This study provided the first comprehensive data about sexual aggression in heterosexual victim-perpetrator constellations in Iran, considering women and men as both victims and perpetrators. The study used behaviorally specific questions that covered different types of coercive strategies, victim-perpetrator constellation, and sexual acts. Scientific knowledge about sexual aggression in Iran is of particular interest given that the introduction of ‘Sharia’ (i.e., Islamic law) after the Islamic revolution in 1979 dominates state law, social norms and specifically sexuality. Our findings reveal high prevalence rates of sexual victimization and perpetration since the age of 15 years and of the experience of child sexual abuse among both male and female participants. Moreover, explaining the high rates of sexual victimization and perpetration, results showed that women and men who experienced child sexual abuse were more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, which was related to a higher probability of sexual aggression victimization and perpetration later in life. Moreover, the more men endorsed hostile masculinity, the higher their odds were of perpetrating sexual aggression against women.
More women (63.0%) than men (51.0%) reported experiences of sexual victimization. The overall rate for women is higher than those found in past studies conducted in Iran (Danesh et al., 2016; 56.1%; Vakili et al., 2010; 30.9%) except for one study by Aghakhani et al. (2015) in which 73.4% of married women reported being victimized by at least one type of sexual aggression by their husbands. A possible reason for the higher prevalence rate among women in our study may be the more detailed and behaviorally specific assessment of sexual victimization, which facilitates a better detection of experiencing sexual aggression. Also, the higher prevalence could be due to the more diverse sample of female participants in the present study, which – unlike the literature based on college student samples – included women of different age, marital status, and religious affiliation. Finally, the present study was not limited to sexual aggression in intimate relationships, but covered a wider range of victim-perpetrator constellations. The present rate of women’s victimization by a current or former partner of 40.4% compares with the total rate including non-partners of 63%. Regarding male victimization, the present victimization rate by a current or former partner of 35.1% was similar to the rates reported in past work (Kamimura et al., 2016; Mohammadkhani et al., 2009), but substantially higher than the reported rates in the study by Nikparvar et al., (2021; 10.7%). Considering the severity of sexual victimization, women most often experienced unwanted sexual contact, whereas men reported being raped as the most frequent form. Surprisingly, the rates of rape victimization did not differ between men and women.
The high overall rates of male victimization together with the nonsignificant gender difference on the severity score of sexual victimization cannot be explained conclusively within the scope of our study. A point of departure for further theorizing may be found in the role of gender equality. Previous research has yielded inconclusive results regarding the association of country-level indices of gender equality with male and female sexual victimization. The study by Hines (2007) involving 19 countries found that male victimization rates were positively correlated with gender equality in a country. Given that Iran ranks low on gender equality indexes (e.g., rank 150 out of 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report; World Economic Forum, 2021), this finding would suggest relatively low rates of male victimization and a larger gap between female and male victimization rates, which is contrary to what we found. However, Hines (2007) did not find higher female victimization rates in countries with lower gender equality, as was the case in our study. Another study involving 10 countries found higher male victimization rates in countries with lower gender quality, which could be attributed partly to lower sexual assertiveness of men relative to women in the respective countries (Krahé et al., 2015). Further studies from Iran and comparative analyses with data from countries similar or different to Iran in terms of gender equality are needed to replicate the rates of male sexual victimization in this country and offer a theoretical explanation for gender similarities in the rates of sexual victimization.
Regarding sexual aggression perpetration, rates were higher for men (37.0%) than for women (13.4%), which is in line with consistent findings from Western cultures (e.g., Krahé et al., 2015). Compared to the two available Iranian studies on sexual aggression perpetration in intimate relationships that included both women and men, the present rates of female and male perpetration (11.2%, 21.2%) against a current and former partner are similar to the rates of Nikparvar et al. (2021), but our results are significantly lower than the reported rates of Kamimura et al. (2016). Notably, the findings from the latter study are based on a very small sample, so the generalizability of these findings is unclear.
Regarding the severity of sexual aggression perpetration, both men and women most often made others engage in unwanted sexual contact. A possible explanation for the high rates of female perpetration can be viewing men as hostile. A multinational study showed that in countries where women endorse higher gender hostility towards men, they are more likely to perpetrate sexual aggression against men (Hines, 2007). However, given the lack of information about women’s hostility against men in the present study and the scarcity of data about female perpetration in Islamic countries, this explanation goes beyond the present data and suggests an avenue for future research.
Sexual aggression occurred most often among persons known to each other, such as (former) partners and friends or acquaintances, and less often among strangers. This finding aligns with prior findings from other cultures (e.g., Krahé et al., 2015) as well as research from Iran (Kamimura et al., 2016; Nikparvar et al., 2021). The frequency of stranger assault was higher for women than for men. Parallel to this finding, men most frequently reported sexual aggression perpetration against a female friend or acquaintance.
When being victimized, the coercive strategy most often used against men as well as women was the threat or use of physical force, followed by verbal pressure, and the exploitation of the other person’s inability to resist. However, when committing sexual aggression, both women and men most frequently reported using verbal pressure, followed by use or threat of physical force, and the exploitation of the victim’s incapacitated state. In other words, participants differ in their reports of the coercive strategy used when engaging in, as opposed to being victimized by, sexual aggression. One explanation could be that participants may be more reluctant to report engaging, rather than experiencing, severe forms of sexual aggression due to the antisocial nature of this behavior.
Explaining the high rates of female sexual victimization and male perpetration in our data, a closer look at the gender discriminatory law based on ‘Sharia’ is needed. The Iranian state law harshly punishes convicted (male) perpetrators of rape, and the death sentence is possible (The Islamic Penal Law, 2014). However, in practice, rape convictions are rare due to the status of rape in the legal regulations. For example, it is very likely that judges treat rape committed by men as a subsection of consensual sex (‘Zena’) because there should be no reason for a woman to be in the residence of a male stranger, which means that the female victim can incur punishment due to the assumption that she engaged in sex out of marriage (Article 221; The Islamic Penal Law, 2014). It is noteworthy to mention that currently some judges may be lenient on women (‘Hokm ba Orf’), however this is not a uniform practice. Moreover, as the law grants husbands the right to have sex with their wife on demand (The Islamic Civil Law, 2006), marital rape is exempted from rape law. Therefore, the legal system reduces female protection against sexual aggression, which in turn may provide immunity for male perpetrators and increase the rates of female sexual victimization. It is likely that the figures we found for sexual aggression by a current and former partner include a substantial proportion of assaults within marriage that would not be recognized as such based on legal definitions.
Beyond the legal treatment of sexual violence, several cultural factors may have contributed to the high prevalence of sexual aggression victimization and perpetration in our sample. First, the state prohibits any social and institutionalized discourse about sexuality, which means that sex education curricula lack information about intimacy, consent, and respect for the right to sexual self-determination. Accordingly, knowledge about sexuality is limited, which may undermine individuals’ mutual respect for each other’s self-determination in sexual relationships (Motamedi et al., 2016). Second, despite the liberal sexual attitudes and behaviors shared particularly among urban youth in recent years, dubbed as the “sexual revolution in Iran” (Mahdavi, 2009), the patriarchal norms and traditional gender roles prescribed by the state and society remain strong, which manifests in double standards for male and female sexuality. While women are expected to preserve their virginity until marriage and uphold the family honor (Farahani, 2007), ‘Sharia’ has promoted temporary marriage (‘Sighe’), which allows men to have intimate relations with women (Haeri, 1992). In such context, women who have engaged in extra-marital sex or even dating can be considered “easy-to-have” or “whores”, whereas no such stigma is attached to men (Farahani, 2007). This portrayal of women compromises the respect for women’s consent and can provide a justification for men’s sexually aggressive behavior.
To gain insight into potential factors associated with a greater probability of reporting sexual aggression victimization and perpetration, we examined the role of child sexual abuse (CSA) and risky sexual behavior for women and men. In addition, hostile masculinity was examined as a predictor of men’s sexual aggression perpetration. Results showed that more than half of both male (54.3%) and female (52.2%) participants reported having experienced at least one form of sexual contact by an older person/adult before they reached the age of 15 years. These rates are substantially higher than those found in previous studies in Western cultures. For example, a longitudinal study with German college students found that 8.5% of men and 11.4% of women reported experiences of CSA before they were 14 years old (Krahé & Berger, 2017). Moreover, whereas the overall prevalence did not vary by gender in our study, significantly more men than women reported severe forms of CSA in the form of attempted or completed penetration. The finding of men’s higher experience of severe CSA contrasts with evidence from Western cultures, where women are more likely to experience CSA than men (Barth et al., 2013). Since there is no public discourse on CSA in Iran (Shapouri, 2007), we used behaviorally specific questions to capture CSA incidents rather than broad items (such as “have you ever experienced child sexual abuse?”), which require knowledge of what CSA actually means. Thus, our items likely made it easier for participants to establish whether they experienced a form of sexual behavior from others that meets the defining criteria of CSA. A further explanation of the high prevalence of CSA may lie in the specific cultural and legal context in Iran. As child sexual abuse is a taboo topic in Iranian society, there are no underlying social and legal structures to prevent and treat CSA. This renders children more vulnerable to sexual aggression (Shapouri, 2007). “The Protection of Children and Juveniles Law” was passed only recently, and its enforcement is unknown (The Islamic Parliament Research Center, 2020). Given the paucity of statistics about CSA in Iran, future research that tests potential explanations is needed to clarify the observed difference of the more severe forms of CSA among women and men. Future studies aiming to understand CSA are of great importance, not only to prevent CSA but also to prevent re-victimization in later life.
The present finding that CSA is a key predictor of sexual re-victimization aligns with prior research from Western cultures (e.g., Krahé & Berger, 2017). CSA victims more likely engaged in risky sexual behavior, such as casual sex, alcohol or drug consumption in sexual situations, and ambiguous communication about sexual intentions. These behaviors, in turn, are related to a greater likelihood of sexual aggression victimization and perpetration. Our results are consistent with ample evidence demonstrating the significance of CSA and risky sexual behavior as risk factors of later sexual victimization (see review by Tharp et al., 2013). One explanation for engaging in risky sexual behavior is that CSA victims apply sex-related coping strategies to dampen the distress from the prior traumatic experience (Miron & Orcutt, 2014). Therefore, interventions aimed at reducing children’s experience of CSA can be a promising avenue to reduce adult sexual aggression victimization and perpetration.
Along the same lines, our results support the prediction that men’s endorsement of hostile masculinity is related to their odds of reporting sexual aggression perpetration against women. The Iranian state and society promote male dominance over women, especially when women do not observe traditional gender roles that are prescribed by the state or blemish the familial and societal honor (Aghtaie, 2017). Consequently, male violence and hostility toward women manifest in various forms, such as in physical, psychological, or sexual aggression, and occur in both the public and private spheres (Amnesty International, 2015). Hence, future research in cultures with high endorsement of honor and patriarchal ideologies is needed to uncover and address the contribution of these factors to sexual aggression.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
Although the current study makes significant contributions to the scientific understanding of sexual aggression in a major Middle Eastern country, limitations must be noted. First, as the present research used a convenience sample, the generalizability of its findings is unclear. Future studies with representative samples would be desirable, yet difficult to obtain given research limitations in Iran. However, it is doubtful that truly representative prevalence data can be obtained even if representative samples are invited to participate, as the problem of selective dropout in this highly sensitive topic area will likely lead a nonrepresentative group of participants contributing data for the analysis. This is a problem faced by prevalence studies on sexual aggression in general, but it is even more serious in countries with very restrictive rules about sexual conduct, such as Iran.
Second, the current sample mainly consisted of highly educated participants with at least a Bachelor’s degree. Although this reflects the high rate of enrollment in tertiary education in Iran, which is twice as high as the global average (above 70% in 2015; World Education News Reviews, 2017), the rate in the present sample is still higher than the national average. Second, as CSA was measured retrospectively, the memories of CSA victims might have been affected by the traumatic effects of this adverse childhood experience and by subsequent re-victimization experiences (Krahé & Berger, 2017). However, obtaining retrospective CSA reports is a standard approach in the study of sexual aggression, and empirical evidence suggests that they can provide valid findings (Hardt & Rutter, 2004). Third, future research should investigate the prevalence of CSA in different types of victim-perpetrator constellations, such as family members versus strangers, for a more comprehensive understanding.
Third, research assessing additional victim-perpetrator constellations in post-CSA sexual aggression, such as victims’ or perpetrators’ family members and relatives, would be valuable in order to examine whether cultural factors, such as family honor or stigma, need to be addressed when designing interventions targeting sexual aggression in Islamic societies (Haboush & Alyan, 2013). Finally, the current study was limited to sexual aggression in heterosexual victim-perpetrator constellations, excluding male victimization by men and female victimization by women. Future studies should adopt an inclusive approach going beyond gender-binary analyses of victimization and perpetration rates.
Despite these limitations, the current research is a promising starting point for future work that examines factors associated with sexual aggression in Islamic countries. In Iran, past research showed that honor culture and religious fundamentalist norms (‘Sharia’) that have been implemented in most of sectors of society are associated with high victimization of women (Aghtaie, 2017). ‘Sharia’ plays a pivotal role in defining social norms about sexuality that are likely to shape individuals’ sexual scripts. Sexual scripts are cognitive schemas that prescribe “what counts as sex, how to recognize sexual situations, and what to do during sexual encounters” (Frith, 2009, p. 100) and consequently influence the sequence of actions and behaviors in sexual settings (Metts & Spitzberg, 1996). Thus, future research investigating the role of religious fundamentalism and sexual scripts for sexual aggression in Iran would be interesting. Although we did not investigate the relationship between the strength of Muslim affiliation and observing ‘Sharia’ and the odds of victimization and perpetration, future studies are needed to uncover and address this question. Also, given a lack of sex education, further studies examining the effects of pornography consumption, consensual sexual scripts, and attitudes towards sexual coercion would be valuable to elucidate the socio-cultural context of sexual aggression in Iran and other Islamic countries.
The current findings serve to raise awareness that the prevalence of sexual aggression both in childhood and adulthood among women and men in Iran is very high, which contradicts official claims by the state that the rate of such incidents is low and negligible (Radio Farda, 2020). In addition, this study is the first in Iran that informs about sexual aggression through providing data about how (use of different coercive strategies) and with or by whom (victim-perpetrator relationship) sexual aggression occurs. Beyond the “real rape stereotype” of a stranger attack through physical force, perpetrators may be acquaintances, friends and current or former partners, who use coercive strategies such as “exploiting the victim’s incapacitated state due to alcohol or drug consumption” and/or “using verbal pressure” as well. Therefore, the current research can inform prevention programs specifically in a society that does not criminalize marital rape.
Moreover, given that sexual aggression likely harms victims’ well-being, our data have the potential to generate evidence-based information to educate, prevent, and design intervention programs about sexual aggression, specifically tailored to the Middle Eastern culture. Yet, interventions require systematic actions. The first step can be initiating open discourses about sexuality and sexual violence in society, while including evidence-based sex education in the school curriculum that emphasizes sexual autonomy and consent, highlighting female sexual agency. Moreover, since fair and non-discriminatory laws protect citizens against crimes, special attention to the rape law in Iran for a gender-fair handling of rape cases as well as criminalizing sexual aggression against men and marital rape are strongly suggested based on the current findings.
Regarding child sexual abuse, our evidence may have important implications for all parties involved, such as parents, teachers, psychologists, health care professionals, and policy makers, highlighting how experiences of child sexual abuse increase the probability of re-victimization and perpetration later in life. Furthermore, as engaging in risky sexual behaviours was significantly predicted by CSA and, in turn, significantly predicted sexual aggression victimization and perpetration, interventions aiming to increase individuals’ awareness of risky behaviours and vulnerable situations must be a priority.
This research expands the scarce knowledge on sexual aggression in Iran, which so far was limited mainly to women’s sexual victimization by their husbands. Results showed that sexual victimization has a high prevalence among women and men, and perpetration rates are also substantial. Providing knowledge on correlates of sexual aggression in Iran, this study showed that women and men who experienced child sexual abuse were more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, which in turn predicted a higher probability of sexual aggression victimization and perpetration. The present study calls for more empirical research as the basis for developing sex education curricula that encompass consensual sex and sexual aggression in Iran.