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Youth is a critical time for sexual development and for establishing models for early and future relationships. Jeffrey/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Young Australians’ views on domestic violence are cause for concern – but also hope

Young Australians are more likely to blame victims and excuse and minimise violence against women, according to the latest in a series of results from the 2014 National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey. The findings provide useful information about where we might invest in efforts to prevent domestic violence.

While it’s not all bad news, the results reveal disturbing trends in attitudes that are supportive of domestic violence and gender inequality. This is cause for grave concern given that, overall, in Australia one in three women experience violence in their lifetime. Specifically, one in five Australian women experience sexual violence, and one in six experience partner violence.

The Young Australian’s Attitudes towards Violence Against Women report presents findings from a subset of the national survey, with responses from 1,923 Australians aged 16 to 24. The full survey has been conducted periodically since 1995. This provides a benchmark for measuring changes in community attitudes to violence against women over time.

Understanding of violence against women

Consistent with the 2014 report on the survey, which presented findings for the community as a whole, 98% of young people recognise that physical partner violence is a serious matter and that it’s against the law. The majority (71%) also understand partner violence is perpetrated more often by men, and that women are most likely to be physically injured (87%). Most agree women shouldn’t have to sort out sexual harassment by themselves and that it’s not a woman’s duty to stay in a violent relationship.

All of this is important; research shows people with good knowledge of the extent and gendered nature of domestic violence are more likely to recognise violence, support victims and encourage action to prevent violence.

But a number of the survey results indicate young people are more likely than older Australians (between 35 and 64 years) to have concerning views about violence against women. Only 60% agree violence against women is common, for instance, compared with 71% of the 35-to-65-years age group

While the survey overall shows young people are more likely to hold attitudes that are supportive of domestic violence than older Australians, this is particularly true of young men. Mister G.C./Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Young people are also less likely than older Australians to recognise the harms of non-physical forms of violence, such as harassment, stalking and controlling behaviours. One in two young men (52%) agreed that tracking a partner electronically without their consent was acceptable to some degree – as did 40% of young women – compared to 35% of those aged between 35 and 64, who likewise minimise such behaviours.

These results may reflect the increased embedding of technology in everyday life. Nearly all 16- to 17-year-old Australians regularly use the internet, mobile phones and social media. This is changing how people in relationships communicate. Key stages of relationships have now moved online. Flirting, declarations of being “in a relationship”, as well as break-ups, are largely now done through or announced on social media.

The downside of the growth of communications technology is that it may be blurring the boundaries between increasingly normalised forms of “checking in”, with more serious forms of partner surveillance and stalking.

Excusing perpetrators and blaming victims

Today’s report finds one in four young people are prepared to excuse partner violence in a range of scenarios; 26% agree partner violence can be excused if the perpetrator regrets it afterwards, for instance. And 24% agree violence can be excused if the perpetrator was so angry they “lost control”.

Most young people (90%) don’t endorse being affected by alcohol as an excuse for perpetrating partner violence. But two in five agreed “rape results from men not being able to control their sexual urges”. This is a downward trend, given results from the 2009 national report showed the previous comparable figure was one in three.

More disturbingly, one in five believe that women often say no to sex when they mean yes. This demonstrates a poor understanding of the importance of mutuality and consent in sexual negotiations. Given young Australian women aged 16 to 24 are most at risk of sexual violence – and most often from male peers – these findings are cause for serious concern.

Decades of research, including by the World Health Organisation, has demonstrated attitudes supportive of violence are linked with broader views endorsing gender inequality. In other words, the less support people have for equal gender relations, the more likely they are to hold attitudes that minimise and excuse men’s violence towards women and blame the victims.

Young Australian women aged 16 to 24 are most at risk of sexual violence. Chris JL/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The survey found young people were overall supportive of gender equality in public roles, such as education and employment. But they were less likely to support gender equality in the private sphere; more than one in five young people (22%) agree men should take control for decision-making in relationships, for instance, compared with just 16% of older Australians. This finding is troubling since male dominance in relationships is a known risk factor for partner violence.

Preventing violence

It’s crucial prevention education programs work with young people before attitudes that are supportive of violence start to have an impact on their experiences, as they navigate what is a formative time of life. Youth is a critical time for sexual development and for establishing models for early and future relationships. And we know that 16- to 24-year-olds are at greatest risk of experiencing violence.

While the survey overall shows young people are more likely than older Australians to hold attitudes that are supportive of domestic violence, this is particularly true of young men. Clearly, there are gains to be made from investing in prevention and education work with young men in particular.

Framing prevention messages that encourage young men to change their own views and practices is vital. But we can also support young men to be active bystanders and challenge attitudes that are positive about domestic violence among their peers.

Prevention strategies must reach out to young people in settings that are influential in their lives and development. Messages challenging violence and promoting gender equality can be delivered not only through schools, for example, but through sports and recreation settings, as well as new media and popular culture. We must also ensure young people themselves are included in the development and delivery of prevention messages.

While today’s report highlights some disturbing trends, the fact is that, overall, most young people agree violence against women is a serious matter. Encouraging and supporting them to get involved and challenge problematic attitudes among their peers may be one of the greatest tools for preventing violence against women.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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