Culture / People

Criminalising coercive control: the deadly domestic abuse tactic that goes beyond toxic behaviour

coercive control

So often, the story starts the same. Spooned on affection, talk of the future early, gifts, unbridled attention so idyllic and dream-like it doesn’t seem real until it’s too late to realise it isn’t.

“Many coercive control relationships begin in a whirlwind of romance. Abusers lure in their victims with overwhelming attention, sweet words, and gifts that make future victims close their eyes to the red flags indicating potential abuse. Intense romance can be a form of grooming, a predatory tactic that is meant to build a deep emotional connection,” says Ph.D. Lisa Fontes, Senior Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.

The way that domestic violence can manifest in intimate relationships is different for everyone, making the warning signs nuanced and experiential. In the case of coercive control - one tactic of emotional abuse used to erode victims’ sense of self-worth and independence - the red flags are often so small and seemingly minute that until looked at from a wider lens, the exhibiting signs are difficult to identify - especially through the glare of attentiveness.

Some of these early warning signs include isolation, micro-management, intimidation and manipulation. “Women have told me that within a month of meeting the men who would become their abusers, they saw each other almost every day or had moved in together,” Fontes explains. “The abusers’ name was on their bank accounts, and they were engaged to be married or even pregnant.

“Romantic gestures can abruptly turn into intimidation,” she continues. “Abusers typically blame their partners for the tension that results from her wanting to make her own decisions. These decisions can range from how to she spends her time and who she considers a friend to what she eats and how she wears her hair. Victims will work hard to appease the abuser, trying to avoid conflict, stay safe, and get back to the early romantic glow.”

Singer FKA Twigs - who filed a lawsuit last month accusing her former boyfriend, actor Shia LaBeouf, of sexual battery, assault and inflicting emotional distress - tells Louis Theroux in an interview that the honeymoon phase, an especially romantic period in the initial stages of the relationship characterized by Fontes above, “sets the benchmark for if you behave well, fulfil all of the requirements and meet the rules and all of these things of the abuser, that it can be there, it can be great.” While the expectations are often different for each relationship, for Twigs, it was always “little things that you could do wrong that could take away from the happiness of where things could be."

There is a long-held misconception that identifies domestic abuse as isolated incidents of violence. A thrown punch, a visible bruise. What we don’t talk about, are the ways in which emotional abuse and manipulation serve as long-term tactics to incrementally constrict someone’s life, and that by the time we see physical injury, the cumulative impact of coercive control has already done a large percentage of damage.

"It's hard to understand what's going on psychologically when you're being controlled and coerced by an abuser because it happens very slowly," says Twigs.

When these tactics are in place and the impact of coercive control has already inflicted so much damage on a victim, leaving the relationship is often not as simple as presumed.

"The 'why didn't you just leave' conversation is something I really want to tackle, because people often ask the survivor 'why didn't you leave?' instead of asking the abuser 'why are you holding somebody hostage through abusive behaviour?'" She says.

Australian legislation

Hayley Foster is CEO of Women’s Safety NSW, and we speak the week that a parliamentary Joint Select Committee on coercive control was formed to hold an inquiry to examine how New South Wales could follow the legislation of countries like England and Scotland to criminalise coercive control.

“We're starting with legislation because there needs to be support really quickly. We need to send the signal to the community that states what is acceptable, what's not, and what is regarded as efficient criminal intervention,” says Foster, who was among those in parliament during the inquiry, and has been pushing to criminalise coercive control through online campaigns and in parliament.

“I think the precipitating factor for the inquiry was the horrendous murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children in Brisbane, in February last year. I think there was really not much of an appetite before that. But once that happened and her case had been fairly reviewed, there was more known about her case that became very, very clear that it was probably the single biggest thing that could have been done to have saved her and her children,” Foster says, explaining why the parliamentary inquiry has finally taken place.

“So, I think that really galvanised political will across the country, and across the political spectrum. It wasn't just liberal or labour or crossbenches, it was very much enlivened - that will to want to actually do something to prevent this from happening to another person or other people. That was the real lightning rod.”

In a review of domestic violence-related homicides in NSW, it was found that in 99 percent of cases, the relationship was characterised by the male abuser's use of coercive controlling behaviours towards their intimate partner. When statistics like this are linked to actual murders, it begs the question of those falling through the cracks, and the ways in which coercive control can act as a gateway for physical violence.

“Physical violence and coercive control do not always go together—but often they do. In some couples, the abuser will use a range of coercive control tactics (such as isolation, manipulation and economic abuse) without ever physically assaulting his partner. In other couples, the coercive control is a prelude to physical abuse,” Fontes says.

“With frequent but low-level violence, many partners hesitate to call themselves victims of domestic abuse. Many often say to themselves, 'If he ever hits me, I’ll leave,'  underestimating the cumulative impact of this constant threat and intimidation,” she continues.

“In my own experience I was also subjected to physical violence,” recalls Anne Aly, the federal West Australian Labor MP for Cowan, and a domestic abuse survivor. “The coercive control took many forms…There were many behaviours that cumulatively eroded my self-confidence and my sense of self,” she explains. "I would lie awake at night planning my steps and then fall asleep hoping and praying that I would wake up and he would be gone.”

In England and Wales, coercive control has been illegal since 2015, but according to the BBC, in 2018 the country saw the highest number of domestic violence-related killings in five years. This has been cited back to a systemic issue, where first responders such as police haven’t been trained to recognise how emotional abuse can become a criminal act.

System reform

When we look at protecting people from coercive control from a systemic lens, Spokesperson for Domestic Violence and Abuse and the Spokesperson for Women’s Equity and Economic Justice, Abigail Boyd MP of the Greens NSW feels that the way to do this is through “whole-of-system reform.”

“That of course means criminalising coercive control. But it also means simultaneously guaranteeing long-term, secure funding for frontline domestic violence services, providing thorough education and training to frontline responders such as police and the justice system, and broadening our collective understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse,” Boyd says, urging that in order to “stop the violence before it begins,” we need to give domestic violence and abuse the resources and focus it needs.

Fontes supports this notion, saying that systemic reform is an “all hands-on deck” kind of issue, from the justice system to the education system, to the way children are parented, to sex education. Her view is that this is the work that needs to be done to support any legislative reform.

During the parliamentary inquiry on coercive control, Hayley Foster says the atmosphere was “intense”, and the joint select committee members are not entirely in unison on the best way to reform coercive control. While everyone recognises the behaviours that characterise coercive control as a crime, there are certain members who are cautious to call for criminalisation considering the criminal justice system so often fails the women and children who are trying to access safety and justice.

These concerns are based on the idea that New South Wales and Australia at-large doesn’t have the capacity within our criminal justice system to be able to take on this law in an effective way and make sure that it has the intended effect.

“The biggest variance is that on one side, there is a sense that we're not ready for that, that our criminal justice system is not capable of doing this well, and that we should focus our attention on improving that system before we bring in this law,” Foster explains. “On the other side it’s been argued that actually bringing in this law will help improve the system to instigate and drive a lot of that practice change, because finally, we will have a law that actually reflects victim survivors experience.”

The practice change Foster is referring to, is processes like victim-survivors being able to use the evidence that is available to them when they are experiencing coercive control in court as directly admissible. It will mean that police will be required to elicit that evidence, document, and investigate it, and it will mean that law enforcement will need to understand the kind of behaviour to be looking out for beyond visible battery.

“There have definitely been victim-survivors who feel very strongly that the criminal justice system is not capable of doing this safely,” says Foster.

“However, when we surveyed our members of frontline workers and victim survivors, 70 out of the 72 victim-survivors that provided detailed testimonies to us, which is 97 percent, said that we needed this change provided it was accompanied by those system reforms,” she continues. “Every single one of the 46 frontline workers that we surveyed said that they supported this legislative reform alongside the system reforms needed to make it work well.”

Last year, Abigail Boyd pushed for a number of amendments to legislation that would ensure safe waiting spaces for victims in court, ready access to a Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service in every court, and to end the practice of abusers directly cross-examining their victim-survivors. While the NSW Government adopted some of those amendments, “we need to do all of this and more if the criminalisation of coercive control is to have the transformational impact on society that it has the potential to do,” she says.

In order for coercive control to be criminalised in a way that will work, it’s critical that there's a stakeholder involvement all the way through. “We also need to make sure that we taking very, very clear advice, right throughout the process from those groups that may be marginalised, like First Nations women and communities, refugee women, women with disability, the LGBTQI+ community and so on, and so forth,” Foster points out.

Providing resources

“There’s a lot of lip service but the fact is the sector is incredibly under resourced,” says Anne Aly. “Every day I encounter women and children escaping domestic violence who have nowhere to go because the refuges are full,” she says.

“We need more funding for services. Plain and simple. Victims of domestic violence deserve our sympathy, but they also deserve more than just words of grief when another person is murdered.”

In 2019, the NSW Women’s Alliance, an alliance comprised of leading organisations and service providers in the sector, released the Safe State NSW platform, an exhaustive list of requests for funding and reforms that they see as necessary to address this crisis. Among the requests, were calls to create cultural change to prevent violence and promote gender equality; provide immediate and ongoing support for people experiencing violence; ensure people experiencing violence have a safe home; ensure people experiencing violence can access justice safely; enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to lead change to end violence; and be accountable to specialist workers and the wider community.

“All of those recommendations made in the Safe State platform need to happen regardless of whether or not we criminalise coercive control,” Boyd says. Although neither NSW Labor nor the Liberal/National parties supported the full list of Safe State reforms, Boyd is hopeful that the enhanced understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse brought about by the process of criminalising coercive control, will lead to a “greater focus on ensuring that these whole-of-society reforms are implemented.”

Broadening our collective understanding of domestic abuse is a crucial part of building support for this kind of criminal justice reform, alongside being a necessary and life-saving tool to provide support for victim-survivors. Once we can begin to understand how nuanced and complex domestic abuse can be, our capacity to provide care for those affected increases.

According to Fontes, when it comes to friends and family, staying in close touch is key to “helping people extricate themselves from an abuser, and for recovering once they do. Even if you have been pushed away, stay in touch.”

If you or someone you know is being abused, support and help are available. Visit or call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)

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