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Interpreting Survey Questions About Sexual Aggression in Cross-Cultural Research: A Qualitative Study with Young Adults from Nine European Countries


Examining equivalence in the interpretation of survey items on sexual assault by participants from different cultures is an important step toward building a valid international knowledge base about the prevalence of sexual aggression among young adults. Referring to the theoretical framework of contextualism, this study presents qualitative data from semi-structured interviews with 128 young adults from nine EU countries on their understanding of survey items from the Sexual Aggression and Victimization Scale (SAV-S). The measure had previously been used to collect quantitative data on the prevalence of sexual aggression perpetration and victimization in the same countries that had yielded substantial differences in the rates of victimization and perpetration between countries. Based on the methodological approach of a mixed research design, the current study was conducted as a follow-up to the quantitative study with a new sample to explore whether systematic differences in the interpretation of the survey items in the different countries might explain part of the variation in prevalence rates. The interviews showed that participants from the nine countries interpreted the items of the SAV-S in a similar way and as intended by the authors of the scale. Systematic differences between men and women in interpreting the survey items were revealed. Implications of the findings for conducting survey research on sexual aggression across cultures are discussed.

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  1. Victimization: version for women; for men, the item read: “Has a woman ever made…”. Perpetration: “Have you ever made (or tried to make) a man (a woman) to have sexual contact with you against his (her) will …”.


  3. This was the theme that emerged from the group discussion of the researchers after the coding process as a possible explanation of the high male victimization rates particularly in Cyprus and Greece.


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The study reported in this paper was conducted as part of the project ‘Y-SAV’ (Youth Sexual Aggression and Victimization) supported by a grant from the European Agency for Health and Consumers (EAHC; Grant No. A/101082). Additional funding was provided by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMW), and by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (Grant VEGA 2/0015/12).

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Correspondence to Barbara Krahé.

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After the first three authors, all further authors are listed in alphabetical order.

Appendix: Format of the Interview Schedule

Appendix: Format of the Interview Schedule



First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me today. I want to assure you that everything we will talk about will remain strictly confidential and will be used only for research purposes. It will be impossible to draw any conclusions from what you say about your personality or about other people you mention.

Today, I would like to conduct an interview with you in which the focus is on how you interpret questions from a questionnaire. The questionnaire is about the topic of “sexual aggression”.

I would like to begin by telling you a little bit more about the background of my study. Many studies that examine unwanted sexual experiences present their participants with questions about their experiences or behaviors and ask them to state whether or not they have ever made that experience or shown that behavior. These questions are necessarily worded in a fairly general and abstract way, as you will see in a moment. Researchers know little or nothing about the kinds of situations and scenarios that their participants have in mind when considering the question and deciding whether to answer them with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

In some recent studies, a particular finding has been obtained that highlights this problem, namely that men reported more frequently than women to have experienced unwanted sexual contacts. Before this finding is taken to reflect higher rates of sexual victimization among men than among women, it is important to find out whether men and women interpret the items in the same way, that is whether or not they have the same situations in mind when they think about the questions. This is exactly what I want to find out through these interviews. This means there are no right or wrong answers, and the interview is *not* about what you have experienced in the past. Instead. I would like to find out how you interpret, and make sense of, a number of questions that I have taken from a standard instrument used in quantitative research.

The interview is about a sensitive topic, and it cannot be ruled out that the questions I am going to ask you may elicit memories of negative situations and experiences. Therefore, I want to emphasize that you can terminate the interview at any time. At the end of the questionnaire, all participants will receive a list of counseling agencies that provide professional support.

Do you have any further questions about the interview? Are you still willing to participate? And do you feel you have been sufficiently informed about the interview? If that’s OK for you, I would like to record our conversation so that I can listen again to what you say after the interview. Do you agree with that?

<If so, present consent form for signing>


(Version for female interviewees, parallel items referring to female perpetrators for male interviewees)


Item 1: Has a man ever made (or tried to make) you have sexual contact with him against your will by threatening to use force or by harming you?

Item 2: Has a man ever made (or tried to make) you have sexual contact with him against your will by exploiting the fact that you were unable to resist (e.g., after you had had too much alcohol or drugs)?

Item 3: Has a man ever made (or tried to make) you have sexual contact with him against your will by putting verbal pressure on you (e.g., by threatening to end the relationship or calling you a failure)?

Item 4: Has a man ever made (or tried to make) you have sexual contact with him against your will by using his position of authority or power over you (e.g., as a teacher, sports coach, boss etc.)?

Interview question for each item

When you hear this question: what specific situations come to your mind? What would have had to happen for you to answer ‘yes’ to this question?

Can you describe to me one or more possible situations/scenarios? How did the situation arise, what kinds of behaviors did the man/the woman show?

* Parallel questions to address perpetration, e.g.,

Have you ever made (or tried to make) a man have sexual contact with you against his will by threatening to use force or by harming him?

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Krahé, B., de Haas, S., Vanwesenbeeck, I. et al. Interpreting Survey Questions About Sexual Aggression in Cross-Cultural Research: A Qualitative Study with Young Adults from Nine European Countries. Sexuality & Culture 20, 1–23 (2016).

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  • Sexual aggression
  • Survey
  • Interview study
  • Cross-cultural
  • Gender