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 most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey (PSS) in 2016 indicated 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). However, since 2012, there has been an increase in the proportion of women who experienced sexual violence, from 1.2% in 2012 to 1.8% in 2016. Results from the next PSS are scheduled to be available from 2022.

Although there is no nationally representative data available on the experience of family, domestic and sexual violence during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, some survey data on domestic violence among women during this period exist (see Women).

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 (6.9% 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).

 

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 2019–20:

  • 3.1% of all Australian children (174,700 children or 31 per 1,000) 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 (24 per 1,000)
  • emotional abuse, including witnessing violence between intimate partners and adults, was the most common primary type of abuse, identified in 54% (26,400 children) of substantiated cases (substantiations). Neglect was the primary type of abuse in 22% (11,000 children) of cases, physical abuse in 14% (6,900 children) and sexual abuse in 9.2% (4,500 children) (AIHW 2021a).

In Australia, in the first 6 months after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic (March to August 2020):

  • the total number of notifications to authorities of suspected abuse and neglect varied across jurisdictions—and comparisons with the same period in 2019 showed no consistent pattern. However, a common pattern observed in most jurisdictions was a drop in notifications in April 2020 (during the initial COVID-19 restrictions) followed by an increase in May or June (once restrictions had eased)
  • the total number of substantiations also varied across jurisdictions. Compared with the same period in 2019, the number of substantiations was higher in South Australia (16% higher), lower in Victoria (25% lower), Western Australia (14%) and the Australian Capital Territory (31%), and similar (less than 5% difference) in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory (AIHW 2021b).

Data on child protection services and COVID-19 can be found in Child protection in the time of COVID-19.

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).

Domestic violence among women during COVID-19

An online survey of 15,000 women found that during the 3 months leading up to May 2020, 4.6% of women experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabiting partner (Boxall et al. 2020). Almost two-thirds (65%) of women said the violence had started or escalated since the commencement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Relative to other age groups, young women aged 18–24 had the highest prevalence rates across all types of domestic violence reported (AIHW 2021c). These estimates cannot be compared with estimates from the 2016 PSS.

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 and AIHW’s Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia, 2019 report.

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 hospitalisation 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:

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

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

  • Over 2 in 5 (41% or 162,000) victims of previous partner violence sought support, compared with nearly 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).

The restrictions put in place to contain the impact of COVID-19 in the community changed the way services operated and/or could be accessed. The help-seeking behaviours of people experiencing family violence may also have been impacted, largely due to increased time spent with the perpetrator.  An online survey of 15,000 women found that of those women who experienced some form of violence during the first 3 months of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • more than 1 in 3 (37%) women who experienced either physical or sexual violence or coercive control did not seek help due to safety concerns
  • almost 3 in 5 (58%) women who experienced both physical or sexual violence and coercive control from a current or former cohabiting partner did not seek help due to safety concerns (Boxall et al. 2020).

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).

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 2020:

  • more than 1 in 2 (54% or 70,000) recorded assaults were related to family and domestic violence (excluding Victoria and Queensland), a 7.8% increase from 65,000 in 2019.
  • almost 2 in 5 (37% or 82) recorded murders were related to family and domestic violence (ABS 2021).

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 2020, it increased to 27,505 victims, representing 178.7 female victims and 33.5 male victims of sexual assault per 100,000 people (Figure 2) (ABS 2021). It is unclear whether this change reflects an increased incidence of sexual assault, an increased propensity to report sexual assault to police, increased reporting of historical crimes or a combination of these factors. Of all 2020 police-recorded sexual assaults, 68% were reported to police within one year (ABS 2021).

 

The line graph shows the number of male and female sexual assault victims per 100,000 people between 2010 and 2020. The graph shows that the sexual assault victimisation rate has increased over time from 26.1 victims per 100,000 males in 2010 to 33.5 per 100,000 males in 2020. For females, the victimisation rate has increased from 143.8 victims per 100,000 females in 2010 to 178.7victims per 100,000 females in 2020.

Similar to national trends, a recent study by Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency, showed that during 2020, family violence incidents reported to police in Victoria had increased compared to 2019, with actual average monthly numbers higher than forecasted (Burgess et al 2021).

Homelessness services

Data on people accessing specialist homelessness services (SHS) can be used to identify people who have experienced family and domestic violence. These data cannot currently distinguish between victims and perpetrators of violence. However, from 1 July 2019, additional information has been collected on the type of services provided to SHS clients, including whether these are victim or perpetrator services (AIHW 2020). These new data will be made available when they are found to be of sufficient quality.  

In 2019–20, SHS agencies assisted around 119,200 clients who had experienced domestic and family violence. In 2019–20:

  • 9 in 10 (90%) adult (aged 18 years and over) clients were female
  • almost half were single parents (48% lived in single parent households)
  • almost 1 in 4 (23%) clients were Indigenous Australians
  • 3 in 10 (30%) clients aged 10 and over had a current mental health issue
  • 1 in 10 (10%) of clients also had problematic drug and/or alcohol use and a current mental health issue.

Nationally, the number of clients reporting they had experienced family and domestic violence and sought assistance from SHS agencies rose on average by 9% each year between 2013–14 and 2017–18 (AIHW 2018). Following years of steady increase, numbers and rates decreased slightly between 2017–18 and 2019–20 (49.2 per 10,000 and 47.0 per 10,000 respectively) as a result of changes to reporting practices in Victoria (AIHW 2020). See also Homelessness and homelessness services.

Throughout the first 7 months of the COVID-19 pandemic (March to December 2020), the number of SHS clients who had experienced domestic and family violence fluctuated from month to month; between 31,700 and 33,800 clients. While there was no national pattern evident, states and territories implemented a variety of different programs throughout the period and not all of these additional program were delivered through the SHS funding pathway.  For more information, see Specialist Homelessness Services: monthly data.

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 2019–20:

  • more than 1 in 3 (35% or 7,600) people admitted to hospital with assault injuries reported they were victims of family or domestic violence, a 7.5% increase from 7,100 in 2018–19
  • more than 1 in 5 (22% or 4,800) reported that the perpetrator was a spouse or domestic partner, a 5.7% increase from 4,600 in 2018–19
  • 1 in 3 (33% or 7,400) did not specify a relationship between perpetrator and victim, a 8.3% decrease from 8,000 in 2018–19.

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

Helplines

1800RESPECT is the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. Throughout 2020, around 304,000 contacts (telephone and online) were answered. This may include contacts from frequent callers, nuisance callers and prank calls.  Monthly data showed that there was a 32% increase in contacts answered in the 6 months from COVID-19 being declared a pandemic (March to August 2020) (Australian Government Department of Social Services unpublished; AIHW 2021b).

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 previously conducted in 2009, 2013 and 2017, the next survey is due to be completed in 2021.

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 (34%) 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 almost 2 in 3 (64%) 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 (19%) 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 (32%) Australians believed that women who do not leave their abusive partners are partly responsible for violence continuing
  • 2 in 5 (42%) Australians agreed it was common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men
  • 1 in 5 (21%) 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).

A 2020 report by Australia’s eSafety Commissioner on adult’s negative online experiences found that:

  • 67% of those surveyed had a negative online experience in the 12 months to August 2019
  • 10% of those surveyed said they have been tracked electronically using technology to monitor movements without consent
  • 8% of those surveyed said they received threats of real-life harm or abuse.

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 2021. Recorded Crime - Victims. ABS. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2018. Specialist homelessness services annual report 2017–18 . Cat. no. HOU 299. Canberra: AIHW.

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

AIHW 2020. Specialist homelessness services annual report 2019–20 . Cat. no. HOU 322. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2021a. Child protection in Australia 2019–20.  Child protection Australia 2019–20. Cat. no. CWS 78. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2021b. Child protection in the time of COVID-19. Cat. no. CWS 76. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2021c. COVID-19 and the impact on young people. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 10 August 2021.

Boxall, Morgan and Brown 2020. The prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistical Bulletin no. 28. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Burgess A, Nguyen A, Chai W and Kelly S 2021. Police-recorded crime trends in Victoria during the COVID-19 pandemic: update to end of December 2020. Melbourne: Crime Statistics Agency.

Office of the eSafety Commissioner 2020. Adults’ negative online experiences. Australian Government.

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.