Coercive controlling behaviours are common within relationships across Australia, however what it is and what it looks like is not widely understood. At times, it can also be linked to men killing current or former partners. We explore what coercive control is and how to identify the issue.
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In 2020 Hannah Clarke and her three children were brutally murdered at the hands of her ex-partner.
There was no previous record of physical violence.
What was recorded was the behaviour known as coercive control, which Hannah had been subjected to prior to this horrific crime.
Coercive control is a form of abuse that is insidious and often hidden, as there are no physical signs. This behaviour played out through actions which include constant phone calls asking where Hannah was and who she was with, guilt and manipulation for sex, and controlling of what she could and couldn’t wear.
Since the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children in Queensland, the conversation around coercive control has come to the forefront of domestic violence prevention, with conversations increasing around the need to criminalise this behaviour.
Coercive control is a type of domestic violence where an abuser tries to control, isolate and undermine victim-survivors.
According to Dr Kellie Toole, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s Law School, coercive control “is intended to keep the abuser dominant in the relationship”.
“It’s complex, because unlike physical abuse, much of the conduct is part of a continuum of patterns and behaviour that are common with intimate partner relationships, and there is a fine line between what can and should be criminalised,” she says.
While it is reported that 41% of Australians have experienced physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15, coercive control has gone largely unreported. However, 23% of adult women and 14% of adult men have experienced emotional abuse by a partner, according to the Personal Safety Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2021-22.
It is important to note that coercive control can predict future intimate partner homicide. According to research by the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team, coercive and controlling behaviours were a feature in 99% of domestic homicides.
What does coercive control look like?
Abusive relationships can differ according to personalities of the people involved and the dynamic between them, but there are some common red flags that can indicate coercive controlling behaviour.
The Women’s Safety Services SA lists the following patterns of behaviour to look out for:
- Isolating you from family and friends
- Monitoring your daily activities, including stalking and harassment
- Making rules and regulations you must abide by
- Being unkind and challenging your self-esteem
- Using knowledge about you to hurt you
- Enacting punishment and reward to get you to do or stop doing something or create fear and confusion
- Love-bombing, which is the use of care, love and attention in a guise for control
- Gaslighting behaviour and playing mind games
- Denying or blaming you for abusive behaviour
- Financial abuse and restriction, and controlling your spending
- Using threats or abuse to get what they want
- Forcing or pressuring you into unwanted sexual activity and violating your body or privacy
How do you know if you, or your partner, are using coercive control?
It’s important to note that coercive control is a pattern of behaviour. If you’re casually asking your partner where they are or what they’re up to because you want to hear about their day and you accept their response, you’re not perpetrating this form of abuse.
However, if you’re behaving in a way that makes others unsafe, anxious or like they’re being controlled, it’s important to take responsibility and make a change.
If you’re not sure if what you’re experiencing is coercive control, or you want to know more to support a loved one, the See The Signs website can help you learn more and access support services.
Is it illegal in South Australia?
Coercive control is not currently a specific criminal offence in South Australia. But work is underway to change that.
The State Government has made the commitment to introduce legislation to criminalise coercive control, and as part of the process they’ve been consulting with relevant organisations and communities to ensure the way it’s criminalised is effective.
The consultation process has been ongoing since 2022 and focuses on areas including raising awareness, education and the development of training for responders such as police and services for victim-survivors.
The consultation process includes a diverse voices integral the conversation because, despite often being perpetrated by men against women, coercive control can happen to anyone regardless of gender, sexuality, or cultural background.
How do the other states in Australia measure up?
A national survey conducted by Monash University found 87.5% of survey participants believe coercive control should be a criminal offence. So, in what states is this the case?
In February 2023, Queensland’s state government passed a bill to strengthen their existing domestic violence laws to combat coercive control, and plan to create a standalone offence later in the year.
In November 2022, New South Wales was the first Australian state to pass legislation on a standalone offence of coercive control. However, the NSW government faced criticism at the time for not having a lengthier consultation on diverse experiences.
Tasmania also has legislation specific to coercive control as part of their Family Violence Act 2004. This criminalises economic and emotional abuse, however there have been issues found with convictions due to the difficulty obtaining evidence, lack of community awareness and lack of training and resources provided to police.
There are currently no specific criminal laws against coercive control in Victoria, but coercive control is recognised as family violence in their Family Violence Protection Act 2008.
According to Dr Toole, Scotland may be the country to look to when it comes to coercive control laws. “The Scottish coercive control laws are widely considered to be the most effective passed so far and 246 people were prosecuted in the first year of their operation and 84% of those offenders were convicted.”
Where can I get help if I’m experiencing coercive control?
If you are experiencing coercive control or other forms of domestic or family violence, you can contact the SA Domestic Violence Crisis Line on 1800 800 098. You can also contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 for 24-hour support.
If you’re worried you may be using coercive control against someone you love, you can contact the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.