This question describes a specific action (“putting a penis in your vagina”), which is more likely to be clearly understood than asking a respondent if he or she has been raped. This approach was reinforced in a recent discussion of research methods for measuring rape and sexual assault (Jaquier, Johnson, and Fisher, 2011, p. 27):

The usefulness of behaviorally specific questions cannot be overemphasized, not necessarily because they produce larger estimates of rape, but because they use words and phrases that describe to the respondent exactly what behavior is being measured. Using behaviorally specific screen questions appears to cue more women to recall their experiences.

Most of the studies that use behaviorally specific questions have measured a higher rate of incidence of sexual violence (Fisher, 2009), and it is the panel’s judgment that the use of behaviorally specific questions improves communication with the respondent and facilitates more consistent responses.

CONCLUSION 8-6 Words, such as “rape” and “sexual assault,” on the National Crime Victimization Survey may not be consistently understood by survey respondents. Other surveys have used more behaviorally specific words to describe a specific set of actions. More specific wording of questions would be understood more consistently by all respondents and thus lead to more complete and accurate answers.

The NCVS is a criminal victimization survey. It is introduced that way to household members. Once an interview begins, the questionnaire goes through a listing of crimes, asking each respondent if he or she has been the victim of any of them. When asked questions about rape and sexual assault, it is clear that the interviewer is asking about a crime. In fact, the questions about rape and sexual assault are embedded among questions that are dominated by other crimes. For example, as noted above, the following question is dominated by the descriptions of weapons and assaults.7 Rape and sexual assault, particularly when no weapon is involved, may appear to be less central to the line of inquiry than other forms of assault in this list (Bureau of Justice Statistics, n.d.-d).


7The context and surrounding questions in a questionnaire may greatly affect responses on a survey. This was illustrated by Gibson et al. (1978, p. 251) in an experiment that added a series of attitude questions about crime to the National Crime Survey (NCS). They found that inclusion of the attitude supplement to the NCS had “a statistically significant and substantial impact on the victimization rates obtained.”

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