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Is a Serious Public Health Issue Being Overlooked?

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What if I were to tell you one of the most pervasive and serious public health issues in the country is preventable? It's an issue that hugely impacts women, men, children and communities. Would you be surprised to learn I was talking about sexual violence?

National Women's Health Week is an opportunity to consider the far-reaching impact of sexual violence on health and the importance of prevention. Although sexual violence (which includes a broad range of non-consensual behaviors) can involve anyone, females and children are disproportionally victimized. Discussion of sexual violence in media, politics and culture has grown over the past decade, but the long-term impact of sexual violence on individuals, communities and society is often left out of the conversation.

Recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights the alarming scope of sexual violence in the United States. This study helps us to understand the prevalence of victimization, and it also calls attention to the impact and health consequences over time. Since the majority of sexual assaults go unreported, we cannot rely solely on crime statistics to tell the story.

According to the CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, health impacts and rates of short-and long-term chronic disease can be a significant lasting effect of sexual violence. Women and men who experienced rape, stalking or physical violence by an intimate partner were "more likely to report frequent headaches, chronic pain, difficulty with sleeping, activity limitations, poor physical health and poor mental health than men and women who did not experience these forms of violence."

The health consequences of sexual violence are more far reaching than you might expect. Conditions including asthma, diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome are reported at higher rates. Eighty-one percent of women in the survey reported significant short- or long-term impacts, including post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Thirty-five percent of men reported similar health impacts.

"Intimate partner violence, rape, stalking -- all of these forms of violence can create toxic stress on the body that is long-lasting and cumulative, and can negatively impact a person's health and well-being for the rest of their life." --Dr. Howard Spivak, Director of Violence Prevention, CDC

And considering that children and young people are most at risk, the lifetime health costs (in both human and financial terms) are staggering. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, most victims are raped before age 25 and by someone they know. National attention to staggering rates of sexual assault on campus is a reminder of the importance of the life-long impact of this issue.

The connection between health and wellbeing and experiences of sexual violence is clear. It's alarming. It's also a call to action to prevent sexual violence.

When a social issue is as wide reaching and prevalent as sexual violence, the idea of prevention can be challenging to fathom. A complex problem requires comprehensive solutions.

But there are many practical steps we can take in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, faith settings, workplaces, and beyond to increase safety and respect. For instance, we can establish practices in our families that value respect, inquire about policies in our schools, workplaces and other settings, refuse to buy products that include advertising that objectifies women or children, and actively work to end racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. Parents can talk to their children early and often about healthy sexuality.

We can speak up when we witness any activities that put down another person, and we can intervene as engaged bystanders when we notice "red flag" behaviors that may indicate someone is not respecting another person's wishes or boundaries. Even small changes such as teaching our relatives to ask permission of children before hugging and kissing them can go a long ways toward establishing and modeling positive and respectful behaviors. As you can see, we can all play a role in preventing sexual violence and establishing norms of respect, safety, equality and helping others.

Contributing to positive social change to prevent sexual violence is a long-term vision and is one well worth our time, attention and effort. The fact of the matter is the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities depends on it.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with National Women's Health Week, May 11-17. Read all posts in the series here. To learn more, please visit WomensHealth.gov.