Social Networks of Adolescent Sexual Violence Perpetrators: Peer Friendship and Trusted Adult Characteristics

Dorothy L. Espelage, Kelly L. Rulison, Katherine M. Ingram, Alberto Valido, Karen Schmeelk-Cone, Peter A. Wyman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The current study tested differences in social network characteristics of high school students who report perpetrating sexual violence (SV) versus those who do not. N = 4554 students (49% male, 49% female, 2% another gender identity; 45% Hispanic, 43% white, 12% another racial identity) from 20 high schools reported how often they had perpetrated 13 sexually violent behaviors. Using their responses, students were classified as follows: non-perpetrators, sexual harassment perpetrators, low contact perpetrators, or high contact perpetrators. Students named up to 7 close friends and up to 7 trusted adults at their school and answered questions about other behaviors and attitudes. This information was used to assess (1) students’ connections with peers, (2) students’ connections with trusted adults, and (3) friends’ characteristics. Multilevel models indicated that compared to their peers, high contact perpetrators were less involved in the peer networks, less connected to trusted adults, and more likely to have friends who were involved in risky behaviors (e.g., sexual violence, homophobic name-calling, substance use). Low contact perpetrators were as connected to peers and trusted adults as non-perpetrators but were more likely to have friends engaged in sexual violence and homophobic naming-calling perpetration. By contrast, sexual harassment perpetrators were more involved and held higher status in the peer network (e.g., received more friendship nominations) but otherwise had similar friendship characteristics and similar connections to trusted adults as non-perpetrators. Building on these results, social network-informed SV prevention should use opinion leaders to change SV norms throughout the network and encourage new relationships between low- and high-risk students so as to disseminate norms that do not tolerate SV. Promoting connections to trusted adults also may be a useful avenue, especially for isolated adolescents. Trial Registration This study is registered at NCT01672541. Syntax code is available from the authors upon request.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)154-166
Number of pages13
JournalPrevention Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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