A study by National Community Attitudes on Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) explored young people’s understandings of relationship norms and how abusive dynamics may be considered part of “normal” relationships. The study found that a disturbing number of young men don’t understand that controlling behaviours in relationships are a problem. Many of our young men (and future leaders) believe that having control is a normal part of any relationship.
I live in Australia, a country where women in the 18–24 age group are likely to have experienced violence in the last 12 months. 34.2% of Australian women say they have experienced domestic violence since the age of 15. This is a serious cause for concern by itself, but even more shockingly the Domestic Violence Death Review Team found that 111 out of 112 cases of intimate partner homicides between 2008 and 2016 in NSW were preceded by coercive and controlling behaviours in the relationship.
On average 60-80% of women who experience domestic abuse say that they have also experienced coercive control. Domestic violence can take many forms, but one form that is often overlooked is coercive control. This type of domestic abuse creates an imbalance in power between two people which allows the aggressor to have more say over their victim's life, making it difficult for them to leave. Sometimes this becomes physical violence as well. Coercive controllers seek total dominance over those around them by manipulating those close with lies and threats while also intimidating other loved ones into staying silent about what they know.
When someone is under the influence of coercive control, they may lose their sense of identity. It can be likened to brainwashing because in this situation internal narrative becomes replaced with one that from an abuser - typically seen through statements like "you're crazy" or “you’re overreacting”. The victim will believe things along these lines even though it might not always feel that way on a day-to-day basis. The abuser, who can appear charismatic and charming to others, employs a multitude of covert practices to control a woman’s freedom and autonomy. Their manipulation tactics can be clearly identified and documented but women often have no idea that this covert abuse is growing within their relationship.
Frontline workers, experts and victim-survivors all agree that coercive control can be very dangerous in domestic settings. Anybody can experience coercive control, but it is predominantly women who are the victims. Women do not recognise they are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship… often because it is not accompanied by physical violence.
This begs the question of prevention and education of our young women. Why aren’t we doing something to address this societal issue sooner? We know the best predictors of young people who support violence against women are those with a low understanding of the issue.
Women are encouraged and empowered to take on leadership roles and breakdown the stereotypical barriers in the workforce. I often wonder how many workplaces and institutions are implementing initiatives to support women in building self-esteem including an understanding of psychological and coercive abuse.
The consequences of ignoring this until young women reach their 20s has a very real impact on their ability to meet the expectations of those around them. Whether these women are focused on furthering their education, entering the workplace, or sharing housing with roommates, they will likely be suffering the short-term effects of coercive abuse such as headaches, sleeplessness, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and brain fog. Sadly, the long-term effects are even more serious, including PTSD, autoimmune issues, thyroid disorders, cognitive issues, cancer, and other diseases. These issues are often invisible to their friends and colleagues, and something which is not well understood or supported.
The only way a woman can ensure they do not get into a dangerous relationship is knowing the warning signs and being educated about the typical behaviours that accompany psychological abuse. There needs to be more discussion about the attitudes and norms that surround psychological abuse and the coercive control of women. We need to talk about how people behave, what they say (or don't say) when you're alone with them. Women fear reactions when they speak up. They brush aside the issues. And even more sadly, they come to the defence of their partners because somehow, "he didn’t mean anything bad by it." By denying the seriousness of psychological abuse or downplaying the impact on the victim, we are failing to empower women to identify dangerous and covert abuse. Prevention must be a priority.
I am deeply troubled by the current social dialogue around violence against women here in Australia. We can all do more in eliminating such crimes from our community. Attitudes are shaped by the world around us, including through our families and friends, communities, and institutions we involve ourselves in (Flood & Pease, 2009; Pease & Flood, 2008). Abusing someone emotionally is one of the most damaging things that can happen to an individual in their formative years. Some regions around the world have recognised these societal issues and put laws in place to protect their citizens from the productivity and health impacts of such abuse.
England and Wales became the first countries in the world to create a coercive control offence in 2015. Ireland enacted the Domestic Violence Act (2019) which allowed the practise of coercive control to be identifiable based on its effects on the victim. Ireland and Scotland followed England and Wales, with the introduction of their coercive control legislation in 2019. The UK government made teaching about what coercive control ( gender neutral ) a mandatory part of the education syllabus on relationships(2019). The issue of coercive control has gained increased attention and awareness and National Cabinet's work on women's safety. However, workplaces and institutions must take more responsibility for these important issues as well.
Coercive control hasn’t yet been criminalised in Australia. The NSW Government is looking into creating a new offence of coercive control but currently, Tasmania is the only Australian state where coercive control is a criminal offence (Family Violence Act 2004) and it is defined as creating an offence of emotional abuse or intimidation. Attempts to criminalise coercive control are still in their early stages here.
One of the reasons this has been slow to be recognised is that coercive control is a form of psychological abuse that can look different in each situation. Fundamentally, it describes the way one person intimidatingly threatens or pressures another so they will comply with their commands. This often means acting against one’s own preferences and even going against what you want because there might be consequences if you don't follow through with the controller’s demands - sometimes serious ones!
You may find yourself wondering how it is possible that our modern legal system doesn't understand what psychological aggression really entails? This oversight is no accident. It is a result of a lack of understanding among many professionals in all areas, who work with victims on an everyday basis. Victims struggle to articulate the sorts of tactics that are used, their damaged self-esteem and impact to their health. They feel broken inside. Within the home, a woman’s’ character is attacked, abusers curse and yell, they embarrass and joke, exploit and threaten. They gaslight, ignore and belittle.
Currently the only protection a woman has over her abuser is to seek an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO). After you have applied to the Court for an AVO, the person isn’t allowed to stalk, harass, or intimidate you. An AVO is not a criminal offence, so it won’t appear on your criminal record, but many women are too frightened to take this action due to punishment and retribution once the AVO ends.
The legal system isn’t adequate for addressing psychological abuse and does nothing to help victims recover from an abusive relationship. Coercively controlled individuals often feel unable to act in their best interests. When faced by difficult decisions about how best to proceed independently from those who chronically dominate them (bosses, romantic partners, etc), they falter. Psychological abuse can be just as destructive to someone’s well-being, happiness and stability in life as physical violence.
As a starting point employers and leaders need to be aware that coercive control exists. This should include an understanding of the behaviours and patterns of conduct that constitute coercive control and be aware of the pervasive nature of coercive control and what the common manifestations of harm are. Consideration should be given to how coercive control affects women in their environment. Raising public awareness would involve training and education, preventative measures, consideration of resourcing issues for victims in their care. Women who have experienced coercive control may have experienced trauma and need support, time off, therapy, and above all else friends and colleagues who validate and understand the nature of their abuse.
The National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS)