Violence hits ‘epidemic proportions’ in pandemic-era California, study shows

SAN DIEGO — The Golden State is losing its luster. A troubling new report labels physical and sexual violence in pandemic-era California a statewide “epidemic.” To put it simply, violence is on an alarming rise.

According to the new annual report from the California Study on Violence Experiences across the Lifespan (CalVEX), violence statistics have seen a significant increase since COVID-19 emerged. The report, conducted by scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, reports more than one in six Californians (18%) experienced either physical or sexual violence in just the past year. Meanwhile, one in every 25 Californians experienced intimate partner violence.

Overall, rates of both physical and sexual violence have seen an uptick since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with physical violence nearly doubling among men between 2020-2022. Study authors say demographic disparities in the results may provide further insight into potential contributing factors that could have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

“Californians are experiencing violence at epidemic proportions,” says principal investigator Anita Raj, PhD, professor at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Division of Social Sciences, in a press release. “Current violence prevention efforts are clearly woefully inadequate and often ignore the gendered nature of violence, its intersections with other socioeconomic vulnerabilities and its disproportionate effects on marginalized populations.”

How was violence that wasn’t reported measured?

Violence often happens behind closed doors, and most victims never formally report their experiences. It’s why study authors admit relying on criminal justice data or health records to analyze violence almost always fails to account for the “full picture.” In pursuit of stronger data, CalVEX surveyed a representative sample of adults across California, and then uses those responses to estimate population rates. The dataset used in this latest report was collected in March 2022 from 2,285 adults.

The annual CalVEX survey
The annual CalVEX survey measures rates of physical, sexual and intimate partner violence among Californians. (Credit: UC San Diego Health Sciences)

Importantly, the report also describes numerous gender disparities when it comes to experiencing and perpetrating violence. Men are more likely than women to have dealt with physical violence, while women are more likely than men to have experienced various forms of sexual violence. In just the past year, over 1.5 million adults in California have admitted to committing an act of sexual violence. Men were deemed more than two times as likely as women to report committing an act of sexual violence and intimate partner violence.

Moreover, women also deal with more mental health consequences and life disruptions in the wake of violent experiences. Over four in five women (82%) report experiencing anxiety or depression due to physically aggressive, coercive, or forced sexual behavior. Women who have experienced physical violence are also twice as likely as men to miss work, miss school, or change/quit a job.

California violence wave linked to pandemic, economy

The report also notes that both socially and economically vulnerable Californians, such as Latino and Black communities, LGBTQ communities, people with a history of homelessness or incarceration, or people living with a disability, experience more violence than other residents. Experiencing financial distress, like facing eviction or food insecurity, is linked to a two to eight times increased risk of violence.

“Our findings suggest the rising rates of violence are linked to the harsher social climate, economic insecurity, and poorer physical and mental health that many Californians have experienced over the last few years due to the pandemic,” Dr. Raj adds.

The research team recommends new policies be put in place strengthening social and economic safety nets, programs in violence prevention, and mental health services across the state of California. A multi-level approach like that, if performed correctly, could both address the current violence crisis and support post-pandemic rebuilding.

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