services they need [15]. Such victimization is likely to exacerbate existing psychological distress and delay recovery from the initial trauma [16].
  • Sexual assault also affects partners, children, family and friends of the victim/survivor, as well as the wider community:
  • Non-perpetrator family members, partners, friends and children of victim/survivors can be affected by a sexual assault and its aftermath; these people are sometimes referred to as "secondary victims". Secondary victims often experience the effects of trauma as well, sometimes with similar symptoms to those of primary victims, while knowledge of a traumatising event experienced by a significant other is itself traumatic - this is secondary trauma [17].

Economic impact

The direct costs of a sexual assault is for a major part (±90%)[18] attributable to the monetary value of inflicted harm to the victim (most of all in terms of mental and physical harm). Moreover, sexual assaults cause responsive costs by the public authorities who are responsible for the prosecution, trial and enforcement of the offender(s).[19] There are hardly any prevention costs from a macro-economic point of view in terms of insurance fees, but there are some intangible costs such as prevention measures taken by individuals, who, for example, after a night out take a taxi home in stead of walking home by themselves.[20].

A British Home Office (2005)[20] study illustrates that the average cost per sexual assault is much higher (about 30 times) than a common assault. This is the direct result of the physical and emotional impact on direct victims. The average costs of rape and sexual assault, excluding child sexual assault, per criminal victimisation is $87,000 per year [21]. For the victim, the average rape or attempted rape costs $5,100 in tangible, out-of-pocket expenses.[21]

In addition, sexual assaults do not just create costs for the victim and public authorities, but can also have a negative impact on the whole area or local community, the so-called secondary economic impact of crime. According to a research study by AVA (Academy on Violence and Abuse), violence and abuse also have a negative impact on the long-term health care costs, as a result of more frequent or more severe health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, back pain, stroke, mental illness etc. [22]. This is an example of a secondary economic impact of crime.

Mobility impact

Vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists) are also most vulnerable for sexual assault, since they are slow and have less protection.

There is a higher risk on sexual assault in dark streets and cul-de-sacs, since the probability to be caught is smaller, and in public transport stations, because of the large crowds of people.

Also abduction and/or sexual assault may take place by dragging someone into a car or van. Parking places are therefore also locations of higher risk on sexual assault.

Mobility measures to reduce the risk on sexual assault are avoiding roads/paths which have dark corners which cannot be overseen easily by other road users (also when constructing new roads/parkings etc, avoid to create such 'hidden' locations) and in areas with higher risk of sexual assault, rather encourage car traffic and public transport in stead of pedestrians and cyclists.

Safety impact

In varying degrees, victims experience emotional, physical, social, and sexual problems as a result of being sexually assaulted. Some women suffer severe injuries, contract sexually transmitted diseases, or get pregnant. Nearly all women experience psychological anguish, and many experience Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at some point in their lives. In the short term, most women experience some combination of fear and anxiety; denial, shock, and disbelief; guilt, hostility, and blame; and feelings of helplessness or a loss of control. Longer-term effects may include disturbances in eating and sleeping; strained relationships with family, friends, and partners; difficulty maintaining employment; and sexual problems. Recovering from these effects requires support from helping professionals, friends, and family and may take a long time.[3]. About one third[1] of the victims of sexual assault suffers physical injuries.

Suggested text below - may suit alternate section

  • Efforts to enhance safety for women in cities must take into account the spaces and places where women feel most vulnerable.
  • Public transportation is often perceived as unsafe to women, particularly at night due to potentially long waits at dark, isolated bus stops or stations and the distances between home and public transportation stops. Indeed, rather than within the transit vehicle, women generally feel more vulnerable in the immediate time before and after making a trip on public transport. Thus examining transportation from a gender safety perspective should take a ‘whole journey’ approach, concentrating safety enhancement measures at trip origin and end points. This can include measures such as making bus stops highly visible and located far from any areas which can be used to isolate or entrap victims – eg: entrances to parks, lane ways etc. These ‘entrapment areas’ if located in close proximity to these trip end points should be eliminated where possible.
  • Visible CCTV technology often does not make women feel safer. Cameras are generally viewed as helpful only after an incident has occurred, rather than during. A visible police or security guard presence is deemed preferable to electronic surveillance.[23]


Potential measures that can mitigate the risk of sexual assault and that can be taken into account or influenced by urban planners include:

  • Directing traffic flows can be effective in separating potential offenders from vulnerable groups and/or locations less controlled or controllable. Providing safe access and exit routes to and from entertainment districts, by various modes (such as on foot, bycycle, bus) can reduce the number of opportunities for sexual assault[3].
  • Surveillance can be effective as most researchers believe that sexual assaults take place in relatively isolated areas where the risk of intervention by bystanders is limited [3]. A highly visible form of surveillance can raise the perceived risk and act as an inhibitor. Both electronic and natural surveillance and patrols can be effective.
  • Intervention force is required to intervene and make surveillance effective.
  • Target removal can be achieved by removing circumstances that make people vulnerable, such as women travelling alone in areas with little surveillance. Bar-closing hours can highly influence the amount and distribution of traffic over time and can for instance serve as a means to assure natural surveillance by providing a steady flow of traffic. Secluded areas make people more vulnerable to assault and should be avoided in the design of an area. By designing the road network such that traffic flows are spread over the whole area, secluded areas can be prevented. Traffic simulation models (e.g. Urban Strategy, Dynasmart) can help with this by estimating traffic flows for alternative road designs.
  • Controlling disinhibitors such as alcohol can directly decrease the problem. A careful design with compatible land uses and activities is important.
  • Creating awareness / stimulating conscience can act as an inhibitor, especially if adopted by the general public.
  • Screening where possible and ethical, can act as an effective way to exclude known offenders.
  • Access control should be employed in combination with screening to prevent unauthorised access.
  • Although typically not within the control of a urban planner, target hardening can be effective when a specific group of people can be identified to be especially vulnerable. They can then be taught to defend themselves more effectively.

Footnotes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5
  2. Savino, J., and B. Turvey (2005). Rape Investigation Handbook. Burlington, MA: Elsevier
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 [ Dedel Kelly, Sexual Assault of Women by Strangers, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Guide No. 62, August 2011}
  4. Stimson, L and Best MC. “Courage Above All,” Sexual Assault Against Women with Disabilities., Toronto Disabled Women’s Network, Canada, 1991.
  5. Martin, Sandra L et al., Physical and Sexual Assault of Women With Disabilities, in: Violence against women 2006; 12; 823
  6. Kepple NJ, Freisthler B., Exploring the ecological association between crime and medical marijuana dispensaries.,J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2012 Jul;73(4):523-30
  7. Beauregarda Eric T, Proulxb Jean, D., Rossmoc Kim A., Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues, Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2005) 579–603
  8. Eibner, C. and Evan, W. (2001) Relative Deprivation, Poor Health Habits and Mortality. Available at:
  9. See e.g.: Straus, M.A, and R.J. Gelles (2009); Zavaschi, M.Z. et al. (2002); Huebner, D.M. et al. (2003)
  11. Crome & McCabe, 1995
  12. Brownmiller, 1975; Ferraro, 1996; Gordon & Riger, 1989; Koskela & Pain, 2000; Pain, 1991; Stanko, 1985, 1990; Valentine, 1989; Warr, 1985
  13. Morrison, Quadara, & Boyd, 2007
  14. Littleton & Breitkopf, 2006
  15. Ahrens, 2006
  16. Campbell & Raja, 1999, cited in Astbury, 2006
  17. Morrison et al., 2007
  18. Home Office, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate (2005): The economic and social costs of crime against individuals and households 2003/04.
  19. In general, there are three types of costs of crime: Preventive costs in anticipation of assaults (e.g. private security measures); material and immaterial costs as a consequence of assaults (e.g. physical damage, repairs, medical costs, mental harm); and responsive costs to assaults (e.g. the costs of detection and prevention, prosecution, support trial, etc.)
  20. 20.0 20.1 These costs are very hard to quantify since they also serve other goals. Driving home by taxi, for instance, is not just safer, but also more comfortable than by foot or bike.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Milled, Ted, et al. (1996): Victims Costs and Consequences: A New Look, National Institute of Justice Report, US Department of Justice.
  22. AVA (2009): Hidden Costs in Health Care: The Economic Impact of Violence and Abuse
  23. Reference: Planetizen ‘Women, Transit, and the Perception of Safety’ Accessed:25/3/13