Violence Exposure and Sexual Risk

Wilson, H. W., Woods, B. A., Emerson, E., & Donenberg, G. R. (2012). Patterns of violence exposure and sexual risk in low-income, urban African American girls. Psychology of Violence. Online First Publication, doi: 10.1037/a0027265.

African American adolescents are at increased risk for violence exposure, which includes being the victim of violence as well as witnessing violence. Wilson and colleagues (2012) observed that few studies have addressed the impact of violence exposure on African American girls. They were particularly interested in the relationship between violence exposure and sexual health, since African American girls are at greater risk than their White and Hispanic peers for early sexual activity and sexually transmitted infections. According to the authors, there are several possible mechanisms by which violence exposure may result in risky sexual behavior, including producing stress, depression, or anxiety that impedes decision making and emotional regulation, disrupting family and social support networks, increasing the power imbalance in girls’ partner relationships, and decreasing self-efficacy and sense of control. Two structured interview instruments were administered to 177 African American adolescent girls who had received outpatient mental health services in low-income areas of Chicago. The Lifetime Victimization and Trauma History scale was used to assess amount and type of violence exposure and the AIDS-Risk Behavior Assessment was used to measure risky sexual behavior, including unsafe sex, number of partners, and condom use. As hypothesized, nearly all types of violence exposure were associated with risky sexual behavior, although the strongest predictors of sexual risk were (1) being the victim, rather than witness, of violence, (2) neighborhood, rather than home- or school-based violence, and (3) violence during adolescence, rather than childhood. Sexual risk also increased with the amount and number of types of violence exposure. This study provided further support for a model of “stress proliferation” – the idea that exposure to one form of trauma increases risk for subsequent trauma and stress – which may help to explain health disparities in low income communities.

Making Connections

Risk taking
Sexual behavior

Media Supplement

The National Association of Social Workers provides information on Gender-Based Violence and the Health of Adolescent Girls.