Australians' attitudes towards violence against women


Speech by Dr Michael Flood, launch of VicHealth’s report, National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women 2013, Melbourne, September 17, 2014.

Note that VicHealth’s public report on its national survey, plus an 8-page summary and the media release which accompanied the launch, are attached below. I have also attached two pieces outlining the factors which shape attitudes towards violence against women, a journal article and the longer report which it summarises.



I was delighted to be able to contribute to the NCAS report. And full credit has to go to VicHealth, other researchers, and others in the violence prevention and women’s sectors for their work on this groundbreaking research.

I want to start by stepping back from the detail, to say: Attitudes matter.

Attitudes matter in several ways.

First, attitudes shape the perpetration of violence, the doing of violence. At an individual level, when a man abuses or rapes or harasses a woman, often he does so in part because of his attitudes. He believes that his use of violence is acceptable, or normal, or excusable, or fun, or not violence at all. At a community level, violence against women is more common in communities with violence-supportive attitudes.

Attitudes also shape victimisation. If a woman agrees with violence-supportive attitudes, she is more likely to blame herself for the assault, less likely to seek help or report it to the police, and more likely to suffer long-term distress and harm. And if a woman thinks that the people around her hold violence-supportive attitudes, she is less likely to disclose or report the violence.

Attitudes shape the responses of others. Friends and family with violence-supportive attitudes show less sympathy or support for victims and are less likely to intervene. They care less, and they do less. The same is true of doctors, social workers, police, and jurors.

Now, attitudes aren’t the only problem. Gender inequalities are central. When a man abuses or rapes a woman, he does so in part because he can – he already has power over her in other ways, and he is already putting her down, controlling her movements and dress and behaviour, and getting his needs put first. In other words, their relationship is already unequal, and his violence both reflects and maintains that inequality.

When a man abuses or rapes a woman, he does so in part because he lives or works in a context or a community based on male dominance, on traditional gender codes, or high levels of other forms of violence.

When a man rapes a woman, he does so in part because he, and she, live in a culture which tells them that men are entitled to access to women’s bodies, that women can’t be trusted, and that men should be strong and forceful.

Still, attitudes matter. Attitudes shape wider social norms and cultures. Through their direct influence on people’s behaviour, and through their indirect influence on culture, attitudes make a difference.

Attitudes help us tell the temperature of this country when it comes to violence against women. So, how are we doing?

Australians’ attitudes to violence against women

Most Australians have a good knowledge of violence against women.

Most Australians recognise that violence against women includes a wide range of behaviours designed to intimidate and control women: forcing a partner to have sex, threatening to hurt others, or other ways of scaring or controlling a partner. Most, although lower proportions (around 85%), also recognise other behaviours as forms of violence: repeatedly criticising a partner, controlling their contact with family and friends, and so on.

Most Australians also see these behaviours as serious – as worthy of community concern and government action.

People’s understanding of the gendered character of domestic violence has weakened. People in the 2013 survey were less likely than people in the earlier surveys to recognise the reality that domestic violence between adults is more often by men than by women, and less likely to recognise that when women and men experience domestic violence, female victims have higher levels of physical harm and of fear than male victims.

Far too many people, more than 3 out of 5 (64%), think that domestic violence is caused mainly by men being unable to manage their anger, and that’s just wrong.


The good news is that very few Australians think that violence against women can be justified. Only 4 to 6% agree that there are circumstances where it is legitimate for a man to use violence against his wife or girlfriend.

But, sizeable numbers do think that there are circumstances where this violence can be excused – where the person using violence has less responsibility for it, or where the violence is seen as the result of external factors. For example, about 1 in 5 people agrees that domestic violence can be excused if a person gets so angry that they lose control, or if the violent person regrets it.

There are some other, really troubling findings here. A fair number of Australians are happy to blame the victim, the woman who is raped – because she was drunk, or went with him (19% and 12% respectively). Close to half (43%) of Australians believe that ‘rape results from men not being able to control their need for sex’. Around half (41-53%) believe the lie that women often make false allegations of rape or domestic violence. Over three-quarters (78%) agree that ‘it is hard to understand why women stay’.

When it comes to people’s responses to violence, again there is good news and bad. Nearly everyone would intervene if a woman they knew was being assaulted by their partner, and most if it was an unknown woman (98% and 92% respectively). But only about half (57%) would know where to get help for a domestic violence problem.

What about Australian’s attitudes towards gender? Australians generally are supportive of gender equality. Thank you feminism – we owe you. But one-fifth to one-quarter think that men should be in charge in relationships, in control of relationships. That’s a real worry, because the more support that people have for male dominance in relationships, the more support they have for violence in those relationships.

The scorecard

So here is the scorecard. Australians know something about violence. We are aware of the wide range of physical and non-physical behaviours that are often part of domestic violence. But we don’t know much about its impact, so we struggle for example to know why women stay. We have the wrong idea about why this violence happens, blaming anger or sex drive or intoxication rather than gender inequalities. We are too willing to excuse domestic violence. We blame the victim. We still see women as liars. We see men as lust-driven pigs who can’t be held responsible for their sexual behaviour. We say we would intervene in violence, but we don’t necessarily know where to get help.

Two bigger messages

Beyond the detail of these findings, there are three bigger messages to highlight.

First, the problem of men’s violence against women is not the problem of a tiny minority, not the problem of some marginal subset of the Australian population. Instead, this violence is sustained by attitudes which are relatively common, relatively normal, particularly among men.

Second, we are not just talking about attitudes, about what is inside men’s and women’s heads. We have to talk about culture – about norms and values in families and communities and workplaces, about the ways women and men are portrayed in media, about common ways of understanding sex and relationships and gender roles which circulate among young people in school, men in singlets and men in suits, and others.

If we focus on rape for a moment, there is no doubt that, in some ways, we live in a rape culture. We live in a culture where the beliefs and attitudes that support and excuse the rape of girls and women, and yes the rape of boys and men too, are all too common. Rape culture is victim-blaming. Rape culture is pervasive myths about rape that bear no relationship to the actual evidence. Rape culture is media which treats sexuality as violent and violence as sexy. Rape culture is telling girls and women in a thousand different ways to try to avoid being raped, while doing little to tell rapists to stop raping.

Third, these attitudes and this culture can be changed. These attitudes are not fixed in stone. Yes, there has been progress in shifting the myths, the dangerous ideas which feed into domestic violence and sexual violence. This progress did not happen by accident, by itself. No, it happened because women, and men, got together and worked for change. Progress happened because of activism and advocacy, because of education and communication, and because of legal and policy reform.

What next?

So, how much progress have we made towards a violence-free society? Well, we’ve made some.

The only way that we will build a society based on non-violence, gender equality, and respect is if communities, governments, and individual women and men step up, taking action and making change.