The Nature of Assault in Australia

Thousands of people are assaulted in Australia each year. The facts and figures regarding these crimes are commonly available but the full story regarding violence is complex and wide-reaching. There is not enough room here to discuss all aspects of the assault story. It isn’t possible to go into the differences in perception of assault, the reasons why some people are repeat offenders and repeat victims, why young people might commit assault more often than older people nor why relative poverty and alcohol use plays such a big part in the number of assaults in Australia. Here I will discuss the incidence of assault and whom the victims and perpetrators are. I shall touch on the basic costs of assault and some of the government initiatives put in place to curb the violence.

Lets start with some definitions. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines assault as, “The direct infliction of force, injury or violence upon a person, including attempts or threat.” (AIC, 2005).
Sexual assault, as defined by the ABS is, “Physical assault of a sexual nature, directed toward another person there that person: does not give consent; or gives consent as a result of intimidation or fraud; or is legally deemed incapable of giving consent because of youth or temporary/permanent incapacity. Sexual assault includes: rape, sexual assault, sodomy, buggery, oral sex, incest, carnal knowledge, unlawful sexual intercourse, indecent assault, and assault with intent to rape”(AIC, 2005).

It has been noted that the names given to any violence that occurs within a family has a bearing on the way the violence is perceived, the way it is reported and on the way the statistics are kept (WHW, 2002). During 1996, the Office of Status of Women commissioned the ABS to administer the ‘Women’s Safety in Australia Survey’. The results of the survey showed that terms such as ‘family violence’, ‘child abuse’ and ‘intimate partner violence’ had different meanings to different people and to some people the terms described unrelated incidents (WHW, 2002). Unless survey participants, the general public, health professionals and the police all have the same level of understanding of the terminology, how can assault ever be fully reported, regardless of the desire to report the crime (Goldsmith, Israel & Daly, 2003, pp 16-23).

Despite differences in understanding of the terminology, in Australia, crime figures are collected in a variety of ways and from several sources. Recorded crimes are generally those reported to the police. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) collects and publishes information and statistics on crime and they have eight major categories for this information, including assault and sexual assault. However there is no report on the incidence of assault and sexual assault, by the ABS, since 2004 as they had noticed that different scales of figures were kept by different organisations and that made the assault figures inconsistent with other collected information (AIC, 2005).

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), the vast majority of violent crimes are assault and consistently so. The AIC also note that the number of assaults and sexual assaults occurring and the number recorded has steadily and significantly increased in the last ten years (AIC, 2005; Chappell & Wilson, 2000, p88).

According to the AIC, figures published by the ABS before 2004 show that 39% of the recorded 2, 838 assaults in Australia occurred in homes, 22% on the streets, 9% in retail and community locations and only 4% of assaults occurred on transport.
Of the 704 recorded sexual assaults; 65% of the assaults occurred in homes, 7% on the streets, 9% in community locations and only 3% on transport, 5% at a recreational location and 3% in a retail location (AIC, 2005). However, sexual assault is the least reported of crimes and an estimated 94% of sexual assault crimes are not reported to police (WHW, 2002). There is not room here to discuss why an estimated so many sexual assaults aren’t reported nor why various sections of Australian society have different understandings of what constitutes sexual assault.

Though young men are most likely to be the perpetrators of crime (AIC, 2006; NCV, 1990), they are also more likely to be the victims of assault, but women are most often the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence (Graycar & Grabosky, 2002, p204; AIC 2006). For assault, the most vulnerable group of males are the 15-24 year olds and for sexual assault, in 82% of recorded crimes, the victims are female and the most likely age of victims is 10-14 years of age (AIC, 2006) The chances of being assaulted drops rapidly after you reach 40 years of age (NCV, 1990) and these findings don’t lend any support to the fear of assault, held by the elderly.
Figures taken from the ABS 2002 Crime and Safety Survey show that 66% of women had experienced at least one incident of sexual assault and 34% had experienced two or more incidents. In 58% of case, the perpetrator/s was/were known to the women.
One of the difficulties of interpreting the information is highlighted here. The women’s Safety Survey can only be administered to women aged 18 years and over. Whilst the survey reported that women aged 18-24 were the most vulnerable to sexual abuse, other information collected about reported crimes (AIC, 2006) shows that women in the 10 14 years age group, were most vulnerable.

Whilst it has been shown that young people more often commit property crimes, there has been an increase in the number of apprehensions for assault and violent crimes, by youths. O’Connor & Cameron (Graycar & Grabosky, 2002, p 226) found that in the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of assaults recorded against young people. In Victoria there has also been an increase in the number of robberies with violence, committed by young people.

In Australia the major contributor to assault, is alcohol (NCV, 1990) and in 1995 research by English et al showed that it wasn’t just perpetrators of assault who were intoxicated. According to the findings of Matthews, Chikritzhs, Catalano, Stockwell & Donath (2001), 43% of victims were affected by alcohol and 47% of the perpetrators were intoxicated. During 1998/99, of the more than 70, 000 alcohol-related assaults that were reported to police, 8, 661 victims of these assaults were admitted to hospital (Matthews et al, 2001). Matthews et al also noted that 74% of the victims hospitalized for assault, were male and 64% of these men were aged between 15 an 34 years. In all data reviewed, researchers noted that alcohol related assault hospitalizations were higher in non-metropolitan areas (ABS, 2005; ABS, 2006; AIC, 2006; Matthews et al 2001; NCV, 1990).

The ABS has noted that being admitted to hospital increases the chances of a victim reporting the assault to police. Apparently 77% of victims who were hospitalized for assault injuries, would report that incident to police, compared to 42% of injured but not hospitalized assault victims (ABS, 2006) Whether a weapon was used during the assault is also a factor in reporting, with 55% of victims tell researchers that they would report an assault involving a weapon (ABS, 2006).

For the AIC in 1992 and again in 1997, Walker (AIC, 2003) estimated some of the costs of crime in Australia. The AIC has since updated those estimates and have included some of the intangible costs, such as pain and suffering, loss of quality of life and lost productivity. Using the 1999 ABS Crime and Safety Survey, the AIC determined the percentage of each crime that went unreported and then applied a formula to estimate the actual number of crimes, from the number of crimes reported to police. As police information is more readily available, the AIC multiplied the number of police reports by the determined percentage, to gain insight into the actual number of assaults in Australia. Costing formulae were then applied.
The AIC estimated that in 2001, the average medical cost of an assault was $1,000, including the fact that not all assaults require medical intervention. Loss of productivity was estimated as $3,400 per assault and the average intangible costs were $3,500 per assault. When the AIC then combined the assaults with injuries that required medical attention and other assaults, the average cost of each assault in Australia was estimated at $1,800, with a total cost of approximately $1.4 billion dollars per year (AIC, 2003). These estimates from the AIC do not include the costs of child abuse, nor do the figures differentiate between domestic violence and other forms of assault.

Whilst the figures for assault in Australia are interesting in themselves, what the government, government agencies, the media and individuals do with the information, if anything, is possibly more important. If 29% of assault victims do not report the crime because they think it too trivial and 24% of victims thought the matter was personal and they should deal with it themselves (ABS, 2006), what type of government incentive or initiative is going to have to be put in place to overcome these barriers?

If young men are the biggest contributors to the rising assault rate, programmes directed at youth abandonment, expressing masculinity and joblessness/poverty would seem to be the most likely to succeed in changing the trend (Chappell & Wilson, 2000, p 92).


Australian Institute of Criminology – AIC (2003), Counting The Costs of Crime in Australia, Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, No. 247. Canberra, Australia

Australian Institute of Criminology – AIC (2006), Australian Crime; Facts and Figures 2005. Canberra, Australia

Australian Bureau of Statistics – ABS (2005), Year Book of Australia 2005. Canberra, ACT

Australian Bureau of Statistics – ABS (2006), Year Book of Australia 2006. Canberra, ACT

Chappell, D. & Wilson, P. eds (2000), Crime and the Criminal Justice System in Australia: 2000 and Beyond. Sydney, Australia: Butterworths

Goldsmith, A., Israel, M. & Daly, K. (2003), Crime and Justice: An Australian Textbook in Criminology. Pyrmont, NSW: Lawbook Company

Graycar, A. & Grabosky, P. eds (2002), The Cambridge Handbook of Australian Criminology. Victoria, Australia: Cambridge University Press

Matthews, S., Chikritzhs, T., Catalano, P., Stockwell, T. & Donath, S. (2001), Trends in Alcohol-Related Violence in Australia, 1991/92 – 1999/00. National Alcohol Indicators, Bulletin No. 5. Curtin University, WA, Australia: National Drug Research Institute (NDRI)

National Committee on Violence – NCV (1990), Risk of Violence in Australia. Directions for Australia. Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of Criminology

Women’s Health West – WHW (2003), Measuring The Tides of Violence. Report. Melbourne, Australia