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By on February 15, 2012

CDC on use of “Sexual Coercion” in NISVS

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) last December, there was discussion on the PreventConnect email group about the use of the term “sexual coercion” in NISVS.  PreventConnect forwarded these questions and concerns to the CDC.

I am pleased to be able to share the response from the CDC below.  For more information about NISVS, check out the archives of the PreventConnect web conference about NISVS Findings  (which includes more links and recordings of the sessions.)

Here is the full CDC response:

We have seen the listserv posts with questions regarding the use of sexual coercion language in the NISVS measure, and we wanted to share some background information in hopes that it helps bring more understanding to the report.

Our intent was not to replace the term “sexual violence” or “rape” with “sexual coercion.”  We consider “sexual violence” to be the overarching term. For the purposes of this survey we defined sexual violence as including the following categories: rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.

The use of the term, “sexual coercion” in sexual violence research has a fairly long history. We recognize that there has not been consistency in the way sexual coercion has been measured (i.e., some have used sexual coercion as an umbrella term so some sexual coercion measures include forcible and non-forcible sexually aggressive acts). However, sexual coercion was defined back in the mid-1980’s, similarly to how NISVS has defined it, in the work of Mary Koss and colleagues (Koss, Leonard, Beezely, & Oros, 1985) and later by DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993), just as two examples. Koss and colleagues examined sexual coercion in the 1985 article as part of a continuum and defined it as “obtained sexual intercourse with a resistant woman through the use of extreme verbal pressure (i.e., false promises, insistent arguments, and threats to end the relationship). Similarly, DeKeseredy and Kelly treated sexual coercion as distinct from rape, as part of a continuum of unwanted sexual

In developing the sexual violence measure for NISVS, we consulted commonly used measures of different forms of sexual violence such as the most recent version of the Sexual Experiences Survey (Koss et al, 2007). Much thought and previous research went into their selection of items to represent sexual coercion. In the article, the authors explicitly state that “restricting items only to those incidents that are crimes would ignore findings of the high frequency and emotionally distressing impact of noncriminalized sexual coercion (p. 359).”

In NISVS, sexual coercion is defined as “unwanted sexual penetration that occurs after a person is pressured in a nonphysical way. Sexual coercion refers to unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal sex after being pressured.” More specifically, the NISVS survey measured sexual coercion as having experienced any of the following:  being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy; feeling pressured by being lied to, being told promises that were untrue, having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors; and sexual pressure due to someone using their influence or authority.

We included sexual coercion in the survey and subsequent report because we believe it is important to collect prevalence data on the range of sexual violence that women and men experience to present the true picture and impact of sexual violence.  Although most forms of sexual violence could be viewed as coercive and reflect a broad range of tactics, we believe it is important to measure both rape and other forms of sexual violence. Research indicates that sexual coercion (as defined in NISVS and by Koss and others) is emotionally distressing for those who experience it.  Our hope is that the inclusion of sexual coercion in addition to rape and other sexual violence in NISVS will help increase awareness of the seriousness of these forms of violence.

In the posts, there was some expressed concern regarding possible inconsistencies between the NISVS definitions and the FBI’s revised definition of rape.  We recognize and can appreciate the challenges inherent in educating the public about sexual violence.  We hear your concern about conflicting and/or overlapping definitions and how that can lead to confusion in the field and for your work.   According to the FBI website (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011), the revised definition is:  “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”  Just as the revised FBI definition of rape is more inclusive of different forms of rape, NISVS collects information about rape as well as other forms of sexual violence.

We appreciate and thank you for sharing your opinions and concerns about the NISVS report. We are dedicated to making NISVS a useful resource for the field.


DeKeseredy, W.S. & Kelly, K. (1993). The incidence and prevalence of woman abuse in Canadian university and college dating relationships. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 18, 137-159.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (2011). The CJIS Advisory Process: A Shared Management Concept. Revised Rape Definition Approved. (Retrieved 1/26/2012).

Koss, M.P., Leonard, K.E., Beezley, D.A., & Oros, C.J. (1985). Nonstranger sexual aggression: a discrimant analysis of psychological characteristics of undetected offenders. Sex Roles, 12, 981-992.

Koss, M.P., Abbey, A., Campbell, R., Cook, S., Norris, J., Testa, M. et al. (2007). Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 357–370.

You can contact the CDC’s NISVS team being sending an email to CDC’s NISVS team.

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