Family, domestic and sexual violence is a major health and welfare issue in Australia, occurring across all socioeconomic and demographic groups, but predominantly affecting women and children. These types of violence can have a serious impact on individuals, families and communities, and can inflict physical injury, psychological trauma and emotional suffering. These effects can be long-lasting and can affect future generations.

For information, support and counselling contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit the 1800RESPECT website .

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 between current or former intimate partners (sometimes referred to as intimate partner violence).

Both family violence and domestic violence include behaviours such as:

  • physical violence (for example, hitting, choking, use of weapons)
  • sexual violence (for example, rape, penetration by objects, unwanted touching)
  • emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse (intimidating, humiliating)
  • coercive control (controlling access to finances, monitoring movements, isolating from friends and family).

Sexual violence includes sexual assault, sexual threat, sexual harassment, child sexual assault, street-based sexual harassment and image-based abuse sexual harassment (NASASV 2021). However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey (PSS) uses a narrower definition of sexual violence, including only sexual assault and sexual threat, with sexual harassment and abuse against children reported separately. Sexual violence in its broadest form can occur in the context of family or domestic violence, or be perpetrated by other people known to the victim or by strangers (ABS 2017a).

Other forms of violence that can occur within the context of family and domestic violence include: stalking, technology-facilitated abuse and elder abuse, with the latter occurring where there is an expectation of trust and/or where there is a power imbalance between the party responsible and the older person (Kaspiew et al. 2019).

How common is family, domestic and sexual violence?

The most recent ABS PSS in 2016 provides an estimate of the number of Australians who have been victims of family, domestic and sexual violence. While every experience of family, domestic or sexual violence is very personal and different, it is most common for this type of violence to be perpetrated against women, by men. There is currently no national data on the proportion of Australians who have perpetrated family, domestic and sexual violence.

This infographic shows that in 2016 1 in 6 women and 1 in 16 men had experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or previous partner since the age of 15. This infographic shows that in 2016 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men had experienced emotional abuse by a current or previous partner since the age of 15. This infographic shows that in 2016 1 in 5 women and 1 in 21 men had experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

Source: ABS 2017b 

Physical and/or sexual family and domestic violence

Results from the 2016 PSS show that an estimated 3.6 million Australian adults (20% of the population) reported experiencing physical and/or sexual family and domestic violence since the age of 15. It is estimated that of all Australian adults:

  • 11.8% (2.2 million) had experienced violence from a partner.
  • 5.1% (935,000) had experienced violence from a boyfriend, girlfriend or date.
  • 6.6% (1.2 million) had experienced violence from another family member.

Partner violence remained relatively stable between 2005 and 2016.

Emotional abuse by a partner

In the 2016 PSS, it was more common for Australians to report having ever experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner (15%) than a current partner (5.7%) since the age of 15. Conversely, emotional abuse in the last 12 months, was more common amongst current partners (3.0%) than previous partners (1.6%). Between 2012 and 2016 there was an increase in the proportion of women (from 2.5% to 3.2%) and men (from 1.5% to 2.9%) who experienced emotional abuse by a current partner.

Sexual violence

An estimated 2.2 million Australians (12% of the population) reported experiences of sexual violence (threat and/or assault) since the age of 15. It is estimated that of all Australian adults:

  • 5.3% (966,700) had experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner since the age of 15.
  • 6.4% (1.2 million) had experienced sexual violence from another known person.
  • 3.1% (564,000) had experienced sexual violence from a stranger.

Women were more likely to be victims than men across all types of perpetrator relationships. Prevalence of sexual violence against women was highest for women in the 18–24 year age group (5.9%), with prevalence decreasing as age increased. The proportion of women who experienced sexual violence increased between 2012 and 2016 (from 1.2% to 1.8%).

Based on the 2016 PSS, over 1 in 2 (53% or 5 million) women and 1 in 4 (25% or 2.2 million) men had experienced sexual harassment (indecent phone calls, text messages, emails or social media posts; indecent exposure; inappropriate comments; and unwanted sexual touching) in their lifetime (ABS 2017b).

Other forms of violence and abuse

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 stalking. Technology can facilitate abuse and has become an important consideration in these types of violence.

Stalking is classified as unwanted behaviours (such as following or unwanted contact) that occur more than once and cause fear or distress and is considered a crime in every state and territory of Australia (ABS 2017b). Based on the 2016 PSS, 1 in 6 (17% or 1.6 million) women and slightly over 1 in 16 (6.5% or 587,000) men had experienced stalking since the age of 15.

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.

For more detail, see:

Family, domestic and sexual violence during the COVID-19 pandemic

Since early 2020, there has been concern about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on family, domestic and sexual violence. The impacts of a pandemic can be wide-ranging and situational stressors, such as victims and perpetrators spending more time together, or increased financial or economic hardship, can be associated with increased severity or frequency of violence (Payne et al. 2020). Pandemics can also affect the ‘responses’ to violence – the actions taken after an incident of violence has occurred.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) explored intimate partner violence experienced by women in Australia in the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic from February 2020. Select key findings from the online survey of more than 10,000 women are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Intimate partner violence experienced by women in Australia during the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic

 

Physical violence Sexual violence Emotionally abusive, harassing and controlling behaviours

Overall prevalence of intimate partner violence (a)

9.6%

7.6%

32%

Experienced intimate partner violence for the first time (a)

3.4%

3.2%

18%

Reported that intimate partner violence had increased in frequency or severity (a, b)

42%

43%

40%

a) Of women who had been in a relationship longer than 12 months.

b) Of women who had a history of violence from their current or most recent partner.

Source: Boxall and Morgan 2021.

Many women did not seek help during the COVID-19 pandemic

Over 1 in 4 women (26%) who had experienced physical or sexual violence in the 12 months before the survey said they had been unable to seek assistance on at least one occasion due to safety concerns (Boxall and Morgan 2021).

See also AIHW’s Family, domestic and sexual violence service responses in the time of COVID-19.

For more information on how the pandemic has affected Australians in the context of longer-term trends, See ‘Chapter 2 Changes in the health of Australians during the COVID-19 period’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights

What influences family, domestic and sexual violence?

Social attitudes and norms shape the context in which violence occurs. The National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) in 2017 indicated that most Australians reject attitudes supportive of violence against women and have a good understanding of violence against women.

While results were generally encouraging, some findings were concerning and highlight areas for improvement. Select estimates from the NCAS are summarised below.

Attitudes supportive of violence against women

  • Almost 1 in 3 (32%) Australians believed that women who do not leave their abusive partners are partly responsible for violence continuing.
  • Over 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 (20%) Australians believed violence is a normal reaction to day-to-day stress.
  • Over 1 in 5 (21%) Australians agreed that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to (Webster et al. 2018).

Understanding of violence against women

  • Over 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.
  • Almost 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).

For more detail see:

Who is at risk of family, domestic and sexual violence?

Family, domestic and sexual violence occurs across all ages and demographics. However, some groups are more vulnerable than others because they are at greater risk or because the impacts and outcomes of violence can be more serious or long-lasting.

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:

Notes

a) Respondents reporting more than one type of violence and/or more than one perpetrator group (family or non-family) will be counted once in each discrete group. Respondents reporting more than one perpetrator type in the same perpetrator group (e.g. parent and step parent) will be counted once in that group.

b) Family includes parent, step-parent, sibling, step-sibling and other relative or in-law.

Source: ABS 2017b

For more detail, see:

Child protection services

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 2020–21:

  • 178,800 Australian children (32 per 1,000) received child protection services.
  • Infants aged less than one were most likely (40 per 1,000) to receive child protection services and adolescents aged 15–17 were least likely (26 per 1,000).
  • Emotional abuse, including exposure to family violence, was the most common primary type of abuse, identified in 55% (27,200 children) of substantiated cases (substantiations). Neglect was the primary type of abuse in 21% (10,600 children) of cases, physical abuse in 14% (6,900 children) and sexual abuse in 10% (4,800 children).
  • Similar proportions of girls and boys were the subjects of substantiations for physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. However, girls were more likely to be the subject of substantiations for sexual abuse (71% of sexual abuse substantiations) (AIHW 2022).

The rate of children who were the subject of substantiations remained fairly stable in the 5 years to 30 June 2021, however the rate of children who were the subject of notifications has increased from 43 per 1,000 in 2016–17 to 52 per 1,000 in 2020–21.

Data on child protection services during the first 7 months after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic (March to September 2020) can be found in Child protection in the time of COVID-19.

Women

More women than men experience family, domestic and sexual violence. Table 2 shows the proportion of people aged 18 and over who experienced violence from a previous or current partner since the age of 15.

Table 2: 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 2017b.

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 with an estimated:

  • 1 in 25 (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 25 (4.3% or 125,000) women aged 18–34 experienced sexual violence, compared with 0.7% (45,000) aged 35 and over (ABS 2017b).

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 2017b).

Other at-risk groups

Other social and cultural factors can also increase the risk of experiencing family, domestic and sexual violence. In some cases, these factors may overlap or combine to create an even greater risk. Additional factors that can increase the risk of violence include remoteness and socioeconomic area of residence, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and 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 on the prevalence of family, domestic and sexual violence across select population groups, see:

What services or support do those who have experienced family, domestic and sexual violence use?

Responses to family, domestic and sexual violence are provided informally in the community and formally through justice systems, and treatment and support services.

The 2016 PSS found that there were differences in propensity to seek help, advice or support following partner violence depending on partner status and victim sex:

This infographic shows that in 2016 1 in 14 adults had experienced physical abuse by a family member before the age of 15 and 1 in 30 adults had experienced sexual abuse by a family member before the age of 15. This infographic shows that in 2016 women were more likely to seek advice or support following partner violence than men, and that this is true for previous and current partner violence.

Source: ABS 2017b

Similarly, estimates indicate that more females (50% or 316,900) than males (28% or 20,900) sought help, advice or support after the most recent incident of sexual assault by a male perpetrator. The 2016 PSS also found that for 87% (553,900) of most recent incident of sexual assaults against women by men, the police were not contacted.

See also: Help sought after sexual assault and Sexual assault reported to police in Family, domestic and sexual violence data in Australia web report.

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).

Since 2011, the number of sexual assault victims recorded by police has increased each year (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).

For more detail, see:

Homelessness services

People accessing specialist homelessness services (SHS) may need support due to family and domestic violence. Data cannot currently distinguish between victims and perpetrators of violence.

In 2020–21, SHS agencies assisted around 116,200 clients (42% of all SHS clients) who had experienced domestic and family violence. Of these 116,200 clients:

  • Over 3 in 4 (77% or 88,900) clients were female; and of the 23,600 aged 25–34, more than 9 in 10 (92% or 21, 700) were female.
  • 4 in 10 (40%)of those aged 10 and over also had a current mental health issue.
  • Over 1 in 10 (12% or 10,700) of those aged 10 and over had problematic drug and/or alcohol use.
  • 1 in 50 (2.1%) clients were living with disability.

See also Homelessness and homelessness services and Specialist homelessness services clients who have experienced family and domestic violence in AIHW’s Family, domestic and sexual violence data in Australia.

Hospitalisations

Hospitals provide health services for individuals who have experienced assault, including those whose hospitalised assault case (hospitalisation) is a result of family or domestic violence. These data do not include presentations to emergency departments and will relate to more severe (and mostly physical) experiences of family and domestic violence. Only those assault hospitalisations where the perpetrator is coded as being a family member (including spouse or domestic partner) can be identified, consequently these data may underestimate family and domestic assault hospitalisations.

In 2019-20, more than 3 in 10 (35% or 7,600) assault hospitalisations were due to family and domestic violence.

Of all family and domestic assault hospitalisations in 2019–20:

  • 73% (5,600) were female and 27% (2,000) were male.
  • 63% (4,800) had the perpetrator reported as a spouse or domestic partner.
  • 37% (2,800) had the perpetrator reported as a parent or other family member.

See also Injury in Australia, Hospital care, Examination of hospital stays due to family and domestic violence 2010-11 to 2018-19 and Hospitalisations for family and domestic violence in Family, domestic and sexual violence data in Australia.

1800RESPECT

1800RESPECT is Australia’s national telephone and online counselling and support service for people affected by family, domestic and sexual violence, their family and friends and frontline workers. In 2020-21, 1800RESPECT responded to 286,546 telephone and online contacts (These numbers include every contact to the service including disconnections, pranks and wrong numbers).

See also 1800RESPECT contacts in Family, domestic and sexual violence data in Australia.

What are the consequences of family, domestic and sexual violence?

Burden of disease

Burden of disease refers to the quantified impact of living with and dying prematurely from a disease or injury.

The Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018 estimated the impact of various diseases, injuries and risk factors on total burden of disease for the Australian population. For women aged 15 to 44 years, intimate partner violence was ranked as the fourth leading risk factor for total disease burden, and child abuse & neglect was the leading risk factor. Child abuse & neglect was ranked third for men in the same age group (AIHW 2021a).

In 2018, intimate partner violence contributed to:

  • 228 deaths (0.3% of all deaths among females) in Australia
  • 1.4% of the total burden of disease and injury among Australian women.

Total burden attributable to intimate partner violence:

Note: Burden estimated in females only.

Source: AIHW 2021a, AIHW 2021b.

In 2018, child abuse and neglect contributed to:

  • 813 deaths (0.5% of all deaths) in Australia
  • 2.2% of the total burden of disease and injury.

Total burden attributable to child abuse and neglect:

Source: AIHW 2021a, AIHW 2021b.

See also: Burden of disease and Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia.

Long-term health impacts

Findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health demonstrated that women who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were more likely to have poor general health and to experience depression and bodily pain, compared with those who had not experienced sexual abuse during childhood (Coles et al. 2018). Women who had experienced childhood sexual or emotional or physical abuse had higher long-term primary, allied, and specialist health care costs in adulthood, compared with women who had not had these experiences during childhood (Loxton et al. 2018).

Deaths

Between July 2019 and 30 June 2020, the AIC’s National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP) recorded 86 domestic homicide victims from 81 domestic homicide incidents (see Glossary for definitions). Data from the NHMP are from police and coronial records (Serpell et al. 2022).

Of all domestic homicide victims, 69% (59) were female. Of all female victims of domestic homicide, 61% (36) were killed by an intimate partner. For male victims of domestic homicide, 37% (10) were killed by an intimate partner.

In 2019–20, the rate of domestic homicides was 0.32 per 100,000 – the second lowest annual rate (2017–18 and 2018–19 both 0.30 per 100,000) since the collection began in 1989–90 (Serpell et al. 2022).

A recent report, Examination of hospital stays due to family and domestic violence 2010–11 to 2018–19, found that people who had had a family and domestic violence hospitalisation were 10 times as likely to die due to assault, 3 times as likely to die due to accidental poisoning or liver disease, and 2 times as likely to die due to suicide, as a comparison group (AIHW 2021b).

Further data on domestic homicides can be obtained from ABS Recorded Crime - Victims. See also Causes of death.

Where do I go for more information?

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

Visit Family, domestic and sexual violence for more on this topic.

For information, support and counselling contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit the 1800RESPECT website.