How the CDC defines and classifies sexual violence

Content note: explicit descriptions of sexual violence, including rape.

The Asexual Community Survey has asked questions related to sexual violence since 2015. In the 2018 survey, we expanded these questions in order to more closely match those in the 2010 Summary Report on the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) produced by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although the CDC’s definitions of sexual violence are publicly available in the NISVS report, few lay people would sift through over a hundred pages in order to find them. The lack of easily accessible information concerns us, because it deprives some victims of tools they need to understand their own experiences. The goal of this article is to explain the CDC categories and their use in the 2018 Asexual Community Survey.

Disclaimer: Some readers may be surprised by how their personal experiences are classified by the CDC. We will not tell anyone that they are wrong to classify their personal experiences in any particular way, and readers are free to view the CDC’s definitions as imperfect, incomplete, or incorrect. Even if readers agree with the definitions, they may find some other description of their personal experiences to be more salient.

In the 2018 Asexual Community Survey, we asked 10 questions that were derived from the NISVS. An affirmative (i.e. nonzero) response to any of these questions is classified as a form of sexual violence.

How many people1 have ever exposed their sexual body parts, made you show your sexual body parts, or made you look at sexual photos or movies when you did not want it to happen?

How many people have verbally harassed you while you were in a public place in a way that made you feel unsafe?2

These first two questions comprise the CDC’s category of non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.

How many people have ever kissed you in a sexual way, fondled, groped, grabbed or touched you when you did not want it to happen or in a way that made you feel unsafe?

This question comprises the CDC’s category of unwanted sexual contact, which is a subcategory of contact sexual violence. (Contact sexual violence is the CDC’s term for sexual assault.)

When you were drunk, high, or unable to consent, how many people have ever had vaginal, anal, or oral sex with you, or put fingers or an object into your vagina or anus?

How many people have ever used force or threats to physically harm you to make you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or put fingers or an object into your vagina or anus?

How many people have ever TRIED to use force or threats to physically harm you to make you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or put fingers or an object into your vagina or anus, but it did not happen?

These three questions comprise the CDC’s category of rape, which is a subcategory of contact sexual violence. The three questions respectively address the three subcategories of rape: completed alcohol/drug-facilitated penetration, completed forced penetration, and attempted forced penetration.

There is one complication to the CDC’s definitions. The CDC makes a distinction between rape and being made to penetrate. “Rape” is used to describe cases where the victim was penetrated, or penetration was attempted. “Being made to penetrate” is used to describe cases where the victim is made to orally penetrate someone’s anus or vagina, or made to penetrate someone with their penis (or there is an attempt to make this happen). The CDC considers “being made to penetrate” as a subcategory of contact sexual violence, but not a subcategory of rape. The Asexual Community Survey Team objects to this classification, and we do not distinguish between rape and being made to penetrate.3

How many people have you ever had vaginal, oral, or anal sex with, after they pressured you by telling you lies, or making promises about the future that they knew were untrue?

How many people have you ever had vaginal, oral, or anal sex with, after they pressured you by threatening to end your relationship or threatening to spread rumors about you?

How many people have you ever had vaginal, oral, or anal sex with, after they pressured you by wearing you down by repeatedly asking for sex or showing they were unhappy?

How many people have you ever had vaginal, oral, or anal sex with after they pressured you by using their influence or authority over you, for example a boss or a teacher?

These four questions comprise the CDC’s category of sexual coercion, a subcategory of contact sexual violence. Whether sexual coercion should be considered a subset of rape is an open question among activists who fight sexual violence, and we do not pass any judgment on this matter. We report rape and sexual coercion separately, following CDC guidelines.

This set of questions captures the kinds of sexual violence measured by the NISVS. However, the NISVS also measures other forms of violent and abusive behavior, such as stalking and expressive aggression, which we do not delve into here. For more information, see the questionnaire on page 107 of the NISVS report.

In addition to the questions derived from the NISVS, the 2018 Asexual Community Survey also asked two unique questions regarding “sex that you felt was consensual, but which was a negative experience for you.” Since the experiences are consensual, we do not classify them as sexual violence.  However, we understand that some victims of sexual violence will initially conceptualize their experiences as consensual, and later conclude they were not. We hope this guide will provide tools for victims trying to understand their own experiences.



1. Asking “How many people…” allows us to quantify the number of experiences with sexual violence, but that was not the primary purpose of phrasing each questions in this way. The primary reason is that the NISVS phrases it in this way, and studies have shown that even subtle changes in the framing of the question can elicit different responses. Rephrasing as a yes/no question could discourage participants from responding in the affirmative. (return)

2. Many testers said they had a hard time estimating how many times they’ve been sexually harassed, so we added a note clarifying that a rough estimate is sufficient. (return)

3. This is a common subject of controversy surrounding the NISVS. If being made to penetrate were considered to be a form of rape, then the NISVS report indicates that it would be the most common form of rape experienced by men. This raises the question of whether NISVS is being misleading by reporting the rates of rape victimization among men without including men who were made to penetrate. I would not be surprised if the CDC changed its position on this matter in the future.

We also object to the phrasing of the NISVS questions that assumes there are only men and women, and that only men have penises and only women have vaginas.  This is certainly not true of many of the people who take our survey. (return)

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