Family, domestic and sexual violence is a major health and welfare issue in Australia. It occurs across all socioeconomic, demographic and age groups, but predominantly affects women and children.

If you are experiencing domestic or family violence, or know someone who is, call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit the 1800RESPECT website (National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service for people living in Australia).

What is family, domestic and sexual violence?

Family violence is violence between family members, such as between parents and children, siblings, and intimate partners.

Domestic violence is a type of family violence that occurs specifically between current or former intimate partners.

Both family violence and domestic violence include various behaviours:

  • physical violence (hitting, choking, use of weapons)
  • emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse (intimidating, humiliating)
  • coercive control (controlling access to finances, monitoring movements, isolating from friends and family).

Sexual violence covers sexual behaviours carried out against a person’s will. This can occur in the context of family or domestic violence, or be perpetrated by other people known to the victim or by strangers (ABS 2017b).

How common is family, domestic and sexual violence?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS) indicates that since the age of 15:

1 in 6 women (17%25 or 1.6 million) and 1 in 16 men (6.1%25 or 548,000) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a current or previous partner.

1 in 4 women (23%25 or 2.2 million) and 1 in 6 men (16%25 or 1.4 million) have experienced emotional abuse from a current or previous partner.

1 in 5 women (18%25 or 1.7million) and 1 in 20 men (4.7%25 or 429,000) have been sexual assaulted and/or threatened.

Source: ABS 2017a.

Data from the 2016 PSS show that partner violence and sexual violence have remained relatively stable since 2005. This contrasts with declines in total violence over the same period (ABS 2017a).

Groups most at risk

Some social, economic and personal factors can increase a person's vulnerability to family, domestic and sexual violence. These factors are a complex web of potential influences, rather than direct causes.

Children

Children are more vulnerable to family, domestic and sexual violence.

The 2016 PSS asked participants (aged 18 and over) about their experiences of violence before the age of 15, also referred to as abuse.

  • Around 1 in 14 (7.0% or 1.3 million) respondents had experienced physical abuse by a family member.
  • 1 in 30 (3.3% or 600,000) respondents had experienced sexual abuse by a family member (Figure 1) (ABS 2017a).

The column graph shows the proportion of males and females who experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15, by the relationship to perpetrator. For both male and female respondents, family members were more likely to be perpetrators of physical abuse compared with non-family members. Perpetrators of sexual abuse were more likely to be non-family members compared with family members for both male and female respondents. 

In Australia, state and territory governments are responsible for providing child protection services to anyone aged under 18 who has been, or is at risk of being, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed, or whose parents are unable to provide adequate care and protection. In 2017–18:

  • 3% of all Australian children (159,000) received child protection services
  • infants aged less than 1 were most likely (38 per 1,000) to receive child protection services and adolescents aged 15–17 were least likely (21 per 1,000)
  • emotional abuse, including witnessing violence between intimate partners and adults, was the most common abuse type, identified in 59% (18,800) of substantiated cases. Neglect was identified in 17% (5,500) of cases, physical abuse in 15% (4,700) and sexual abuse in 9% (2,800) (AIHW 2019a).

Older Australians

For information about the risk factors for older age groups, see ‘Chapter 7 Elder abuse: context, concepts and challenges’ in Australia’s welfare 2019: data insights.

Women

More women than men experience family, domestic and sexual violence. Table 1 shows the proportion of people aged 18 and over who have experienced violence from a previous or current partner since the age of 15.

Table 1: Proportion of men and women who experienced violence or abuse from a partner since the age of 15, by type of violence or abuse, 2016

 

Women (%)

Men (%)

Physical and/or sexual violence from a previous partner

14.6

4.4

Physical and/or sexual violence from a current partner

2.9

1.7

Emotional abuse from a previous/current partner

23.0

15.9

Source: ABS 2017a.

Women’s exposure to violence differs across age groups and by perpetrator type. When experiences of partner violence are expanded to those perpetrated by all intimate partners—including current or previous boyfriends, girlfriends or dates—young women are particularly at risk.

The 2016 PSS reported that young women were more likely to experience intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence than older women in the 12 months before the survey:

  • 1 in 20 (4.0% or 117,000) women aged 18–34 experienced intimate partner violence, compared with 1.5% (96,000) aged 35 and over
  • 1 in 20 (4.3% or 125,000) women aged 18–34 experienced sexual violence, compared with 0.7% (45,000) aged 35 and over (ABS 2017a).

In interpreting these results, it is important to note that younger women were less likely to have ever had a cohabiting partner compared with women aged 35 and over. Similarly, men aged 18–34 were more at risk of intimate partner violence in the 12 months before the survey than those aged 35 and over—2.0% of men aged 18–34 experienced intimate partner violence compared with 0.8% aged 35 and over (ABS 2017a).

Other at-risk groups

Other social and cultural factors also shape experiences of family, domestic and sexual violence. People can be more at risk of violence due to factors such as disability, sexual orientation or cultural influences. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are particularly at risk and have much higher rates of hospitaliation because of family violence. Data on the experiences of Indigenous women can be found in Indigenous community safety. For more information, see AIHW’s Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia, 2019 report.

Responses and support services

Responses to family, domestic and sexual violence are provided informally in the community and formally through welfare services.

The 2016 PSS asked victims of domestic violence if they sought support following their most recent incident. Victims were more likely to seek support for violence from a previous partner than a current partner, and women were more likely to seek support than men.

Among women who had experienced partner violence since the age of 15:

  • 2 in 3 (63% or 864,000) victims of previous partner violence sought support, compared with 1 in 2 (54% or 150,000) victims of current partner violence.

Among men who had experienced partner violence since the age of 15:

  • 2 in 5 (41% or 162,000) victims of previous partner violence sought support, compared with 1 in 3 (29% or 43,500) victims of current partner violence, although this should be interpreted with caution due to small numbers (ABS 2017a).

Informal support

According to the 2016 PSS, a friend or family member was the most common source of support for men and women who had experienced partner violence.

Of those who sought support or advice, a friend or family member was the source of support for:

  • 65% of female victims of previous partner violence
  • 67% of female victims of current partner violence
  • 54% of male victims of previous partner violence (ABS 2017a).

Note: Data regarding male victims of current partner violence are not provided due to small numbers.

Police responses

When an incident of violence is reported to police by a victim, witness or other person, it can be recorded as a crime. The ABS collects data on selected family, domestic and sexual violence crimes recorded by police. In 2018:

  • at least 2 in 5 recorded assaults were related to family and domestic violence
  • around 2 in 5 recorded murders were related to family and domestic violence (93 victims) (ABS 2019).

The ABS has collated national police recorded sexual assault incidents since 2010. Since 2011, the number of victims recorded by police has increased each year. In 2018, it increased to 26,000 victims, representing 176 female victims and 33 male victims of sexual assault per 100,000 people (Figure 2) (ABS 2019). Increases in recording of sexual assault can be caused by an increase in incidents, an increase in reporting to police, or a combination.

The line graph shows the number of male and female sexual assault victims per 100,000 people between 2010 and 2018. The graph shows that the the sexual assault victimisation rate has increased over time from 26.1 victims per 100,000 males in 2010 to 33.1 per 100,000 males in 2018. For females, the victimisation rate has increased from 143.8 victims per 100,000 females in 2010 to 175.5 victims per 100,000 females in 2018.

Homelessness services

People accessing specialist homelessness services (SHS) are asked if they have experienced family and domestic violence. These data cannot currently distinguish between victims and perpetrators of violence. From 1 July 2019, additional information will be collected on the type of services provided to SHS clients, including whether these are victim or perpetrator services (AIHW 2018).

In 2017–18, SHS agencies assisted around 121,000 clients who had experienced domestic and family violence. In 2017–18:

  • more than 3 in 4 (78%) clients were female
  • almost half were single parents (47% lived in single parent households)
  • 1 in 5 (22%) clients were Indigenous
  • 1 in 4 (26%) clients had a current mental health issue
  • 8% of clients had experienced problematic drug and/or alcohol use, and had a current mental health issue.

Nationally, the number of clients reporting they had experienced family and domestic violence and sought assistance from SHS agencies has risen on average by 9% each year. This represents an increase from 84,800 people in 2013–14 to 121,000 in 2017–18 (AIHW 2018).

See also Homelessness and homelessness services.

Health services

Hospitals provide mainstream health services for assault victims. The AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database includes data about individuals admitted to hospital with injuries caused by physical assault, sexual assault or maltreatment.

In 2016–17:

  • 3 in 10 (29% or 6,300) people admitted to hospital with assault injuries reported they were victims of family or domestic violence
  • 1 in 5 (19% or 4,200) reported that the perpetrator was a spouse or domestic partner (AIHW 2019b).

Victims may also present to emergency departments and primary health care professionals. Data on these presentations are not currently available.

Community attitudes

Social attitudes and norms shape the context in which violence occurs. The National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey provides information about knowledge and attitudes towards violence against women, gender roles and responses to violence. The survey was conducted in 2009, 2013 and 2017.

Overall, the 2017 survey results showed encouraging trends in violence-related knowledge and attitudes. For example, most Australians had accurate knowledge of violence against women and most recognised that violence can occur in different forms and involve more than just physical and sexual violence. While most people’s knowledge of violence against women has increased, there are still areas for improvement, such as:

  • 1 in 3 Australians did not know that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a known person than a stranger
  • 2 in 5 Australians did not know where to access help for a domestic violence issue
  • while 2 in 3 Australians recognised that men are more likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence, this declined by 7 percentage points between 2013 and 2017
  • 1 in 5 Australians did not recognise that women are more likely than men to suffer physical harm from domestic violence (Webster et al. 2018).

Overall, most Australians rejected attitudes supportive of violence against women. Only a small and declining proportion since 2013 agreed that partner violence is a private, family matter. While results were generally encouraging, some attitudes were concerning: 

  • 1 in 3 Australians believed that women who do not leave their abusive partners are partly responsible for violence continuing
  • 2 in 5 Australians agreed it was common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men
  • 1 in 5 Australians believed that domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to (Webster et al. 2018).

Violence exists on a spectrum of behaviours. The same social and cultural attitudes underpinning family, domestic and sexual violence are at the root of other behaviours such as sexual harassment and stalking.

What is sexual harassment and stalking?

In the ABS 2016 PSS:

Sexual harassment includes indecent phone calls, text messages, emails or social media posts; indecent exposure; inappropriate comments; and unwanted sexual touching.

Stalking is classified as unwanted behaviours (such as following or unwanted contact) that occur more than once and cause fear or distress. Stalking is a crime in every state and territory of Australia (ABS 2017b).

Based on the 2016 PSS:

  • 1 in 2 (53% or 5 million) women and 1 in 4 (25% or 2.2 million) men had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime
  • 1 in 6 (17% or 1.6 million) women and 1 in 16 (6.5% or 587,000) men had experienced stalking since the age of 15.

Of the 1.2 million women who experienced stalking from a male in the 20 years before the survey:

  • 31% (364,000) perceived the most recent incident as a crime at the time
  • 29% (337,000) reported that police were contacted about the most recent incident (ABS 2017a).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on family, domestic and sexual violence, see:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2017a. Personal Safety Survey 2016. ABS cat. no. 4906.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2017b. Personal Safety Survey, Australia: User Guide, 2016. ABS cat. no. 4906.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. Recorded crime—victims, Australia, 2018. ABS cat. no. 4510.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2018. Sleeping rough: a profile of Specialist Homelessness Services clients. Cat. no. HOU 297. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019a. Child protection Australia 2017–18. Child welfare series no. 70. Cat. no. CWS 65. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019b. Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story 2019. Cat. no. FDV 3. Canberra: AIHW.

Webster K, Diemer K, Honey N, Mannix S, Mickle J, Morgan J et al. 2018. Australians’ attitudes towards violence against women and gender equality: findings from the 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS). Sydney: ANROWS.