Monday, November 25, 2013

Variance in Sexual Violence Definitions: How These Differences Impact Our Work

It has long been recognized that the true rate of sexual violence is unknown due to difficulties arising from underreporting to law enforcement; inconsistencies in the investigation, prosecution, and follow-up of the incidents that are reported to the authorities; and societal stigmas related to attitudes and beliefs about sexual abuse.  In an attempt to address this issue, the National Academy of Sciences released a 2013 report on Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault ( This report addresses the current measurement of victimization rates by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), as well as concerns that the NCVS appears to be undercounting rape and sexual assault. The NCVS was first developed to provide another source of crime statistics beyond law enforcement data. It is a national household survey that collects information on a broad set of criminal victimizations (including rape and sexual assault) from victims rather than law enforcement. As users of the NCVS data expressed concern about potential underestimation of rape and sexual assault on the NCVS, the current report was requested by the Bureau of Justice Statics (BJS) to identify the reasons for this possible underestimation and provide best practice recommendations for measuring rape and sexual assault in the future.

While the report encompasses an intensive exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of the current structure of the NCVS, it begins by identifying numerous definitional problems when discussing rape and sexual assault as there are two quite different perspectives on the measurement of these behaviors – the criminal justice perspective, which focuses on “point-in-time” events that are judged to be criminal, and the public health perspective, which looks at victimization as a condition that endures over a period of time and may not necessarily be criminal.  Additional issues identified were the considerable differences on the legal definitions of rape, sexual assault, force, lack of consent, etc., as well as variance in the manner in which measurement of rape and sexual assault is implemented, across different jurisdictions.  These differences were also reflected on the existing body of independent surveys investigating rape and sexual violence (i.e., National Women’s Study [1989-1991], National Violence Against Women Study [1995-1996], National College Women Sexual Victimization Study [1996], National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Study [2010]).

These definitional differences caught my attention, especially due to recent dialogue in the media and on several professional listservs related to refining or changing the label of “child pornography” to “child sexual abuse images” (see  There are many different disciplines involved in the prevention of sexual violence (e.g., law enforcement, victim advocates, parole/probation officers, sexual offender treatment providers, community groups) and we frequently work collaboratively on varying issues related to offender management, victim safety, and policy development.  Yet, when we engage in cross-disciplinary discussion, how often do we begin these discussions with a conversation about how we each define rape, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and other related topics? 

I would assert that we often engage in these discussions with the assumption that everyone involved is coming from the same definitional understanding.  This likely occurs because we view each other as partners working on the same issues, but it may also occur because it can be difficult to step outside one’s own discipline or area of expertise.  We may sometimes forget that there are varying theories about the etiology of sexual violence, varying disciplines involved in addressing sexual abuse, and varying perspectives about how to effectively target the myriad of resulting issues stemming from sexual violence.  When we approach the table with only our own perspective in mind, this may inhibit or limit our ability to engage effectively in these multi-disciplinary discussions, as well as limit our ability to provide educational information to our communities.

A lack of common definitions about sexual violence is also readily apparent in our communities, as demonstrated by the recent debates in the media and popular culture about sexual assault on college campuses, whether or not “rape culture” exists (, the development of strategies like “anti-rape underwear” (What Are We to Make of This "Anti-Rape" Underwear?), and similar topics.  A stark light has also been focused on the struggles experienced internationally with respect to sexual violence prevention and the oppression of women, with frequent contradictory views regarding the definitions within these cultures (girl whose rape changed a country; Child Sex Abuse Steps Out Of The Shadows In Pakistan; 'Statutory rape isn't romantic,' says rape crisis centers head; South Africa's rape problem: why the crime remains under-reported).

There are many factors involved in the development and prevention of sexual violence that are reflected by the numerous disciplines who address this public health issue. I do not propose that we will solve all of these issues by reaching unilateral definitions about the different types of sexual abuse.  I am proposing, however, that it is imperative for us to remember that our own perspectives and disciplines are exactly that…our own…and when we sometimes forget that, we potentially obstruct or impede the beneficial work that can be accomplished through the respectful multi-disciplinary collaboration and community engagement that would otherwise occur.  Although we may work with different populations, have different ideas or philosophies about the etiology of sexual violence, or provide different types of services from direct treatment to policy development, when we approach these discussions and collaborations with an open mind and acknowledgement of our differences, we only become stronger and more effective in aspiring to our shared goal of No More Victims.

Katie Gotch, M.A.
Coordinator of Public Affairs 
Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

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