WHAT IS COERCIVE
This is the million dollar question and could be a very large book in itself. Many books have been written about what coercive control is so this chapter is only intended to give the reader a flavour of the nature of coercive control and I would urge you to read on about this elsewhere. Once you see coercive control you can’t un-see it and you realise that it is far more common than you ever thought possible. You will read it in-between the lines of newspaper articles – usually about another woman murdered by her ex-partner. Some recent TV and radio programmes have done a good job in trying to demonstrate this form of abuse such as the Archers on Radio 4, although often the words coercive control are often never used.
Coercive control is not a new phenomenon – it has been around for thousands of years and yet it only became a criminal offence in 2015 in England and Wales.
Coercive control is, in my view, the essence of domestic abuse and is a targeted pattern of abuse against a partner. It is what allows a perpetrator to get away with terrorising his victim often for many years and seemingly often without the victim making concerted efforts to leave the relationship.
Coercive control includes many different types of abuse and may or may not include violence and sexual abuse. Coercive control is said to be one of the most dangerous types of abuse and a more reliable indicator of homicide than physical abuse which unfortunately is something that is still not understood by most agencies. It is often described as ’limiting a victim’s space for action.’
Many perpetrators never need to utilise physical violence as the psychological terrorism that they inflict on their victim means that physical violence is simply not necessary, although physical violence may be utilised as a punishment for the victim’s non-compliance. It is the fear caused by the coercive control, and the implicit threat of what will happen if she fails to comply, rather than the physical violence itself which makes victims feel unable to escape as the minutiae of their whole life and sanity is totally ruled by their perpetrator. Coercive control is designed to obtain the total submission of the victim to the perpetrator.
It may be the enforcement of petty rules and preferences of the perpetrator and the creation of a series of ever-changing “rules” in compliance of which the victim is forced to live her life. The victim can never fully know these rules as they are forever changing to suit the perpetrator and he may sometimes want her to break the rules on occasion so that he can remind her what the consequences are for breaking his rules and thereby increasing the fear and helplessness of the victim. The film “Sleeping with the Enemy” is often quoted to me by clients as being what it’s like to live in a coercively controlling relationship with the petty requirements such as having to have the towels on the towel rail hanging totally level and all of the tins in the cupboard in groups with their labels facing to the front. This is not just someone suffering with a case of obsessive compulsive disorder, it is used to keep the victim controlled and there will be severe consequences for breach of these rules. Many clients tell me that they have to do excessive amounts of cleaning whilst the perpetrator is out so that she has no time for herself at all. This will then be checked by the perpetrator daily, and I’ve had dozens of clients tell me that the perpetrator will use a white glove to check for dust in hard to reach or remember places such as on the top of doors or on skirting boards. Clients tell me that their mobile phone is tracked by their partner so that he knows where she is, have their vaginas “checked” by the perpetrator when they return from the shops or visiting a family member to “check” whether they have had sexual relations with other men or women even when they have gone out with a child in a pram. I have had clients complain that their partner removes the fuses from the heating system when they go out so that they can’t use it, timed when they go to the shops, locked into the house each time their partner leaves the house with even the windows locked. Behind all of this is the threat of, and often the use of, physical violence and rape, threats of physical violence and rape against the women’s family, friends and children, threats to kill their children or have them removed by social services. The threats and violence are increased in intensity and frequency if the perpetrator thinks he is losing control in any way and particularly if he thinks she is preparing to leave.
Indeed separating from a coercively controlling partner is far and away the most dangerous time and the point at which women tend to be murdered by their partners.
Many liken coercive control to tactics to those used against prisoners of war – such as sleep deprivation, withholding food, drink and money, not being permitted to escape, constant questioning with punishment for the “wrong” answer, isolation, repetitive acts designed to cause fear, gaslighting and a destruction of the victim’s own identity and belief system.
The term coercive control was popularised by Dr Evan Stark in his book Coercive Control, How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life  although Dr Evan Stark does accept that the phrase was first used by unnamed feminist psychologists who described their abused clients as living in hostage-like situations.
“Not only is coercive control the most common context in which [women] are abused, it is also the most dangerous”
– Evan Stark (2007) Coercive Control. How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stark states that “coercive control targets a victim’s autonomy, equality, liberty, social supports and dignity in ways that compromise the capacity for independent, self- interested, decision making, vital to escape and effective resistance to abuse. Coercive control often exploits and reinforces sexual inequalities in society which make it far more devastating for victims than when women are controlling”.
Coercive control contains a myriad of different behaviours targeted to be most devastating and debilitating to that particular victim. Some describe it as domestic terrorism or akin to being stalked or held hostage in your own home during a relationship by the person who is supposed to love and care for you.
That person will know you better than anyone and will know all of your secrets, what scares you, what your phobias are, what you hold most dear and how to hurt you. That person may even be your carer and the perpetrator may be using the victim’s disability against them or withholding care or medication.
Coercive control may include financial abuse, whereby a perpetrator withholds money from a victim totally, or allows them access to small pots of money which they then have to account to him for each penny, with consequences if she is unable to account fully or if he disagrees with what she spent money on, even though by rights the money actually belongs to her.
I have known several cases where victims have been forced to steal sanitary products or food for their children and rather than being treated as a victim are simply prosecuted as criminals without anyone asking why she was doing this.
Other victims may be financially controlled by being forced to take out debt on behalf of the perpetrator in their own name so that they are forced to spend all of their income on servicing the debt whilst the perpetrator retains access to all of “his” income in addition to the money she was forced to borrow. This means that often she would not be able to afford to rent anywhere on her own or even afford a train ticket to escape.
Coercive control is often the micro management of every aspect of your life including, in some cases, when you are allowed to go to the toilet. I have spoken to many clients who have been forced to ask permission to go to the toilet which is often refused forcing them to suffer the humiliation of having to wet themselves.
The Home Office published a Statutory Guidance Framework in relation to the new offence of coercive control which helpfully sets out the law and gives examples of the type of behaviour that might be used as a pattern of behaviour by a perpetrator but the guide makes it clear that the list is not exhaustive. As I said above, perpetrators will target what is held dear by a victim or what makes them vulnerable so each case will involve behaviour targeted specifically at that particular victim, and so it would be impossible to attempt to list all of the different examples of behaviour used against a victim of coercive control.
Gaslighting is a very common tactic used by a perpetrator of coercive control and involves the perpetrator repeatedly trying to convince the victim that they are wrong about something even when they aren’t. It can lead to victims starting to believe that they are wrong and doubting their own sanity. Examples can include a perpetrator hiding her car keys and pretending that she must have left them in the fridge, turning off the oven so that she thinks she must have done it and forgotten, denying that they have said things or even had whole conversations.
Examples of coercive control given within the guidance framework for the law include:
isolating a person from their friends and family;
depriving them of their basic needs;
monitoring their time;
monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware;
taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep;
depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services;
repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless;
enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim;
forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting,
neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities;
financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance;
threats to hurt or kill;
threats to a child;
threats to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone).
criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods);
preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.
monitoring someone online
Taken in isolation some of the examples may seem trivial however, taken as a whole with multiple examples day in day out, the behaviour becomes unbearable and has a devastating effect on the victim. Many victims of prolonged coercive control suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Imagine for a moment living in a relationship where a handful of the above tactics were being constantly employed against you. You might think that you wouldn’t put up with it but coercive control will not be immediately apparent and happens by degree. Often a perpetrator will start by “love-bombing” a victim – also known as grooming. A victim will feel special and overwhelmed by love and devotion. He may “surprise” you by turning up unannounced so that you feel as though you can’t say no and you then cancel your plans to be with others. This gives the perpetrator power as the victim starts to feel as though they can’t imagine being without this wonderful person. Then the “drip, drip” starts with subtle criticisms – ‘you look better in this… I miss you when I’m away from you – let’s not go out with friends… your mum puts you down, I’m only defending you as I think you should be treated better by your friends and family… No one will love you like I do, why are you talking to him? I only get angry because I love you so much and can’t stand the thought of losing you…‘ and so it begins.
Many victims – particularly young victims – confuse romance with coercive control. Being picked up from everywhere at the door by your partner might be romantic and considerate; or is it being done so that he knows where you are and so that you can’t spend time with other men on the way home? Everyone likes to receive text messages from their partner especially in a new relationship but is he doing it to be romantic or because he wants to keep tabs on you. Is he asking you to send him a picture of the bar you are in because he’s genuinely interested in its decor or because he wants proof you are where you say you are? The same behaviour can be acceptable in one relationship and tactics of abuse in another. The motivation of the behaviour is key, as are the consequences for failure to comply. By the time a victim realises what is happening it is usually too late and they are already deep into being coercively controlled and will find it difficult to get themselves out of it. Leaving may also lead to their death as the vast majority of women murdered by their partners are murdered on or shortly after separation. It is vital that agencies such as the police, social services, health and the family courts not only recognise this behaviour but are aware of the severe risks of it and the impact on the victim and children. It is also important that agencies ask the right questions so that they can help victims even if they themselves do not realise that they are victims. Most victims will not say that they are being coercively controlled whilst it is happening to them. It is only when they are out of it, and even then often only when they have had a domestic abuse support worker, that they will say the words “coercive control” so it is up to others to recognise this for them and call the behaviour what it is.
The guideline framework also emphasises the fact that whilst the legislation can be used against either sex coercive control is a “gendered” crime – i.e. that it is more likely to affect women as victims by male perpetrators than the other way around as women are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse.
It states: “In 2014/15, 92.4% of defendants in domestic abuse flagged cases were male. Where recorded, the proportion of female victims has remained steady at 84%, since 2010–11 (CPS Violence Against Women and Girls Crime Report 2014/15).”
The guidelines go on to explain that “Controlling or coercive behaviour is primarily a form of violence against women and girls and is underpinned by wider societal gender inequality. This can contribute to the ability of the offender to retain power and control, and ultimately the ability of the victim to access support and leave safely. It is, therefore, important to consider the role of gender in the context of power and control within a relationship when identifying controlling or coercive behaviour in heterosexual relationships.” This is important as too often this point is missed or ignored leading to the “why doesn’t she just leave” type of view which minimises the impact of coercive control and the inherent difficulties and risks in leaving.
Coercive control is a repeat crime as domestic abuse is a pattern of behaviour rather than a one off incident between two adults. The fact that women are overwhelmingly its prime victims is found in study after study and is certainly backed up by my own professional experience. 89% of all those who had experienced 4 or more incidents of domestic violence were women (Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey, Sylvia Walby and Jonathan Allen, 2004).
The charity Refuge remind us that:
“The intensity and severity of violence used by men is more extreme, with men being more likely to use physical violence, threats, and harassment”
– (Hester, M. Who Does What to Whom? Gender and Domestic Violence Perpetrators, 2009)
Although 1 in 6 men report experiencing violence from a female partner or ex-partner each year, women are:
4 times as likely to experience the most serious and potentially lethal violence, such as threats, assault with a gun or knife, choking and sexual assault
3 times more likely to report suffering a physical injury
Twice as likely to report chronic on going assaults, defined as more than 10 separate incidents
5 times as likely to report that they feared for their lives
(Jaffe, P.G, Lemon N.K.D, Poisson, S.E, 2003)
In a significant majority of cases where a man reports abuse, he has also perpetrated violence towards his partner (Final report of the ad-hoc Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group reviewing spousal abuse policies and legislation. Canada, 2003).
Men are less likely to have been repeat victims of domestic assault, less likely to be seriously injured and less likely to report feeling fearful in their own homes (Scottish Executive Central Research Unit, 2002).
This is why I make no apology for referring in this publication to women being victims and men being perpetrators and if you think that this chapter sounds extreme or like a film script think again – these examples are what fills my day, and those of my department, every single day of the week.