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Understanding FDSV

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Community understanding of FDSV

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Community understanding of family, domestic and sexual violence (FDSV) can shape attitudes and social norms towards violence and/or experiences of and responses to violence (Coumarelos et al. 2023a; Our Watch 2021). As such, community understanding of FDSV is regarded as critical for primary prevention, early intervention and promoting greater workforce support for individuals experiencing violence across the community (Coumarelos et al. 2023a; Our Watch 2021; PoA 2021). This section sets out findings on the social context for FDSV in Australia, with a focus on recognition of violent behaviours. These insights provide a basis for understanding the wider social setting for FDSV in Australia, including community attitudes and the role they play in influencing the prevalence of FDSV in the Australian community.

What is community understanding?

Community understanding of FDSV is a broad concept and can include: recognition of problematic violent behaviours; the drivers of, and societal context (including gender and other intersecting forms of inequality) in which violence exists; the awareness of available support services, individual rights and laws relating to violence; and knowledge of the gendered nature and prevalence of FDSV in the community (Coumarelos et al. 2023a; Our Watch 2021).

A large component of community understanding of FDSV is the recognition that violence can include certain physical and non-physical behaviours. Despite there being some variation in how terms such as family violence, domestic violence, and sexual violence are defined, it is now generally understood that these, and other related terms, encompass a range of behaviours that exist on a continuum and extend beyond behaviours that result in physical harm (Coumarelos et al. 2023a; DSS 2022). Recognition and knowledge that violence can also include emotional abuse, economic and financial abuse, stalking and surveillance and other controlling behaviours is also important because many of these behaviours have high prevalence rates and significant impacts on the wellbeing of victim-survivors and the community more broadly (see also Coercive control) (ABS 2023; Coumarelos et al. 2023a). While it is unclear how significant the link is between community recognition of certain behaviours as violence, and prevalence of violence in the communityrecognition of violent behaviours is one factor that can influence attitudes towards violence (see Community attitudes) (Coumarelos et al. 2023a, Webster et al. 2018).

Is the way we talk about FDSV changing?

'I would like to say the way we talk about domestic violence (DV) and sexual abuse is changing; it’s definitely a conversation. But in the general community, I have found that the lack of understanding about DV is frightening. The myth that DV can only be physical violence is still commonly believed by people I have spoken to, and they have no idea about the many other forms of DV, especially coercive control and sexual abuse. This needs to change.'

Maggie

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

The National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032 highlights that violence, and understanding of what constitutes violence, continues to evolve (DSS, 2022). Some of this evolution can be attributed to changes in how violence is perpetrated as result of the pervasiveness of technology in everyday life (see Stalking and surveillance), while other contributing factors include ongoing efforts to increase awareness of what constitutes violence and an increased readiness to talk about it (DSS, 2022).

Despite increased awareness of a wider range of problematic behaviours (particularly non-physical behaviours), there remain a range of behaviours and practices that continue to exist outside common understanding of violence (PoA 2021). Ongoing efforts are required to enhance understanding of behaviours that are not commonly recognised by the community as violence, including forced marriage, trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation/cutting, incest, dowry abuse and dowry-related violence (PoA 2021). See also Modern slavery and People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

In addition to awareness of different types of violent behaviours, and their illegality in many cases, community understanding of other aspects, such as the prevalence of violence, and availability of relevant support services, are also important.

Much of what is known about the level of community understanding of FDSV in Australia and how this has changed over time comes from the National Community Attitudes Survey towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) (see Box 1). The most recent NCAS was conducted in 2021.

What do the data tell us?

Overall, results from the 2021 NCAS indicate that community understanding of violence against women still has some room for improvement (Coumarelos et al. 2023a). Specifically:

  • the mean score for respondents on the UVAWS was 69, where 100 equates to the highest possible level of understanding
  • the Understand Gendered DV had the lowest mean score (65 out of 100) of the 3 UVAWS subscales
  • less than 9 in 20 (44%) respondents had an advanced understanding of violence, according to the UVAWS (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

However, these results alone do not highlight specific areas where understanding is good, or where improvement is needed, nor do they show the improvements that have occurred over time (see ‘Has it changed?’ below).

Most people recognise violence against women is a problem, but it is still misunderstood

The 2021 NCAS found that while most respondents recognised that violence against women is a problem in Australia, many didn’t recognise the full extent and gendered nature of violence:

  • Over 9 in 10 (91%) respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that violence against women is a problem in Australia.
  • Less than 1 in 2 (47%) respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that violence against women is a problem in the suburb or town where they live.
  • More than 2 in 5 (43%) respondents did not recognise that men are the most common perpetrators of domestic violence.
  • Almost 1 in 4 (24%) respondents did not recognise that women are more likely than men to suffer physical harm from domestic violence (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

Further, many had misconceptions about the victim-survivor relationships with perpetrators of sexual violence:

  • Almost 1 in 3 (31%) people in Australia did not know that women are more likely to be raped by a known person than a stranger (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

Some problematic behaviours are not well recognised as always being violence

Results from the 2021 NCAS indicate that while most people in Australia have a good understanding of what constitutes violence, some problematic behaviours were more readily recognised as always being a form of violence compared to others. Different types of harassment were often not recognised as violence against women:

  • almost 1 in 3 (32%) respondents did not recognise that a man sending an unwanted picture of his genitals to a woman is always a form of violence
  • almost 1 in 3 (32%) respondents did not recognise that harassment via repeated emails, text messages or similar is always a form of violence
  • almost 1 in 3 (32%) respondents did not recognise that abusive messages or comments targeted at women on social media is always a form of violence (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

Coercive behaviours were also poorly recognised as always constituting violence, for example:

  • 1 in 4 (25%) respondents did not recognise that controlling a partner’s social life by preventing them seeing family and friends is always domestic violence
  • almost 1 in 3 (31%) respondents did not recognise that controlling a partner with disability by threatening to put them into care or a home is always domestic violence
  • more than 1 in 3 (34%) respondents did not recognise that repeatedly criticising a partner to make them feel bad or useless is always domestic violence
  • more than 1 in 3 (34%) respondents did not recognise that controlling a partner by forcing them to hide that they are transgender is always domestic violence (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

Many people don’t know where to get help for someone experiencing domestic violence

  • 2 in 5 respondents

     in 2021 did not know where to access help for a domestic violence issue

    Source: National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey

It is important that victim-survivors and other people who might be aware of violence occurring know where and how to access support services. The 2021 NCAS found that 2 in 5 (41%) respondents indicated they wouldn’t know where to access help for someone experiencing domestic violence (Coumarelos et al. 2023a). Knowledge of available services for victim-survivors of violence can influence help-seeking behaviours. The 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS) found that 7.1% of women and 3.5% of men who did not seek advice or support about violence by a previous partner did so because they did not know of any services (ABS 2017).

The 2021 NCAS also found that a large portion of respondents failed to recognise two behaviours related to consent as criminal offences:

  • 1 in 5 (20%) of respondents did not know that it is a criminal offence for a man to have sex with his wife without her consent
  • 1 in 10 (11%) of respondents did not know that it is a criminal offence to post or share a sexual picture of an ex-partner on social media without their consent (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

Has it changed over time?

Examining changes over time in the level of community understanding can help to identify shifts in knowledge, and evaluate primary prevention policies and programs.

  • Between 2009 and 2021, there was an improvement in community understanding of violence against women

    Source: National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey

Community understanding has improved over time

Figure 1 indicates that over time there has been a positive change overall in community understanding:

  • The 2021 result represented the highest level of understanding across previous survey years (2009, 2013 and 2017).
  • Between 2009 and 2021 the mean score on the UVAWS increased for both men and women, however gender differences indicate that men on average have a lower level of understanding of violence against women (Coumarelos et al. 2023a). Similar trends can be seen for community attitudes of violence.

Figure 1: Mean score on the Understanding of Violence against Women Scale by gender, 2009, 2013, 2017 and 2021

^: statistically significant difference to the 2021 mean score.
~: statistically significant difference to the 2021 mean score for men.
n.a.: not available.

Source: NCAS 2021 | Data source overview

For information about how data related to sex and/or gender are presented in this report, see Methods.

The 2021 NCAS results also suggest that there has been significant improvement in recognising non-physical forms of violence over time. 

  • Between 2009 and 2021, the proportion of people who recognised that controlling a partner by denying them money is always or usually a form of domestic violence increased by 53%

    Source: National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey

From 2009 to 2021, there was a significant increase in the proportion of people who identified the following problematic behaviours as always or usually violence:

  • repeatedly criticises to make partner feel bad or useless (from 70% to 83%)
  • controls social life by preventing partner seeing family and friends (from 70% to 87%)
  • controls partner by denying them money (from 53% to 81%)
  • stalking by repeatedly following/watching at home/work (from 81% to 89%)
  • harassment by repeated emails, text messages (from 73% to 84%) (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

Despite these improvements, results from the 2021 NCAS identified that there have been some negative shifts in the perceptions of perpetration and impacts of domestic violence over time. While results of the PSS and data on recorded crimes and hospital admissions continue to indicate men are more likely to perpetrate domestic violence and less likely to experience violence and suffer physical harm compared to women, 2021 NCAS findings indicate understanding of this gendered nature of domestic violence has decreased. The proportion of people who indicated that they believed:

  • mainly men commit acts of domestic violence decreased from 74% in 2009 to 57% in 2021
  • women are more likely than men to suffer physical harm from domestic violence decreased from 89% in 2009 to 76% in 2021 (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

It is unclear what is driving this negative change in understanding, but Coumarelos et al. (2023b) suggest that it may be a result of a misperception “that progress towards gender equality means men and women are also equally likely to both perpetrate and experience domestic violence”.

Is it the same for everyone?

The results of the 2021 NCAS found that some population groups had higher levels of understanding than others. The proportion of respondents with advanced understanding of violence against women was:

  • higher for women and non-binary respondents (both 50%) than men (38%)
  • higher for those who spoke English at home (48%) than for those who spoke a language other than English at home, but had good English (31%), and those who spoke a language other than English at home with poor English (22%)
  • higher for those born in Australia (48%) than those born outside Australia in a non-mainly English speaking country and who had been in Australia for less than 6 years (21%) (Coumarelos et al. 2023a).

Understanding other types of abuse

Understanding violence or abuse that exists in specific population groups can also influence social norms and attitudes towards the treatment of those groups. Below, understanding of elder abuse and child abuse (Box 2) are discussed.

Many people don’t understand how common elder abuse is

The Australian Institute of Family Studies’ National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study provides insight into community understanding of prevalence and recognition of behaviours elder abuse. This study, conducted in 2019–2020, involved two nationally representative surveys: one of older people living in the community (the ‘Survey of Older People’ (SOP)) and one of general community members aged 18 to 64 (‘Survey of the General Community’ (SGC)).

The SOP identified that despite around 1 in 7 (598,000) older people in Australia living in the community having experienced elder abuse in the past year, almost half (46%; SGC) of general community members and 57% of older people (SOP) did not agree that elder abuse is common. See Older people for more details on prevalence of elder abuse (Qu et al. 2021).

Physical abuse is the most recognised form of elder abuse

Further, the AIFS study provides data about community understanding of what constitutes elder abuse by looking at recognition of a series of actions/omissions as elder abuse (Figure 2). In both the SOP and the SGC, the physically abusive behaviours of ‘pushing or shoving’ were the most commonly recognised form of elder abuse (86% and 91% respectively) (Qu et al. 2021).

Compared to the general community, a lower proportion of SOP participants recognised ‘talking to an older person in a sexual way when they do not want to’ as a form of elder abuse (89% and 76%, respectively) (Qu et al. 2021).

Indicators of psychological abuse were consistently recognised as elder abuse in both groups. The highest recognition was for name calling, deliberately embarrassing an older person and preventing an older person from having contact with the outside world. Lower recognition was evident for limiting contact with grandchildren and threatening to send them to a residential aged care facility (Qu et al. 2021).

Figure 2: Recognition of abusive actions as elder abuse

n.a.: Not available

Source: AIFS National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study | Data source overview

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