One in 10 men in some parts of Asia and the Pacific region admit to having raped a woman who wasn't his partner, and a quarter of the men in those places say they have raped wives or girlfriends, according to one of the first large-scale studies of male sexual violence against women.
The studies, which were published in the British medical journal The Lancet and conducted by the World Health Organizaton, the United Nations Population Fund and others on behalf of the United Nations, involved interviews of more than 10,000 men in six countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
The scientists found that, on average, between 6 to 8 percent of men raped a woman who wasn't their partner, and between 30 and 57 percent of wives or girlfriends were subjected to some form of abuse.
Men between the ages of 18 and 49 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka were interviewed from January 2011 to December 2012. The interviewers, who were also male, made sure not to use the word rape in their interviews, instead describing situations constituting forced sex and asking whether the men had ever participated in such scenarios.
The prevalence of non-partner rape varied according to location, ranging anywhere from 2.5 percent of men in rural Bangladesh to 26.6 percent on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, with the overall average at around 10 percent in many places studied in the survey.
Rapes involving multiple rapists occurred among anywhere from 1.5 percent of men in the city of Jayapura, Indonesia, to 14.1 percent of men in Bougainville.
The rate was higher in Cambodia, Jayapura and Papua New Guinea, with 5 percent, 7 percent and 14 percent of men committing gang rape in those locations, respectively. Cambodia was the only place where gang rape was more common than rape by a single man.
And rape of wives or girlfriends happened much more frequently than non-partner rape did, except in Papua New Guinea.
The researchers say that rape happens much more frequently than anyone can imagine. "The problem is shocking but anyplace we have looked, we see partner violence, victimization and sexual violence," Michele Decker, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who co-wrote an accompanying commentary, told the Associated Press. "Rape doesn't just involve someone with a gun to a woman's head," she said. "People tend to think of rape as something someone else would do."
The most frequent reasons men gave the researchers for committing rape were so-called “sexual entitlement” in 73.3 percent of cases, because they were seeking “entertainment” in 58.7 percent of cases, and to punish the victim, in 37.9 percent of the cases.
Because nearly 60 percent of the men who had raped someone committed their first rape when they were teenagers, the authors stressed that "interventions must focus on childhood and adolescence, and address culturally rooted male gender socialization and power relations, abuse in childhood and poverty."
Indeed, the authors say that the most important determinant in whether a man commits rape is whether he has experienced childhood abuse, particularly sexual abuse. Other strong factors are poverty, alcohol and substance abuse, culturally-ingrained sexist attitudes, low levels of empathy and participation in gang-related activity.
The World Health Organization has said that one in every three women in the world experiences some form of gender-based violence. And while the problem of rape has received increased attention following the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012, researchers have remained largely in the dark when it comes to multi-country, peer-reviewed studies looking at why or how often rape happens, with the exception of South Africa, where population-based studies have shown that up to 37 percent of South African men have raped a woman.
The scientists who conducted Tuesday's United Nations studies wrote that in many of the countries surveyed, gender inequities "effectively create a culture in which male perpetration of gender-based violence is tolerated at best and expected at worst."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.