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Behavioural outcomes

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In the context of family, domestic and sexual violence (FDSV), a behavioural outcome may be considered as a change in a victim-survivors’ behaviour that can be attributed to experiences of FDSV. A change in behaviour may be directly, or indirectly attributed to FDSV. For example, trauma due to FDSV can cause behavioural changes (direct), and physical and mental health outcomes associated with FDSV can also influence a victim-survivors’ behaviour (indirect) (see Health outcomes). Therefore, the relationship between FDSV and behavioural outcomes is complex due to the multi-directional relationship between behaviour and physical and mental health.

This topic page focuses on a selection of behavioural outcomes associated with FDSV:

  • engaging in risky consumption of alcohol and other drugs (health risk behaviours),
  • changes to physical activity, sleep and diet (personal habits and heath promoting behaviours)
  • difficulties maintaining personal relationships (social interactions and personal relationships
  • changes to engagement with employment (employment)
  • reduced educational attainment (education).

What do we know?

Experiencing FDSV is a cause of traumatic stress. Trauma is associated with behavioural changes, and these can have an impact on a victim-survivor’s daily routine and lifestyle, relationships, education and employment. Trauma may also cause a range of health-related problems (see Health outcomes). For example, experiences of sexual violence are associated with behavioural changes that can lead to adverse health outcomes, including smoking, high risk alcohol and other drug use and lower levels of physical activity (Bacchus et al. 2018; González-Chica et al. 2019; Miller-Graff et al. 2021; Townsend et al. 2022).

In some cases, experiencing trauma may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is associated with a range of behavioural symptoms such as avoidance of triggers (including people, places or events) and arousal and reactivity (sudden anger, difficulty engaging emotionally, feeling numb, trouble sleeping and startling easily) (NIH 2023).

FDSV can also have a negative impact on social connections. Perpetrators may use coercive and controlling behaviours intentionally to isolate victim-survivors from friends, family or support networks (both online or in person) (HRSCSPLA 2021) (See Coercive control). Social withdrawal and isolation may also be an indirect outcome of violence, as people may find themselves withdrawing from social networks following traumatic and/or violent events. In relation to sexual assault trauma, women may avoid situations that remind them of the incident including locations or people who remind them of the perpetrator, as well as restrict social activities due to the belief that the world is inherently unsafe (Boyd 2011).

Social isolation can result in negative physical and mental health outcomes. For example, social isolation has been linked to mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, the development of dementia, premature death, poor health behaviours, smoking, physical inactivity, poor sleep, and biological effects, including high blood pressure and poorer immune function (AIHW 2023). For more information, see Australia’s welfare – Social isolation, loneliness and wellbeing.

For some victim-survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV), gambling venues can be safe spaces in which they can escape from or cope with the violence and/or the resulting social isolation. This may increase their risk of developing a gambling problem and contribute to their ongoing victimisation (Hing et al. 2020).

National data sources to measure behavioural outcomes

Evidence on the behavioural outcomes due to or associated with FDSV are available from two main national data sources – the ABS Personal Safety Survey and the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. For more information about these data sources, please see Data sources and technical notes.

As behaviours are commonly measured via self-report, these sources are surveys. For more information on how different types of data and research answer questions, see How are national data used to answer questions about FDSV?.

What do the data tell us?

Health risk behaviours

  • Childhood maltreatment

    is associated with current cannabis dependence, recent suicide attempt and recent self-harm

    Source: Australian Child Maltreatment Study

The 2021 Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) found associations between adults with self-reported experiences of child maltreatment and six health risk behaviours: cannabis dependence, suicide attempts, non-suicidal self-injury, smoking, binge drinking and obesity. The strongest associations were for current cannabis dependence, recent suicide attempt and recent self-harm (Haslam et al. 2023). See Children and young people and Data sources and technical notes for more information.

  • Women who have experienced sexual violence may be more likely to engage in smoking, high-risk alcohol consumption and illicit drugs, than women who have not experienced sexual violence

    Source: ANROWS analysis of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health

Women who have experienced sexual violence may be more likely to engage in smoking, high-risk alcohol consumption and illicit drug use, than women who have not experienced sexual violence (Townsend et al. 2022). According to the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health (ALSWH), compared with women who had never experienced sexual violence, women who were born from 1989-95 and had experienced sexual violence were:

  • 60% more likely to be current smokers
  • 30% more likely to have used illicit drugs in the past 12 months.

Similarly, compared with those who had never experienced sexual violence, those who had and were born from 1973-78 were:

  • 26% more likely to be current smokers
  • 30% more likely to have used illicit drugs in the past 12 months.

There was little association between smoking and sexual violence for those born from 1946-51 and no data reported on illicit drug use in the past 12 months (Townsend et al. 2022).

Women who were born in 1946-51, 1973-78 and 1989-95 and had experienced sexual violence were 16–73% more likely to engage in high-risk alcohol consumption compared with women who had not experienced sexual violence (Townsend et al. 2022).

Personal habits and health promoting behaviours

Some people experience changes to their social/leisure activities, sleeping and eating habits following injury from sexual assault.

Findings from the 2021–22 Personal Safety Survey (PSS) estimated that there were 166,000 women aged 18 years and over who were physically injured in their most recent incident of sexual assault perpetrated by a male in the last 10 years.

Of these:

  • 38% reported changes to their sleep routine
  • 22% reported changes to their eating habits (ABS 2023b).

According to the ALSWH, women who had experienced sexual violence, and were born from 1989-95 and 1973-78 were 3% less likely to report high levels of physical activity compared with those who had not experienced sexual violence (Townsend et al. 2022). There was little association between sexual assault and high levels of physical activity for those born 1946-51.

Social interactions and personal relationships

The 2021–22 PSS shows that among those who had experienced emotional abuse from a previous partner since the age of 15, the proportion who had experienced controlling social behaviours (see Coercive control) was:

  • 63% for women
  • 56% for men (ABS 2023a).

According to the 2021–22 PSS, after the most recent incident of sexual assault perpetrated by a male in the last 10 years which caused an injury:

  • 38% of women aged 18 years and over reported changes to their usual social or leisure activities routine
  • 28% reported changes in building and maintaining relationships (ABS 2023b).

Employment

  • 11%

    of women in 2021–22 who had experienced sexual assault by a male in the last 10 years, said they took time off work in the 12 months after the most recent incident

    Source: ABS Personal Safety Survey

Work life can be disrupted following experiences of FDSV due to avoidance of social situations and feelings of low self-worth and self-doubt (Boyd 2011).

The 2021–22 PSS asked women and men who experienced violence from a current or previous partner since the age of 15 whether the partner violence resulted in them taking time off work and found that:

  • women were more likely to have taken time off work due to violence from a previous partner (23%) than a current partner (12%*)
  • about 1 in 4 women (23%) and men (23%*) had taken time off work due to violence from a previous partner (ABS 2023a).

Note that estimates marked with an asterisk (*) should be used with caution as they have a relative standard error between 25% and 50% and that data related to current partner violence for men is not sufficiently statistically reliable for reporting.

The 2021–22 PSS found that 1 in 10 (11%) women who had experienced sexual assault perpetrated by a male in the last 10 years, indicated they took time off work in the 12 months after the most recent incident (ABS 2023b).

Disruption to work and employment can negatively impact support networks, financial stability, and self-worth. Under the National Employment Standards, all employees in Australia are entitled to 10 days of paid FDV leave for full-time, part-time and casual employees. For more information see Economic and financial impacts and Financial support and workplace responses.

According to the ALSWH, women born 1989-95 who had ever experienced sexual violence were 7% less likely to have full-time employment than those who had not experienced sexual violence (Townsend et al. 2022). However, women born 1946-51 who had experienced sexual violence were 8% more likely to be employed full-time than those who had not.

Education

According to the ALSWH, women born in 1989-95 and 1973-78 who had ever experienced sexual violence were 46-63% less likely to have completed year 12 than those who had not experienced sexual violence (Townsend et al. 2022). Women born from 1989-95 were also 34% less likely to have obtained qualifications beyond year 12. However, women born 1946-51 who had experienced sexual violence were 33% more likely to have attained a qualification beyond year 12 than those who had not experienced sexual violence.

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