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Who is perpetrating domestic, sexual and family violence?

Some 1.6 million women (17%) and 548,000 men (6.1%) in Australia aged 15 or older have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous cohabiting partner. This means significant proportions of the population in Australia have perpetrated domestic or sexual violence.

There are no national Australian data on people’s perpetration of domestic or sexual violence. While we have good data on violence victimisation, we know far less about violence perpetration.

The State of Knowledge Report on Violence Perpetration, released today, reviews the current data and research on who perpetrates domestic, family, and sexual violence, how, and why, in order to enhance national efforts to end this violence. Here’s what it found.

Data from victims and police

One of the consistent findings from victimisation data, legal system data, and survey self-reports is that most violence is perpetrated by men.

Among all people in Australia who have suffered violence, nearly all have experienced violence from a male perpetrator (95% of male victims and 94% of female victims). Around one quarter of all victims have experienced violence from a female perpetrator (28% of male victims and 24% of female victims).

The vast majority of perpetrators of homicide in Australia – 87% – are male. Three-quarters (75%) of all victims of domestic violence reported the perpetrator as male and 25% reported the perpetrator as female. Among all victims of sexual violence aged 15 or older, six times as many people reported violence by a male perpetrator as by a female perpetrator.

As most victims do not formally report to authorities, police and legal data are limited sources of information on perpetration. Police data tend to capture only the most severe cases, legal definitions vary across Australia, and existing data are shaped by the over-policing of First Nations and ethnic minority communities.

Man and woman holding hands
Most perpetrators of violence are male and most victims are female. Shutterstock

Self-report data

Another stream of data comes from surveys in which people report on their own use of violent behaviours. A key issue here is that most self-reported data on domestic violence relies only on asking individuals if they or their partners have ever committed any violent acts from a specified list (slapping, kicking, punching, and so on).

Popular measures such as the Conflict Tactics Scale do not also ask about severity, frequency, impact (injury or fear), intent, whether the acts were in self-defence, or their history and context. They omit sexual violence, stalking, other violent acts, and violence after separation.

Much self-reported data on domestic violence do not measure the pattern of power and control exerted by an individual over their intimate partner or former partner, although many researchers and advocates see this as defining domestic violence.

Studies of domestic violence that use the Conflict Tactics Scales or other similar, acts-based measures tend to find males and females perpetrate aggression against intimate partners at similar rates, or in some instances that women report higher rates of perpetration than men.

Such studies also often find substantial proportions of people have used at least one type of aggression or abuse against a partner. For example, in a US study among university students, 18% of men and 34% of women reported perpetrating physical aggression towards their partners and 98% of both men and women reported perpetrating psychological aggression.

Apparent findings that men and women are using domestic violence at similar rates must be interpreted with caution, for four reasons.

First, most studies are just “counting the blows”, measuring any use of a set list of violent acts. They may lead to false positives or over-reporting, including of harmless and innocuous behaviours.

Second, there is evidence men are less likely than women to report their own use of violence.

Third, women’s violence is more often in self-defence than men’s.

And fourth, even where overall rates of the use of various violent acts are similar among males and females, males’ use of violence typically is more frequent, severe, fear-inducing, injurious, and harmful than females’ use of violence.

Gender contrasts in rates of perpetration are far stronger for sexual violence. Boys and young men have significantly higher rates of sexual violence perpetration than girls and young women, as documented in reviews of studies among teenagers and young people.

Significant numbers of males have perpetrated sexual violence. For example, close to one-third (29%) of men at universities in the USA and Canada reported having perpetrated sexual violence. In a multi-country self-report study in the Asia-Pacific, proportions of men reporting they had perpetrated some form of rape against a woman or girl ranged from 10% to 62%.


Read more: Pregnant women are at increased risk of domestic violence in all cultural groups


Perpetrators in society

People’s use of violence often starts young. Substantial proportions of adolescents perpetrate dating violence against their intimate partners and ex-partners. US studies find the average age of first perpetration of sexual violence by males is 16.

Few perpetrators are held to account for their crimes. The vast majority of perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence do not ever come to the attention of police or legal systems.

Perpetration is driven by risk factors at the individual, relationship, and community levels. Prevention efforts must address childhood exposure to domestic and family violence, violent and sexist norms, peers’ condoning of violence, community disadvantage, and other factors.

We need to know far more about perpetrators and perpetration. We need national data on the extent and character of people’s use of domestic and sexual violence. We need well-designed methods that capture the character, breadth, severity, impact, and contexts of violence perpetration. We need research on female and LGBT perpetrators and on diverse forms of violence. We need to know more about the risk and protective factors that either feed into perpetration or protect against it.

Without this information we do not know where best to target interventions against perpetration effectively, when to intervene early, and whether Australia’s efforts to reduce the use of violence are making progress.


Read more: Women who suffer domestic violence fare much worse financially after separating from their partner: new data


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