Measures of Sexual Victimization Surveys

What to know

There are three different major surveys or systems that measure sexual victimization in the U.S. These surveys include the Nation Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). Understanding the differences helps you know which survey to use.

National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) – Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)

The BJS NCVS has captured information since 1973 on a range of nonfatal personal and property crimes. Measures of sexual victimization were officially added to the NCVS in 1992, following a major redesign of the survey. Each year, through the NCVS, BJS interviews a nationally representative sample of more than 220,000 persons age 12 or older in U.S. households about their experiences with victimizations both reported and not reported to police. Once selected, households are in the sample for 3.5 years, with interviews conducted every six months, either in person or over the telephone.

The NCVS measures forced or coerced sexual intercourse (rape), attempted rape, other unwanted sexual contact achieved with or without force, and threats of rape and sexual assault. The survey is incident-based and attribute-based, capturing specific details about each crime incident that occurred during the six-month reference period. Victims are asked details about the incident, such as the time and place of occurrence, use of weapons, nature of injury, economic and emotional consequences, and experiences with reporting to police and other help-seeking behavior. The NCVS additionally captures detailed information on the characteristics of victims, including age, gender, race, ethnicity, marital status, income, educational level and student status, sexual orientation and gender identity, and the characteristics of the offender, such as age, race, gender, and relationship to the victim.

The incident- and attribute-based approach of the NCVS means that it can be used to generate both incidence rates (a measure of the number of victimizations experienced by members of a given population) and prevalence rates (a measure of unique persons in a given population who experienced one or more victimization) of sexual victimization. One benefit of the NCVS’ incident level information is that it can be used to quantify ‘the hidden figure’ of crime – victimizations that go unreported to police – and provide reasons why victims do and do not report particular types of sexual victimization to the police. The approach also allows for examination of the relationships among the characteristics of victims, characteristics of incidents and the victim response.

The longitudinal nature of the NCVS collection provides the ability to assess the nature of and characteristics associated with repeat victimization and the co-occurrence of sexual victimization and other crimes. Additionally, because the NCVS has been administered on a continuous basis since 1992, another strength of the survey is that it affords the ability to examine trends over time. Since the survey is administered in a consistent manner to all respondents, the data can also be used to examine subgroup differences in the level and nature of victimization.

National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

NISVS is an ongoing, nationally-representative random-digit-dial landline and cell phone health survey that collects detailed information on sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence victimization of adult (aged 18 and older) women and men in the U.S. The survey collects data on past-year and lifetime experiences of violence among residents of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The survey was launched in 2010 and data collection is ongoing.

NISVS includes behaviorally specific questions focused on sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence. NISVS also captures contextual data about frequency of the events, perpetrator details, age at first victimization, impact, and health conditions. Sexual violence specific topics include completed and attempted forced or alcohol/drug facilitated penetration of the victim (i.e., rape) or incidents in which the victim was made to penetrate a perpetrator or someone else, as well as sexual coercion (i.e., non-physically forced pressure to have unwanted penetration), unwanted sexual contact (e.g., groping), and non-contact acts of a sexual nature (e.g., flashing). NISVS collects detailed information about victimization experiences, including victim age at the first experience, the sex, age, and type of perpetrator, and outcomes of penetrative sexual violence including injury, contracting a sexually transmitted disease or becoming pregnant. Victims are also asked about physical and psychological impacts of, and help seeking as a result of, all of their violence experiences. NISVS captures demographic information on victims (age, sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income, education, immigrant status, state of residence). NISVS also asks about numerous health conditions (e.g., diabetes, asthma) and physical and mental disability status.

As a complement to crime surveys, NISVS is the first national survey using a health context which is designed to improve disclosure of victimization, as many respondents either do not consider their experiences to be crimes or are unwilling to report them as crimes for numerous reasons (e.g., fear of retaliation, stigma). NISVS also includes numerous behaviorally specific questions that do not require the respondent to label their experience as “rape” or “sexual assault” and allows respondents many opportunities to disclose their experiences. Further, the sexual violence questions are not limited to physically forced sex. NISVS measures multiple types of penetrative and non-penetrative acts and contexts, such as sexual violence that occurred when the respondent was unable to consent because of the voluntary or involuntary use of drugs or alcohol. NISVS also measures impacts of the violence and numerous indicators of health that allow for an understanding of how violence is associated with immediate risks as well as chronic health conditions.

NISVS provides both national and state-level data, and lifetime and 12-month prevalence estimates. Lifetime estimates allow reporting of the age at first victimization, which is helpful to prevention planners in determining the best timing for prevention efforts; 12-month estimates will enable an examination of trends over time as more data years are completed. State-level data is critical for understanding the burden of violence in a given state and to inform state prevention planning.

Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) – CDC

The YRBSS is a CDC surveillance system that monitors priority health risk behaviors predominantly among high school students in the U.S. The YRBSS began collecting data in 1991 and has been conducted every other year since. Sexual violence questions have been included since 2001 to help understand how many youth may be affected by sexual violence, which can have serious long-term and short-term effects. YRBSS data are obtained from a national school-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by CDC as well as school-based state, territorial, tribal, and large urban school district Youth Risk Behavior Surveys conducted by education and health agencies in each jurisdiction. The questionnaire is self-administered by students in scientifically selected samples of schools and classes. All students in sampled classes who can complete the questionnaire independently are eligible to participate.

The YRBSS monitors six categories of priority health-risk behaviors:

  1. Behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence.
  2. Sexual behaviors that contribute to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, other sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy.
  3. Tobacco use.
  4. Alcohol and other drug use.
  5. Unhealthy dietary behaviors.
  6. Physical inactivity.

In addition, YRBSS monitors the prevalence of obesity and asthma.

There are three sexual violence questions included in the YRBSS standard and national questionnaires. Since 2001, a question about forced sexual intercourse has been included:

1. Have you ever been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when you did not want to?

Since 2013, a question on sexual dating violence has been included:

2. During the past 12 months, how many times did someone you were dating or going out with force you to do sexual things that you did not want to do (count such things as kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse)?

Beginning in 2017, a third question has been included similar to the sexual dating violence question but focused on sexual violence by any perpetrator:

3. During the past 12 months, how many times did anyone force you to do sexual things that you did not want to do (count such things as kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse)?

YRBSS is the only ongoing nationally representative survey of high school students that measures sexual violence. This enables the monitoring of trends over time and also allows an examination of the association between violence and many other health risk behaviors among youth. YRBSS is designed to provide comparable national, state, territorial, tribal, and local data.

  • This content was written by Kathleen C. Basile, PhD Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lynn Langton, PhD Bureau of Justice Statistics, and Leah K. Gilbert, MD Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Findings and conclusions presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).