In the early 1990s in Australia, a significant change occurred in the response to violence against women. Building on the feminist movement of the preceding decades, a new undertaking began, with the delivery of programs aiming to address the violence of men against their female partners. Variously called perpetrator programs, men’s behaviour change programs, or programs for men who use violence, the early instigators and providers of these programs committed to working in partnership across the traditional divide of services working with the victims of domestic violence, and those concerned with the men who use violence. The foundation of this ground swell was the location of responsibility with men for the violence used against women.
In the field of sexual assault, the treatment of sex offenders has been historically driven by a medical model combined with legal responses – this is not surprising given the perception of sex offenders as social deviants and the moral outrage that accompanies sex offences. While sex offender intervention programs continue to be primarily based within the criminal justice system, they have also increasingly incorporated the feminist paradigm in program content.
The purpose of this literature review is to provide an overview of the estimated incidence and prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault in Australia, and the socio-demographic characteristics of perpetrators. Importantly, this literature review identified evaluations of domestic and sexual violence perpetrator intervention programs that have been undertaken nationally and internationally to describe the evidence regarding program effectiveness. This review also includes an analysis of the nature and extent of current research on intervention programs, and identifies research gaps, needs and priorities for future research.
The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan) was developed by the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments to achieve real and sustained reductions in the incidence of violence against women. The aim of the National Plan is to bring about attitudinal and behavioural change at the cultural, institutional and individual levels, with a particular focus on young people. The National Plan is unprecedented in its preventive focus through awareness-raising, building respectful relationships amongst young people and working to increase gender equality. It sets out six national outcomes for all governments to deliver during the next 12 years, through four three-year action plans.
This literature review has particular relevance for Outcome 6 (Perpetrators stop their violence and are held to account) of the National Plan, which focuses on developing strategies and implementing actions to hold perpetrators accountable and reduce the risk of recidivism, and early intervention. Critical actions identified in the National Plan to reduce the risk of recidivism include developing evidence-based best practice domestic violence programs, and establishing and monitoring national minimum standards for programs to ensure adherence to evidence-based best practice.
In undertaking this literature review, there was a focus on existing literature reviews, recent meta-analyses of empirical studies of domestic and sexual assault perpetrator intervention programs, and single studies and key discussion papers that address particular issues (e.g., evaluation methodology, elements of intervention program design and delivery).
The findings of this literature review indicate that, overall, there is mixed evidence regarding the effectiveness of domestic and sexual violence perpetrator intervention programs. The evidence supporting program effectiveness, particularly in relation to gendered cognitive-behavioural approaches, appears to be more consistent for sex offender intervention programs than domestic violence perpetrator intervention programs. Recent evidence points to the need to match programs to offender characteristics (e.g., risk, motivation, need), an important part of which is the initial screening and assessment process, which requires reliable and valid screening and assessment tools. However, it is unclear whether current research evidence, which is largely based on the North American context, are applicable to the Australian context, as very few evaluations have been conducted in Australia and those evaluations that have been undertaken have significant methodological limitations.
The question of ‘what works for whom’ remains largely unclear and research is still at an early stage in terms of identifying what program components are effective in reducing recidivism. It is clear, however, that a multitude of factors, such as those associated with program characteristics, program contexts, and evaluation research design, can influence the effectiveness of intervention programs.
Based on the status of current research, there is a need for future research to enhance the quality of program evaluations, assess the generalisability of international findings to the Australian context, and to identify strategies that improve the capacity of intervention programs to reach and engage both convicted and non-convicted perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence, across socio-demographic groups and geographic locations.
1.1Purpose of the literature review
The primary purpose of this literature review is to describe the evidence regarding the effectiveness of domestic and sexual violence perpetrator intervention programs by drawing on current national and international evaluation research. In doing so, this literature review also provides an analysis of the nature and extent of current research on intervention programs to identify research gaps, needs and priorities for future research. As part of this review, an overview of the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault in Australia and the socio-demographic characteristics of perpetrators are presented.
The literature review addresses the following key research questions:
What is the estimated figure of incidence and prevalence for domestic violence and sexual assault? How many perpetrators are there, what is their demographic composition, and what are their social characteristics?
What evaluations have been undertaken in Australia regarding the effectiveness of domestic violence and sexual assault perpetrator interventions?
What are the findings of these evaluations in terms of what approaches are effective and with whom? What are the strengths and limitations of different treatment models? And what is their transferability to other perpetrator groups?
What additions does international literature make to our analysis?
According to the literature, what are the key issues/elements which should be included in national good practice standards?
What are the primary gaps within contemporary research? What priority areas need to be targeted for future research?
The primary focus of the review is on Australian literature. However, overseas literature (particularly from the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand) is referred to for comparative purposes where it is useful to do so.