Sexual Victimization: What Are the Best Methods to Measure Prevalence?

Sexual victimization and misconduct are among the most underreported crimes to authorities. Survivors do not report these events for many reasons, including being afraid of the consequences of reporting (e.g., undergoing cross-examination by others, retaliation by someone they know), being in denial, or are ashamed.

Using a survey to collect data on sexual victimization and misconduct is one way to address this measurement problem. However, even with a survey, important human subject and measurement issues have to be addressed.

Westat has implemented surveys measuring sexual victimization across a variety of populations and circumstances that have successfully addressed these issues.

Youth in Custody: Confidentiality

Asking youth about sexual victimization while in custody poses significant confidentiality and human subject issues. For the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Westat designed the National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC), which provided the first set of national estimates of sexual victimization in this setting using an audio computer-assisted self-interview (ACASI). This technology allowed youth to anonymously report victimizations.

Providing confidentiality

The study randomly assigned topics to each youth, so no one—except the youth—knew which questions were asked. This reduced the risk of perpetrators in the facility to retaliate. The study also complied with mandatory reporting requirements by filing reports of any verbal expressions of abuse to the study monitor.

“We knew these youth needed the certainty of complete confidentiality,” says David Cantor, Ph.D., a Westat Vice President, Senior Statistical Fellow, and co-principal investigator of the survey. “The ACASI, anonymity, and randomization reduced their fears of retaliation by the perpetrator, inmates, or staff. But we also worked very hard with facility administrators to make sure we reported any instances of abuse that came to our attention.”


The prevalence of rape and sexual assault in juvenile facilities was higher than those found in comparable surveys of adult prisoners, which was unexpected. The study was extensively covered by the media, including editorials in major newspapers and an article in the New York Review of Books. The research triggered special investigations by governors and state legislatures in Ohio and Illinois, and immediate changes in policies and plans of action in Georgia. The results guided the development of standards that have been implemented in juvenile facilities nationwide.

The NSYC survey was also recognized by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) with a Policy Impact Award, presented to BJS, Westat, and collaborators.

College Campuses: Common Instrument

Another difficulty with measuring sexual victimization is wording questions to measure the behaviors of interest. Common terms, such as assault or rape, are interpreted quite differently across the general population.

Commissioned by the Association of American Universities (AAU), Westat developed and administered one of the largest victimization surveys of U.S. college students to date. The study entailed 27 universities and responses from 160,000 graduate and undergraduate students.

Creating a Common Instrument

Westat worked closely with school representatives to create a common instrument, formulating questions using a behavior-specific approach. The common instrument was used to compare the results across the participating schools. It measured

  • A wide range of sexual victimization and misconduct, including harassment, stalking, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, rape, and other types of nonconsensual sexual contact
  • Campus climate

“We didn’t ask, ‘Have you been victimized, sexually assaulted, or raped,’” says Dr. Cantor, who directed the study. “Instead, we incorporated in our questions the components that comprise that crime. For example, we asked, ‘Did someone use their body weight or a weapon to make you engage in sexual activity?’”


The survey found 1 in 4 undergraduate females reported instances of nonconsensual sexual contact by force or an inability to consent. The rates of assault ranged widely across the schools.

“The average across the 27 schools was in line with other surveys on campus sexual assault,” notes Dr. Cantor. “For undergraduate females, 23.1% reported an incident involving force or inability to consent since entering the school. By using a common instrument, it was possible to show there was quite a bit of variation across schools in the rate of victimization. This was a new result that had not been documented until this study. The large sample size also allowed estimation of rates for gender minority students, who were found to have among the highest rates of assault.”

Each school received a separate report and dataset for their campus. The main report was widely covered across the country. AAU and Westat staff briefed key congressional staff in the U.S. Senate and House to assist in developing standards for surveys nationwide.

Westat is conducting a second survey for AAU—this time comparing sexual assault rates among 33 colleges and universities. The results will be released in fall 2019.

Undergraduate females reporting an incident
Incident involved force or inability to consent since entering the school

By using a common instrument, it was possible to show there was quite a bit of variation across schools in the rate of victimization.

- David Cantor, Ph.D., a Westat Vice President

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