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Intimate Partner Violence: Definitions

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. The term "intimate partner violence" describes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression (including coercive acts) by a current or former intimate partner.

An intimate partner is a person with whom one has a close personal relationship that can be characterized by the following:

  • Emotional connectedness
  • Regular contact
  • Ongoing physical contact and sexual behavior
  • Identity as a couple
  • Familiarity and knowledge about each other’s lives

The relationship need not involve all of these dimensions.  Examples of intimate partners include current or former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, dating partners, or sexual partners. IPV can occur between heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.

IPV can vary in frequency and severity. It occurs on a continuum, ranging from one episode that might or might not have lasting impact to chronic and severe episodes over a period of years.

There are four main types of IPV.1

  • Physical violence is the intentional use of physical force with the potential for causing death, disability, injury, or harm. Physical violence includes, but is not limited to, scratching; pushing; shoving; throwing; grabbing; biting; choking; shaking; aggressive hair pulling; slapping; punching; hitting; burning; use of a weapon; and use of restraints or one's body, size, or strength against another person.  Physical violence also includes coercing other people to commit any of the above acts.
  • Sexual violence is divided into five categories.  Any of these acts constitute sexual violence, whether attempted or completed.  Additionally all of these acts occur without the victim’s consent, including cases in which the victim is unable to consent due to being too intoxicated (e.g., incapacitation, lack of consciousness, or lack of awareness) through their voluntary or involuntary use of alcohol or drugs.
    • Rape or penetration of victim – This includes completed or attempted, forced or alcohol/drug-facilitated unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal insertion.  Forced penetration occurs through the perpetrator’s use of physical force against the victim or threats to physically harm the victim.
    • Victim was made to penetrate someone else – This includes completed or attempted, forced or alcohol/drug-facilitated incidents when the victim was made to sexually penetrate a perpetrator or someone else without the victim’s consent.
    • Non-physically pressured unwanted penetration – This includes incidents in which the victim was pressured verbally or through intimidation or misuse of authority to consent or acquiesce to being penetrated.
    • Unwanted sexual contact – This includes intentional touching of the victim or making the victim touch the perpetrator, either directly or through the clothing, on the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks without the victim’s consent
    • Non-contact unwanted sexual experiences – This includes unwanted sexual events that are not of a physical nature that occur without the victim’s consent.  Examples include unwanted exposure to sexual situations (e.g., pornography); verbal or behavioral sexual harassment; threats of sexual violence to accomplish some other end; and /or unwanted filming, taking or disseminating photographs of a sexual nature of another person. 
  • Stalking is a pattern of repeated, unwanted, attention and contact that causes fear or concern for one’s own safety or the safety of someone else (e.g., family member or friend).  Some examples include repeated, unwanted phone calls, emails, or texts; leaving cards, letters, flowers, or other items when the victim does not want them; watching or following from a distance; spying; approaching or showing up in places when the victim does not want to see them; sneaking into the victim’s home or car; damaging the victim’s personal property; harming or threatening the victim’s pet; and making threats to physically harm the victim. 
  • Psychological Aggression is the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally, and/or to exert control over another person.  Psychological aggression can include expressive aggression (e.g., name-calling, humiliating); coercive control (e.g., limiting access to transportation, money, friends, and family; excessive monitoring of whereabouts); threats of physical or sexual violence; control of reproductive or sexual health (e.g., refusal to use birth control; coerced pregnancy termination); exploitation of victim’s vulnerability (e.g., immigration status, disability); exploitation of perpetrator’s vulnerability; and presenting false information to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory or perception (e.g., mind games). 

Why Is a Consistent Definition Important?

A foundational aspect of any public health surveillance system is developing a standard case definition for the health outcome under surveillance. The use of a standard case definition is one key factor needed to ensure that information is collected in a systematic fashion. A high quality case definition improves the comparability of the health-related event reported from different sources of data, such as comparisons among geographic areas, or the ability to compare data over time.2  Further, a consistent definition is critical in monitoring trends over time.


  1. Breiding MJ, Basile KC, Smith SG, Black MC, Mahendra RR. Intimate Partner Violence Surveillance: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements, Version 2.0 [PDF 283KB]. Atlanta (GA): National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2015.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated guidelines for evaluating public health surveillance systems: recommendations from the guidelines working group. MMWR 2001;50(No. RR-13):1-51.

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