Serial Predators: The Connection Between Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

Sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse are inextricably linked. While Joyful Heart’s top policy priority is ending the backlog of untested rape kits, we frame this work to achieve our broader mission: ending this violence forever. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we explore the overlap between domestic violence and sexual assault, and how efforts to end the backlog have brought to light the prevalence of this overlap.

Domestic violence involves an intentional pattern of physical, emotional, economic, and other tactics used to instill fear and to coerce intimate partners to act against their own will or best interests. Sexual assault is often part of this pattern of abuse.

  • One in 10 women in the U.S. has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime.
  • 51% of female victims of reported sexual assault reported being raped by an intimate partner.
  • Two-thirds of women who have been physically assaulted by a partner have also been sexually assaulted by that partner. Of these, 80% were sexually assaulted by that partner more than once.

All sexual assault survivors face high barriers to healing and justice; for survivors of sexual assault by an intimate partner, those barriers can be even higher. These cases are less frequently investigated and prosecuted. The evidence collected in these cases is rarely tested; kits from known offender cases comprise a large percentage of the backlog.

As jurisdictions across the country begin to inventory and test backlogged kits, approximately 50% match to known offenders in CODIS, and case-to-case connections are frequently occurring on the database. We are learning volumes from these matches, and supporting—with numbers—what many in our field already knew: that rapists commit all kinds of crimes, including domestic violence. Testing backlogged kits offers our movement a unique data source: historically neglected cases, with untested kits and with known perpetrators offering decades of data on offending patterns. Some of these jurisdictions have partnered with researchers to more closely study these patterns in cases with backlogged kits, offering stunning new insights into criminal patterns.

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, researchers at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University have closely examined the criminal histories of 259 known perpetrators of sexual assault whose existing offender DNA profiles hit to recently analyzed sexual assault kits. The researchers looked specifically at violent crimes committed by these offenders before and after the collection of the backlogged rape kit: 14% of these serial offenders had at least one reported domestic violence arrest prior to the sexual assault in which the backlogged rape kit was collected, and 37% of them had at least one domestic violence arrest afterward.

Many of these perpetrators had already been arrested for domestic violence. That number more than doubles after the sexual assault crime. Additionally, the increase in domestic violence arrests mirrors the increase of arrests among perpetrators linked to backlogged cases with stranger or intimate partner victims. This data suggests that, regardless of whether their victim was an intimate partner or a stranger, these perpetrators became more violent toward intimate partners following the unprosecuted sexual assault.

Advocates have long maintained that perpetrators of sexual assault commit multiple types of crimes, but these statistics offer a never-before-seen look into the trajectory of a subset of these offenders. More research is necessary to truly understand the overlap of domestic violence and sexual assault, but as more kits are tested, more data is collected and analyzed. As we observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the team at Joyful Heart strengthens its commitment to ending the rape kit backlog. And we know that doing so will save countless people—men, women, and children—from being a victim of crime, including domestic violence.

-By Ilse Knecht, Director of Policy & Advocacy, October 24, 2017

END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials, and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists, and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of