In Australia, apart from official crime statistics, the primary sources of information on the prevalence of domestic violence are personal safety and victim surveys.
The most recent Personal Safety Survey (ABS, 2006a) estimates that for one-third of women, physical violence has been an experience within their lifetime. The International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004) found that almost 57% of women surveyed reported experiencing at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, 48% of whom experienced physical violence.
In the 12 months prior to the Personal Safety Survey (2005) (ABS, 2005), 363,000 women were physically assaulted (4.6% of survey participants). The ABS (2005) reported 2.1% (160,100 persons) of women had experienced violence from a current domestic partner, and 15% (1,135,500) reported violence from a previous partner.
Of all reported instances of physical violence against women, approximately 31% were committed by a previous or current partner (ABS, 2006a; Mouzos & Makkai, 2004, p. 44). According to the IVAWS (Mouzos & Makkai,, 2004, p.44), 34% of women who have ever been in a relationship reported at least one incidence of violence during the course of their relationship.
The Women’s Safety Survey (1996)3 (ABS, 1996) estimated that 20% of women who were physically assaulted by a man sought professional help. Doctors and counsellors (9% and 13% respectively) were most commonly sought by women for professional assistance. Similar data are not available for perpetrators – there is no equivalent national study regarding what help, if any, treatment or support (non-convicted) perpetrators seek in relation to their offending behaviour.
There are very few sources of criminal justice statistics available from which to approximate the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence. National recorded crime statistics for victims of assaults are not available owing to the lack of comparability in data collected across States and Territories (ABS, 2011). The ABS (2011) recommends using the Personal or Women’s Safety Survey for national estimates and cross-jurisdictional comparisons.
Sexual assault is a crime disproportionately experience by females (84%) versus male victims (15%) (ABS, 2006, 2010).
2.3.1Personal safety data
According to the Personal Safety Survey (2005) (ABS, 2006d), 1.6% of women had experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months (1.3% sexual assault and 0.5% sexual threats). Of the women who experienced sexual violence, 81% (101,600) experienced an incidence of sexual assault and 28% (34,900) experienced a threat of sexual assault. Since the age of 15 years, approximately 17% (1,293,100) of women experienced sexual assault compared to 4.8% (362,400) of men.
The highest percentage of sexual assaults were recorded for women aged 25 to 34 years (29.2%), followed by women aged 18 to 24 (28.2%), and 35 to 44 years (25.4%). Women aged 45 years and over were reported to be victims of sexual assault at a rate of approximately one in six (17.2%).
The decision by female victims of sexual assault to report cases to police appear to be informed by their relationship to the offender (ABS, 2006d). The Personal Safety Survey reported that 46.3% of women who were sexually assaulted by a stranger reported the incident to police. This is in stark contrast to levels of reporting where the perpetrator was a boyfriend or date (22.1%), current partner (18.2%), previous partner (35.7%), or other known male (25.5%) (ABS, 2006d).
2.3.2Criminal justice statistics
In 2010, according to recorded crime statistics, the Australian victimisation rate for sexual assault was 79.5 victims per 100,000 persons (ABS, 2011). The highest victimisation rates were recorded for sexual assault for persons aged 10 to14 years (40%) when compared to all other offences: 579 female victims, per 100,000 (compared with 144 female victims per 100,000 for other offences). These rates were more than four times higher than the overall male and female victimisation rates (ABS, 2011).
The age demographics for victims of sexual assault demonstrate the increased prevalence and incidence of sexual assault against younger persons – 40% of all sexual assault victims in 2009-2010 were aged between 0 and14 years and 37% were aged between15 to 24 years. The prevalence figures lower to 11% for those aged between 25 to 34 years.
Across all States and Territories4, in at least half of all sexual assaults, the perpetrator was known to the victim (ABS, 2010). In NSW, in 79% of sexual assault offences, the perpetrator was known by the victim, 39% of whom were in a familial relationship with the perpetrator. Similar figures are reported across other Australian States and Territories. Sexual assault, where the perpetrator and victim are in a familial relationship, represent approximately 30% of all sexual assault, as reported by crime and police statistics (ABS, 2010). Among non-Aboriginal victims of sexual assault, 19% were victimised by a stranger, compared with 10% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims (ABS, 2011).
In 2010, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in NSW were victims of sexual assault at almost four times the rate of non-Aboriginal people (304.3 victims per 100,000 persons compared to 76.7 victims per 100,000 persons) (ABS, 2011).
The true incidence of domestic violence and sexual assault is unknown and can only be estimated, owing to a high level of under-reporting. Estimates of the incidence of sexual assault and domestic violence are much higher in the personal safety and crime victim surveys compared to the official crime statistics. This highlights, for example, that convicted domestic violence and sexual assault perpetrators are likely to constitute only a very small proportion of all perpetrators.
Very little is known about the demographics and characteristics of perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault. There are significant gaps in both official criminal justice system data, and broader safety and victimisation surveys.
Females have disproportionately higher rates of victimisation of physical and sexual violence during their lifetime. This is particularly the case where perpetrators are known to victims, and even more so when perpetrators are in a familial relationship with victims.
Research indicates higher victimisation rates amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other vulnerable minority groups. To date, however, very little is known about the specific experiences of domestic violence and sexual assault amongst people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, rural populations, the elderly and disabled, male victims, and gay, lesbian, and transgender identities, although some women are more vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual assault than others5.