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WHAT IS SEXUAL VIOLENCE?

Sexual violence refers to:

  • Any attempted or completed sexual act, unwanted sexual comments, or acts to traffic against an individual’s sexuality using coercion, by any person or group regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting.1
  • An act of sexual violence may fall into the following subcategories: 2
    • A completed sex act — contact that involves penetration, however slight, between either of the following: the penis and anus or vulva, the mouth to penis, vulva, or anus, or directed towards the anal or genital opening using a hand, finger, or other object;
    • An attempted (but not completed) sex act;
    • Abusive sexual contact — intentional touching, either directly or indirectly through clothing, of genitalia, groin, arms, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of person without his or her consent or of someone who is unable to consent or refuse;
    • Non-contact sexual abuse — voyeurism, intentional exposure of an individual to exhibitionism, unwanted exposure to pornography, verbal or behavioral sexual harassment, threats of sexual violence, taking nude photographs without his or her consent/knowledge or of a person unable to consent or refuse.

Sexual violence is prevalent across the globe and universally underreported. Data in this area comes primarily from reports made through law enforcement, medical personnel, or surveys. The incidences that are reported only reveal the tip of the iceberg. The mass under the surface remains to be seen because factors such as fear of shame, threats, being blamed, mistreated, not being believed, or mistrust in the system often keep victims from reporting. In the U.S., it is estimated that over 50% of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported.3 This lack of data only adds to the under-recognition and misconceptions of the problem at hand.

With more data that can be collected, the more service providers may inform their preventive or outreach methods. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention applies a 4-step approach to address problems like sexual violence: 1) Define the problem, 2) Identify risk and protective factors, 3) Develop and test prevention strategies, and 4) Assure widespread adoption of these prevention strategies. The roadblock to the approach in the case of sexual violence is that the definition of sexual violence has been inconsistent. We are cut short at our initial steps towards addressing this public issue because globally, sexual violence is often defined narrowly without including all forms of abuse. The terms, “rape”, “sexual assault”, “sexual abuse”, and “sexual violence” are also used inconsistently across different communities and may also not directly translate from one language to another. A consistent definition will help converge measures researchers or law enforcement use to monitor frequencies of sexual violence and predict trends. This would further allow for a universal scale in which to measure the magnitudes of sexual violence and compare them among jurisdictions. We would then be able to continue towards identifying risk and protective factors to improve our efforts towards prevention and intervention.

  1. World Health Organization, World Report on Violence and Health (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2002), 149.
  2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual Violence: Definitions.
  3. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2006-2010.