OBJECTIVE: To compare the characteristics of female victims of assault with those of male victims and to see if there is a difference between female victims of domestic assault and females assaulted by strangers or acquaintances. DESIGN: A two month prospective study (June and July 1995) of all assault victims attending a Scottish accident and emergency (A&E) department. SETTING: A large district general A&E department (the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley) seeing 60,000 new patients per year with a catchment population of 200,000. RESULTS: 46 female victims of violence attended the A&E department (20% of the total of 235). In comparison with men, women were more likely to be assaulted in their homes (48% v 10%; P < 0.001), but were less likely to be assaulted with sharp weapons (7% v 28%; P = 0.003) and to require admission to hospital (P = 0.005). Nineteen women (41%) were victims of domestic assault. The victims of domestic assault were more likely to have been drinking (11% v 31%; P = 0.007) and to have a history of previous assault (63% v 22%; P = 0.002). This group also had a higher mean deprivation score and rate of unemployment, although the differences were not statistically significant. CONCLUSIONS: A&E staff should be aware of risk factors associated with domestic assault to aid recognition of victims. Using the current British Association for Accident and Emergency Medicine guidelines on domestic violence and closer liaison with police, social services, and general practitioners will help prevent further attacks.