WESNET BLOG, MAY 2023
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently released the results from the 2021-22 Personal Safety Survey (PSS). The PSS represents the most authoritative source of population-based data – in terms of sampling size and reputation – about Australians’ experiences of violence.
It is relied upon by governments and the community to measure where violence happens, to whom, and by whom. And it informs the development of programs and policies and the allocation of resources. Importantly – when run at regular intervals – it also provides insight into whether the prevalence of violence is changing over time.
In this respect, the meaningful information is in the detail and not in the headline figures run by the ABS. The data items highlighted by the ABS, and picked up by the media, told a story that both women and men experience violence, but men experience it more, and that rates of cohabiting partner violence have decreased.
These assertions need significant unpacking if they are to be useful for the purposes they are intended: to identify the real problems; and to address them.
Do men experience more violence than women?
The ABS media release headlined with ‘We found 43 per cent of men and 39 per cent of women have experienced either physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.’
Simply unpacking sexual violence finds that it is overwhelmingly experienced by women: 20 per cent of women – or one in five – have experienced a sexual assault since the age of 15, compared to one in twenty men (5 per cent).
While it is true that non-sexual physical violence is experienced more by men (34 per cent compared to 27 per cent for women) since the age of 15 at the aggregate level – it is true in only one domain. Twenty-four per cent of men have experienced a physical assault by a stranger, compared to 5 per cent of women.
In contrast, 28 per cent of women have experienced a physical assault from a person known to them, compared to 24 per cent of men. Fourteen per cent of women, compared to 5 per cent of men, have experienced a physical assault from a cohabiting partner of the opposite sex. (1)
Women are 3 times more likely to have been physically assaulted by a male partner than a man by a female partner. (2) Men are more likely to be physically assaulted by a male neighbour or acquaintance than they are by a female partner.
Has cohabiting partner violence decreased?
The ABS highlighted that the rate of cohabiting partner violence for women in the twelve months preceding the survey had declined from 1.7 per cent (2016 PSS) to 0.9 per cent (2021 PSS).
The PSS has been held in 2005, 2012, 2016 and 2021. Trends or a sustained decrease would need to be viewed over the life course of the survey, not just from one survey to the next. The rate of cohabiting partner violence in the twelve months preceding the survey in the earlier surveys was 1.5 per cent (2005), 1.5 per cent (2012), 1.7 per cent (2016) and 0.9 per cent (2021).
This is promising, but particularly given the unique nature of 2021 and the potential impacts of Covid-19 responses and other disasters, no firm conclusions can be drawn until after future surveys.
What is the biggest takeaway?
The biggest story revealed by the PSS – which is no surprise to people working in the health, justice, education or community services sectors – is men’s violence.
While data continues to highlight victimhood – which is essential in terms of designing and resourcing services aimed at responding to violence – flipping the data to focus on perpetrators reveals the stark truth. It’s all about men. This makes clear where prevention, intervention, and cultural change programs need to focus.
- 91 per cent of people experiencing a sexual assault since they were 15 were assaulted by a man.
- 90 per cent of people experiencing physical violence since they were 15 experienced it from a man.
- 89 per cent of people experiencing sexual harassment since they were 15 were harassed by a man.
- 84 per cent of people experiencing stalking since they were 15 were stalked by a man.
The other big story is that no data can be taken in isolation. The PSS provides prevalence data – that is, if or how often people experience violence. Disaggregation is provided on the basis of binary sex – where this is sufficiently reliable – but not in relation to other important dimensions of identity such as race, ethnicity, ability, gender diversity or sexuality.
Critically, the PSS does not collect data relating to the seriousness or impact of the violence. According to Australian Institute of Criminology data (Table A34), in 2019-20, 258 people were murdered.
- Two hundred and twenty-six (226) people were murdered by men, and 32 were murdered by women.
- In terms of intimate partner homicide, men murdered 36 female partners and 2 male partners; women murdered 6 male partners and no female partners.
While the PSS data finds that women are 3 times more likely to have been physically assaulted by a male partner than a man by a female partner, the AIC data finds that in the year 2019-20, women were 6 times more likely to be murdered, by their opposite sex partner, than men. Women or girls are also significantly more likely than men or boys to be killed by a parent, child, sibling or other relative.
Women clearly experience the most extreme forms of violence from men more than men do from women, but to better understand the gendered dimensions of violence, it would also be important to look at other data, including in relation to hospitalisations, medical presentations, domestic and family violence reports, episodes of care provided by domestic and family violence services, and victim misidentification data.
While all forms of violence are unacceptable, there is no running away from the fact that violence against women is gendered and that it is steeped in power differentials and the inequalities that exist across the community. The status and experiences of women and girls need to be considered and measured across all elements of how we live – including in relation to climate change, the economy, the welfare system, employment, childcare, education and housing – to track progress towards equality.
The PSS is a very important tool in the arsenal of data collection and research being done regarding violence in all its forms. It is identified by the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children as a key evaluation mechanism, and ongoing support by governments of the PSS is essential.
That said, it does – like most data collections – have inherent limitations. These limitations must be recognised by policymakers and the media – and augmented by other sources of data – if the real story of violence against women is to be told and if it is to be successfully addressed.
- Comparative same-sex data was not considered sufficiently reliable by the ABS for inclusion.
- ‘Cohabiting partner’ is used here rather than ‘intimate partner’ (which includes girl/boyfriends and dates) because ABS determined that IPV data was unreliable in this context.