What is FDSV?
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A wide range of definitions are currently used for concepts relating to family, domestic and sexual violence (FDSV). There is no single definition of FDSV in Australia and the term FDSV encompasses a wide range of behaviours and harms that can occur in both family and non-family settings.
In the AIHW’s FDSV reporting:
- Family and domestic violence (FDV), sometimes referred to only as family violence, is a term used for violence that occurs within family or intimate relationships.
- Sexual violence encompasses a wide range of behaviours that are sexual in nature. Sexual violence can be perpetrated by anyone, but can also occur in an FDV context.
There has been a growing interest among advocates, policymakers and practitioners to establish consistent definitions for FDSV. On this topic page we look at terms and definitions currently in use and the reasons why they differ, and we explain how these terms are used in AIHW reporting.
Definitions used in the AIHW’s FDSV reporting
In the AIHW’s reporting, both broad and specific definitions of FDSV are used, to ensure the reporting is inclusive and can draw on all relevant data sources:
- Broad definitions help define the scope of reporting and are useful for identifying FDSV where data are emerging or limited. Broad definitions are also useful to inform public messaging, as they include a wide range of experiences.
- Specific definitions are used when we look at violence in particular contexts or draw from particular data sources. Specific definitions complement a broad approach and allow for more targeted reporting, which can deepen our understanding of FDSV.
Broad definitions of FDSV
In the AIHW’s FDSV reporting:
- violence refers to behaviours (or patterns of behaviour) that cause harm
- violence can occur in the form of assault, threat, abuse, neglect or harassment and is often used by a person, or people, to intimidate, harm or control others.
This definition of violence recognises that people may define their experiences of violence differently to one another. It also highlights that ‘violence’ and harm can be sexual, physical or non-physical; comprise individual events, or patterns of behaviour; and occur in both family and non-family contexts.
Box 1 contains a list of definitions used across the AIHW’s FDSV reporting, which expand on this definition of ‘violence’.
FDSV is an umbrella term used to describe any violence that occurs in family and intimate relationships, or sexual violence that occurs in any context. FDSV can include, or overlap with, the following behaviours or harms.
Family and domestic violence
Family and domestic violence (FDV), sometimes referred to only as family violence, is a term used for violence that occurs within family relationships. Family relationships are those between family members, including partners (or previous partners), parents, siblings and other family members or kinship relationships. Family relationships can include carers, foster carers and co-residents (for example in group homes or boarding residences). Family violence is the term preferred by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, noting the ways violence can manifest across extended family networks.
Intimate partner violence
Violence between partners is sometimes referred to as partner violence, domestic violence or intimate partner violence (IPV) and this can cover cohabiting partners, boyfriends, girlfriends and dates.
The AIHW’s FDSV reporting recognises that FDV and IPV can occur in the context of coercive control. Coercive control is sometimes referred to as the overarching context for family and domestic violence and intimate partner violence. Some of the behaviours that contribute to coercive control can be considered acts of violence themselves – and may be recognisable as emotional abuse, harassment, financial abuse, stalking or technology-facilitated abuse – but it is important to see coercive control as the overall pattern within a relationship that is ongoing, repetitive and cumulative in nature.
Technology-facilitated abuse (TFA) is a broad term encompassing any form of abuse or harm that uses mobile and digital technologies. TFA can include a wide range of behaviours such as:
- monitoring and stalking the whereabouts and movements of the victim in real time
- monitoring the victim’s internet use
- remotely accessing and controlling contents on the victim’s digital device
- repeatedly sending abusive or threatening messages to the victim or the victim’s friends and family
- image-based abuse (non-consensual sharing of intimate images of the victim)
- publishing private and identifying information of the victim (Powell et al. 2022; AIJA 2022; Woodlock 2015).
TFA can be used in the context of coercive control and can be seen as a part of the harmful behaviours that contribute to stalking and surveillance, intimate partner violence, family and domestic violence and sexual violence.
Sexual violence (SV) encompasses a wide range of behaviours that are sexual in nature. Sexual violence can be perpetrated by anyone, but can also occur in an FDV context, including by intimate partners or former partners. Sexual violence can include sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, technology-facilitated abuse, child sexual exploitation, institutional sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
The broad definitions move away from seeing violence in hierarchical terms and recognise that violence can include more than physical and/or sexual violence. Adopting the broad definitions in Box 1 also allows for some flexibility as we build the evidence base and recognises that our understanding of violence may continue to expand.
Specific definitions of FDSV
In some instances, broad definitions of FDSV may not be applicable or appropriate. A more specific definition may be used when:
- citing from a particular data source (for example, in national surveys such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey (PSS) where violence is measured using a specific survey instrument)
- data are collected in a specific service setting (for example, in police data, where violence is understood in relation to specific legislation or practices).
Specific definitions supplement a broader understanding of FDSV, help deepen our understanding, and allow consistent national reporting on a topic over time. Box 2 highlights some key definitions currently used in the AIHW’s reporting.
The definitions in Box 2 are examples only and highlight how definitions are specified differently when they serve different purposes. They do not provide a comprehensive list of how terms are used throughout the AIHW’s FDSV reporting. For more detail, please see Glossary.
When reporting findings using ABS PSS data, the following definitions are used:
- Family and domestic violence refers to the occurrence of physical and/or sexual violence from a family member since the age of 15. In the PSS, physical violence is the occurrence, attempt or threat of physical assault. Sexual violence is the occurrence, attempt or threat of sexual assault. Incidents that occurred before the age of 15, are not counted within the totals for ‘violence’, but are counted separately as physical or sexual abuse (ABS 2023a).
- Partner violence is physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a cohabiting partner, while intimate partner violence covers both partner violence and dating violence, which is violence perpetrated by a boyfriend/girlfriend or date or ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend (ABS 2023a).
- Emotional abuse refers to a set of behaviours used to control, manipulate, isolate and intimidate another person with the intent of causing harm or fear. In the PSS, data on emotional abuse are not collected for all relationships and can only be used to measure emotional abuse between partners in cohabiting relationships (ABS 2023a).
Elsewhere in the AIHW’s FDSV reporting, similar terms are used to refer to different types of violence and settings, as defined in the original data source. Family relationships can also be defined differently depending on the data collection. The following are examples of definitions for data collected in service settings:
- In the ABS Recorded Crime – Victims data, family and domestic violence is defined as ‘an offence involving at least two persons who were in a specified family or domestic relationship at the time of the offence; or where the offence was determined by a police officer to be family and/or domestic violence-related as part of their investigation’. FDV-related offences are limited to certain ANZSOC sub-division offences such as murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, assault, sexual assault, kidnapping/abduction. A specified FDV relationship covers a partner (spouse, husband, wife, boyfriend and girlfriend), ex-partner (ex-spouse, ex-husband, ex-wife, ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend), parent (this includes step-parents), other family member (including child, sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew), or other non-family member (carer, guardian, kinship relationships) (ABS 2023b).
- In the AIHW Specialist Homelessness Services Collection, a client is reported as experiencing family and domestic violence if, in any support period during the reporting period, the client sought assistance as a result of physical or emotional abuse inflicted on the client by a family member, or if as part of any support period a person required family or domestic violence assistance (ABS 2022).
Information in this report is drawn from a number of sources – population-level survey data, administrative data sources and people with lived experience. Where definitions are known, they will be included alongside any data that are reported. The way different types of data are used for reporting is discussed further in How are national data used to answer questions about FDSV?
Why are definitions important?
Having clear national definitions of FDSV helps governments, service providers, practitioners and workplaces establish a common understanding of violence, so that they can respond appropriately and consistently. Clear definitions can also help raise awareness in the community of what constitutes FDSV and help individuals identify and respond to violence when it occurs.
Why are clear definitions important?
'The power of clear definitions has facilitated the increased awareness of the different types of abuse, for example, coercive control. It is likely that clearer use of terms, such as ‘family violence’ can facilitate greater awareness for both survivors and individuals involved with policy and practice.'
'Clear definitions of family, domestic & sexual violence (FDSV) are needed to ensure consistency in the responses to violence. Unclear or inconsistent definitions can result in some legal and support services providing better and more helpful responses than others.'
Clear and consistent definitions allow us to collect vital information and strengthen the evidence base. This allows national data collection and reporting and supports making comparisons over time and across population groups.
Why do definitions vary?
The definitions relating to FDSV differ across legal, policy, research and service delivery settings because they serve different purposes. FDSV covers a multitude of behaviours and harms in multiple settings and some population groups experiences violence in different ways to others. Definitions can vary depending on:
- who experiences the violence or harm and their relationship to the person using violence
- the context in which the violence or harm occurs
- the nature of the system creating the definition, for example, the justice system or specialist FDSV services.
In general, definitions of FDSV can be broad or specific and there are instances where it is appropriate to make use of both.
Defining the scope
Using the broad definitions outlined in Box 1, the following are considered in scope for the AIHW’s FDSV reporting:
- all forms of violence that occur in a FDV context, regardless of the type of harm or behaviour
- all forms of sexual violence and harm, regardless of the relationship between victim and perpetrator (Figure 1).
Figure 1: What is in scope for the AIHW’s FDSV reporting?
The AIHW’s FDSV reporting covers violence and harm that occurs in a range of settings – such as the home, institutions, workplaces, in public and online. Violence or harm is considered in scope if it is either of a sexual nature, or perpetrated by family members or intimate partners.
How does the AIHW’s scope compare with the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032?
The scope of the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032 (the National Plan) is gender-based violence, which refers to violence that is used against someone because of their gender. Gender-based violence, sometimes referred to as ‘violence against women’ is rooted in gender-based power inequalities, rigid gender norms and gender-based discrimination. The National Plan also includes broad definitions of intimate partner violence, family violence, coercive control and sexual violence, which are broader than violence against women (DSS 2022).
While there is substantial overlap between gender-based violence and FDSV, some aspects of gender-based violence are not included in the AIHW’s scope. The AIHW’s scope of reporting includes aspects of gender-based violence, where they are sexual in nature, or where they are perpetrated by family members or intimate partners (see Figure 1 above). The AIHW’s reporting also includes data about FDSV among all people. Where data are available, the AIHW FDSV reporting highlights key findings for women and children specifically and these findings can be used to support policy and decision-making under the National Plan.
How do we write about people?
As we build our understanding of FDSV, the way we write about the people most affected by violence will evolve. There are currently many different terms for people who experience, witness or use violence. No one term captures the myriad experiences of FDSV.
What terms do you use to identify yourself and what do these words mean to you?
'I use terms like ‘DV Survivor Advocate’, sometimes ‘Victim-Survivor Advocate’. These phrases broadly summarise my experience. The most important ‘part’ is ‘Survivor Advocate’. These two words send the message that I survived and now advocate for change. I hope this sends a message to other victims, wherever they are in their journey, that they can survive too. It also sends a message to the perpetrator that he did not succeed in completely destroying me like he intended to.'
'The terminology used to describe me and women like me, should be up to us. We need to be asked what we identify as – it’s incredibly important, especially coming from abusive relationships where we had little to no say on anything at all, even the simplest thing. So, yes you need to ask us! For me, yes I was a "victim", I progressed to survivor and now I’m a DV Advocate using my 28 years of lived experience.'
In our reporting, how we write about people in the context of FDSV will vary depending on where the information is drawn from. However, some broad terms, such as ‘victim-survivor’ and ‘perpetrator’ are adopted to simplify reporting where appropriate (Box 3).
In the AIHW’s FDSV reporting, the term victim-survivor is generally used to refer to people who have experienced FDSV. In most instances, ‘people who have experienced FDSV’ are those who have had violence used against them. However, this information may not always be known in the data source, and this may be used to refer to people who both use violence. The term perpetrator is used to describe adults (aged 18 years and over) who use violence, while ‘people who use violence’ is a broader, more inclusive term that extends to children and young people who use violence.
This aligns with the language of the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032. However, different terms may be used when reporting data from specific sources. Some examples are as follows:
- Data from the ABS PSS refer to people who have experienced violence and perpetrators of violence. Those who experienced violence before the age of 15, are referred to as people who have experienced abuse.
- Data recorded by police – such as those reported in the ABS Recorded Crime – Victims and Recorded Crime – Offenders releases – use the terms victims and offenders. Similarly, data from the Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Homicide Monitoring Program uses victims and offenders when reporting on FDV-related homicide.
There are many situations where individuals may not identify as victims, or where it may not be appropriate to assume the term ‘victims’ is appropriate. Where explanations are available for the particular terms used, these will be included alongside reporting.
There are also many different ways that sex and gender can be reported. This is important to keep in mind when reporting on FDSV, as sex and gender can play a role in how FDSV is experienced. Terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ may refer to sex or gender depending on where they are drawn from and how they are recorded. In general, the terms used in the AIHW’s reporting will be consistent with the original data sources. However, there are circumstances where a different approach has been adopted for clarity (Box 4).
The mechanisms for collecting data on sex and/or gender vary across the data collections. When presenting statistics, the AIHW uses the term most appropriate for the data source.
In most cases, ‘male’ and ‘female’ are used, however it is not always known whether the data refer to sex at birth or to current gender and it should be noted that some people may not identify with these terms. Specific information about how sex and/or gender are collected in each data source, is included in the Data sources and technical notes, where available.
At times, the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’, and ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are also used in high-level text to improve readability. This binary language is used to simplify descriptions using existing data sources. However, the AIHW recognises that some people, particularly gender diverse people, may not identify with these terms.
The term ‘persons’ is used throughout to refer to all/total people irrespective of sex or gender. Further discussion about how language is used to discuss to discuss diversity in gender and sexuality is included in LGBTIQA+ people.
Guidelines for reporting on violence against women
Where possible, the AIHW aims to align reporting with the Our Watch guidelines for reporting violence against women. The guidelines were developed to provide information and tips to support media organisations across Australia in reporting on violence against women.
Additional information can be found at Media Making Change – Our Watch.
Guidelines for reporting on child sexual abuse
The AIHW’s FDSV reporting also aims to align reporting with the National Office for Child Safety’s guidelines for reporting on child sexual abuse. The guidelines were developed to encourage responsible reporting on child sexual abuse and support victims and survivors engaging with the media. The key aim for the guidelines is to promote reporting that raises community awareness of child sexual abuse, reduces stigma, and empowers victims and survivors when they share their personal experiences with the media.
Additional information, including guidance for victims and survivors engaging with the media can be found at Reporting on child sexual abuse – National Office for Child Safety.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2023a) Personal Safety, Australia methodology, ABS website, accessed 9 August 2023.
ABS (2023b) Recorded Crime – Victims methodology, ABS website, accessed 9 August 2023.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2022) Specialist homelessness services annual report 2021–22, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 09 August 2023.
AIJA (Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration) (2022) ‘Following, harassing and monitoring’, National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book, AIJA website, accessed 27 April 2023.
DSS (Department of Social Services) (2022) National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–2032, DSS.
Powell A, Flynn A and Hindes S (2022) Technology-facilitated abuse: national survey of Australian adults’ experiences, ANROWS, accessed 28 April 2023.
Woodlock D (2015) ReCharge: Women’s technology safety, legal resources, research & training, Women’s Legal Service NSW, Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and WESNET, accessed 16 June 2023.