Domestic Violence isn’t always physical and it’s time we talked honestly about it.
What is Coercive Control?
Professor Evan Stark, who developed the term coercive control defines it as "a pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control victims… as well as to frighten them or hurt them physically."
In 2016, a female survivor of coercive control told the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence; "The most distressing thing I lost was me...I couldn't concentrate. I was always worried that I may do or say the wrong thing. It is so hard to describe to you the mental torment, always questioning yourself. Never being able to comprehend that this person who is supposed to love me can hurt you so badly."
Domestic violence is defined as follows; “Domestic violence refers to acts of violence that occur between people who have or have had, an intimate relationship in domestic settings. These acts include physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse.”
It is impossible to accurately measure the extent of domestic violence in Australia due to its’ private context. Women in Australia are more likely to be killed at home by their male partners than anywhere else or by anyone else. When surveys include physical violence, sexual violence and psychological violence they have found that 34% of women with current or former partners experienced violence from a partner since the age of 16. When we look at coercive control, we can see that four in ten women in current relationships reported experiencing controlling behaviour in their lifetimes.
Why does it matter?
60-80% of women seeking help for abuse have experienced coercive control. 23% of women who experienced coercive control have been assaulted with a weapon and 27% reported non-fatal strangulation. What this means is that not only is coercive control a horrifying form of abuse but it can also be used as a predictor of physical violence. This is supported by the fact that 99% of domestic violence homicides occur in relationships where male abusers use coercive control against their partners.
In 2020, there were 145 incidents of domestic violence-related homicides, an increase of 12% from 2019. At least two in five assaults recorded by state police were family and domestic violence-related. The covid pandemic has worsened domestic abuse and put victims in a position of greater isolation. Domestic violence is clearly an issue in Australia, and coercive control is frequently unaddressed
Yet, despite the fact that coercive control fits into the definition of domestic violence, and despite the recognition that it is often indicative of other forms of abuse, coercive control is not illegal.
A parliamentary inquiry earlier in 2021 found that NSW laws do not adequately cover coercive and controlling behaviour and also suggested creating a clear definition of domestic abuse including coercive control. Coercive control can be best understood as a pattern of entrapment and advocate Jess Hill stated that recognising coercive control would be “a shift that would see the community stop asking 'why didn't she just leave' and start asking 'why did he hold her hostage.’” By not criminalising coercive control, our society has accepted these behaviours and the consequence is that we have less sympathy for women who experience them. Instead of focusing on the inability of women to leave domestic violence relationships, we should be focusing on the perpetuation of violence which includes coercive control in these settings.
Tasmania is the only Australian state that has criminalised coercive control and non-physical forms of domestic violence. In NSW, our government has drafted a bill describing coercive control as being an arbitrary restriction of freedom.
Criminalising coercive control seems like a rational thing to do. In a carceral justice system, criminalising things is generally perceived as the thing that will fix them. In theory, abusers go to prison and can’t abuse their partners who will be safe from them. However, in Tasmania very few people are charged under the offence of coercive control. Prisons are also harmful and do not effectively rehabilitate offenders and that criminalisation does not provide victims with healing and support to recover from their experiences. It also does not prevent victims from being coercively controlled, criminalisation operates after the abuse has occurred serving as retribution, something which does not really help anyone involved.
The other key concern with the criminalisation of coercive control is that marginalised groups such as First Nations women are frequently treated poorly by law enforcement which has led to fears of how police will react to their reports of domestic violence. Liz Snell from Women’s Legal Service said that "this is a significant issue in our practice, that women are misidentified as the predominant aggressor when they're the person most in need of protection." The result of this is that women will not report to the police again if they have had a negative experience with them.
Furthermore, many women do not want their partners to be punished because it results in a loss of financial stability, escalates violence and damages their relationships with their children.
Carceral solutions to issues like domestic violence simplify the issues they try to address and often backfire on marginalised communities. Criminalising coercive control is a symbolic move that does not prioritise the needs of victims.
Hill argues that "we can't have this conversation as though abusive men are just these faceless foot soldiers of the patriarchy, who are imprinted on by culture and whose behaviour is [influenced] by porn and outdated modes of masculinity.” She suggests focusing on men’s psychological health, shame, and their use of drugs and alcohol. Men also need a level of support when it comes to domestic violence; they need programs that provide them with treatments rather than incarceration and the support they need to change their own behaviours and attitudes towards women. For example in Bourke, a town known for crime, unemployment and family violence, an Indigenous elder Alistair Ferguson brought dozens of Indigenous community leaders, police and services together to create solutions other than incarceration. This involved checking with men known for being abusive and providing them support to improve their lives. Between 2015 and 2017, domestic violence assaults in Bourke dropped by 39% and other crimes also saw a decline. This suggests that the best path forward is community-led collaborative projects which treat perpetrators as people who need support, rather than as criminals.
Domestic violence is a huge issue in Australia and with the criminalisation of coercive control being a more frequent optic of discussion, it is important to evaluate the role the justice system plays in our society and to explore alternate options which leave room for the complexity of the issue.