Chapter 1

The Scope of Violent Crime
and Victimization

Abstract: Violent crime in America has become a national crisis, and, as a result, America's mental health, health and public safety systems are seriously challenged. Recent surveys have helped create new understanding of the scope of rape and its impact. Data suggest that millions of women have been raped in their lifetime, many when they were still children. The mental health impact of violent crime can be seen in the prevalence of PTSD among women with a history of violent victimization and individuals who have lost a family member to homicide.

Learning Objectives: Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the following concepts:

1. The extent to which violent crime is a concern for Americans.

2. The scope of violent crime and the extent to which it has increased in recent years.

3. The extent to which concerns or fears about crime have affected the way Americans live.

4. The broader impact of violence on an individual's view of the world.

Statistical Overview


According to Webster's New World Dictionary, "disaster" is defined as "any happening that causes great harm or damage, serious or sudden misfortune, or calamity." Using this definition, violence in America is clearly a health, public safety, and mental health disaster. Violence affects not only individuals, children, and adults; it also affects America's families, America's communities, and our nation at large.

Violence is a major concern of all Americans:

This survey, sponsored by the National Victim Center, also found that a majority of Americans (54%) think that violent crime is more of a problem now than it was ten years ago.

Information about the magnitude of the violent crime problem suggests that Americans' concerns about crime are not misplaced. Data from The National Women's Study, a National Institute of Drug Abuse-funded survey of a national probability sample of 4,008 adult American women, indicated that 3.5% of the sample, or an estimated 3.7 million adult women, were victims of some type of sexual or aggravated assault during a one year period; 2.5%, or an estimated 2.4 million American women, were victims of rape or aggravated assault; 1.8%, or approximately 1.7 million American women, were victims of aggravated assault; and 0.71%, or an estimated 683,000 American women, were victims of completed rape (Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour, 1992; Resnick, Kilpatrick, Dansky, Saunders, & Best, in press). These estimates of rape are much higher than those obtained in the National Crime Survey because The National Women's Study used screening questions that were specifically designed to measure rape and other types of sexual assault (Kilpatrick, et al., 1992).

Thus, millions of American men, women and children are victims of criminal violence each year. Particularly for rape and sexual assault, official statistics substantially underestimate the extent of the problem. Information from non-retrospective studies is particularly poor about violence directed at children under 12, adolescents and/or men.

Americans are vulnerable to criminal victimizations throughout the lifespan. For example, The National Women's Study found that:

Over a third of the sample members (35.6%), or an estimated 34.1 million adult women in America, had been victims of forcible sexual assault, aggravated assault, or had suffered the homicide death of a relative or close friend (Resnick, et al., in press).

For many women, rape is a tragedy of youth. The National Women's Study obtained information about up to three forcible rapes per person; her first, most recent, and "worst" rape if other than the first or most recent.

A National Institute of Justice-funded national study of the indirect effects of criminal homicide (The National Homicide Study) found that 1.58% of the sample, or an estimated 2.8 million adults in America, had lost an immediate family member to criminal homicide (Amick-McMullan, Kilpatrick, & Resnick, 1991).

The National Homicide Study was conducted in 1987, preceding an increase in the homicide rate. Therefore, these estimates are extremely conservative as to the number of Americans indirectly affected by homicide.

The Mental Health Impact of Violence

The mental health impact of criminal violence is substantial. For example:

These data indicate that violence-related PTSD is endemic among Americans.

The mental health impact of violence is not limited to PTSD. A history of violence substantially increases the risk for a host of other mental health disorders and problems including depression, suicide attempts, anxiety disorders, alcohol and other drug abuse problems (Burnam, et al, 1988; Kilpatrick, et al, 1985; Kilpatrick, et al, 1992; Kilpatrick & Resnick, 1993; Saunders, et al., 1992). Illustrative are these data from The National Women's Study comparing the rates of PTSD, major depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among rape victims and nonvictims of crime (Kilpatrick, et al., 1992; see Figure 6):

There is also evidence that violence affects the longer-term physical health as well as the mental health of its victims. At least one study found that health care utilization and health problems increased following violent attacks (Koss, Woodruff, & Koss, 1990).

The Broader Impact of Violence

Not only does being a victim of violence affect physical and mental health; it also influences how one views the world. Many violence victims are no longer able to see the world as a safe place, as a just place, or as a place with meaning. Violence often breeds a cynicism and distrust that unravel the very fabric of social life.

Violence and fear of violence have taken away Americans' freedom. A majority of adult respondents interviewed in America Speaks Out reported that they were at least "a little fearful" of being attacked or robbed (Kilpatrick, Seymour, and Boyle, 1991):

Fear of crime restricts freedom of people to go where they want, when they want. Because of the threat of crime, many people in our nation restrict their behavior and/or have purchased some manner of protective device.

In America Speaks Out:

Fear of crime and fear of crime-related restrictions on lifestyle and behavior take a much heavier toll on women than on men.

Crime and fear of crime also place a heavy burden on the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. The America Speaks Out survey of 1,000 adults asked if respondents had ever been a victim of a violent crime involving the use or threat of force:

Racial/ethnic minorities are more likely than whites to have been violent crime victims. Their fear of crime is higher than whites, and their fear of crime causes them to place more restrictions on their lifestyles than whites.


Several unescapable conclusions emerge from this brief review of violent crime and its effects:

Self-Examination Chapter 1

The Scope of Violent Crime

and Victimization

1) To what extent are people who live in America concerned about violent crime in the U.S.?

2) How has a concern about violent crime affected the way people in America view the world and live their lives?

3) What is the likelihood that a female friend of yours, aged 35, was raped at some point in her life?

4) What are the mental health consequences of rape or the homicide of a family member?


Amick-McMullen, A., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Resnick, H. S. (1991). Homicide as a risk factor for PTSD among surviving family members. Behavioral Modification, 15 (4), 545-559.

Burnam, M. A., Stein, J. A., Golding, J. M., Siegel, J. M., Sorenson, S. B., Forsythe, A. B., & Telles, C. A. (1988). Sexual assault and mental disorders in a community population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 843-850.

Kilpatrick, D. G., Best, C. L., Veronen, L. J., Amick, A. E., Villeponteaux, L. A., & Ruff, G. A. (1985). Mental health correlates of criminal victimization: A random community survey. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 53 (6), 866-873.

Kilpatrick, D. G., Edmunds, C. N., & Seymour, A. K. (1992). Rape in America: A report to the nation. Arlington, VA: National Victim Center and Charleston, SC: Medical University of South Carolina.

Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S. (1993). PTSD associated with exposure to criminal victimization in clinical and community populations. In J. R. T. Davidson and E. B. Foa (Eds.), PTSD in review: Recent research and future directions, 113-143.

Kilpatrick, D. G., Seymour, A., & Boyle, J. (1991). America speaks out: Citizens' attitudes about victims' rights and violence. Arlington, VA: National Victim Center.

Koss, M. P., Woodruff, W. J., Koss, P. G. (1990). Relation of criminal victimization to health perceptions among women medical patients. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 58 (2), 147-152.

Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Dansky, B. S., Saunders, B. E., & Best, C. L. (In press). Prevalence of civilian trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in a representative national sample of women. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology.

Saunders, B. E., Villeponteaux, L. A., Lipovsky, J. A., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Veronen, L. J. (1992). Child sexual assault as a risk factor for mental disorders among women: A community survey. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7, 189-204.

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