Manipulative and emotionally abusive behaviour is never okay, which is why you’d think criminalising coercive control would be straightforward. The complexity around the behaviour means this is far from the case. We explore.
Coercive control is a pattern of behaviours exhibited by a perpetrator and can be tricky to identify. These behaviours can include emotional manipulation, undermining self-esteem, financial control and isolation from family and friends. Read more about it in this article, which explains coercive control.
Intimate partner homicide is the most common form of homicide in Australia. Since 1989, there have been an average of 68 intimate partner homicides each year. The vast majority have been perpetrated by men against their female partner.
Dr Kellie Toole, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s Law School, says coercive control is consistent, deliberate, and different from sporadic incidences of coercive or controlling behaviour.
Coercive control is not currently a criminal offence in South Australia, but the State Government has committed to introducing legislation this year that would criminalise the behaviours.
“The current focus of the law on physical acts and threats means that victims do not even recognise control as a form of abuse and so do not seek help,” Dr Toole says.
What makes coercive control different from other relationship behaviours?
Dr Toole explained the complexity of legislating coercive control.
“Unlike physical abuse, much of the conduct is part of a continuum of patterns and behaviour that are common within intimate partner relationships and there is a fine line between what can and should be criminalised.”
Coercive control can be hard to spot, which is why there is an emphasis on educating people to understand the insidious behaviours.
Professor Sarah Wendt, director of Social Work Innovation Research Living Space (SWIRLS) at Flinders University, says that coercive control is nothing like a normal relationship and this is what makes it distinct. However, she adds coercive controlling behaviour can be subtle and hard to interpret unless you understand it.
“Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour over time where the perpetrator ends up controlling every aspect of the victim’s life and they are able to do that because they create fear. Fear and isolation around the victim.”
The law and social services have to work together
Professor Wendt says a holistic approach between law and social services is crucial to identify coercive control.
“Our systems and structures are not set up to see more holistically that pattern of behaviour over time and that is the trick in terms of how you legally respond to it and how you prosecute it,” she says.
“The police can respond to the legal aspects of it, but the specialist agency can respond to the psychosocial education around domestic violence, they can do trauma counselling, risk assessment and safety,” Professor Wendt says.
“When the two come together really well that is the best service a woman or victim is likely to get.”
Other countries have successfully criminalised coercive control
England, Ireland and Scotland have criminalised coercive control since 2018.
Scotland’s coercive control legislation prosecuted 246 people in the first year of operation, and 84 per cent of those offenders were convicted.
Dr Toole says Scotland’s laws are effective because they focus on the intention of the perpetrator and not just the impact on the victim.
“Scotland took a holistic approach that included training for police, lawyers and judges, and community education,” Dr Toole says.
Support for victims
Dr Toole says victims can keep records, but coercive control is “not the sort of offence that necessarily involves concrete evidence”.
Professor Wendt agrees it can be difficult, but if you suspect you are a victim of coercive control, she advises it is worth collecting evidence of stalking and harassment, such as text messages, emails, or photos.
Professor Wendt says women are good at knowing when they have a gut feeling something is wrong in their relationship. She encourages any victim with that feeling to seek advice from a specialist support service.
Do you need help?
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, contact the Men’s Referral Service at 1300 766 491.