OPINION: 'Coercive control is a terrifying form of domestic violence. But criminalising it won't help.'

This post deals with sexual assault and might be triggering for some readers. 

The sexual assault exposes by Chanel Contos and Brittany Higgins prove that plans to introduce a new law to quash coercive control are a knee-jerk reaction by politicians that will not make women and children safer. 

Coercive control is a terrifying pattern of domestic abuse behaviour, including physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse. It is a psychological torture that grinds women down, robbing them of their autonomy and independence. 

At last week’s NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into coercive control in domestic relationships, a submission from investigative journalist Jess Hill heard that this type of abuse was so soul-destroying some women said, "I wish he’d just hit me."


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But many of the submissions to the inquiry argued that the last thing they need is a new law, what they actually need, to make women and children safer, is more resources and training for those on the frontline of domestic and family violence services and much more education. 


Sadly, the recent shocking reports of a sexual assault endemic in our private schools and the cover-up over the rape of a young woman in Parliament have only served to underline this.

When Chanel Contos and Brittany Higgins bravely came forward, it served as yet another blunt reminder that no matter how much you criminalise behaviour, that behaviour won’t necessarily change.

There are severe penalties for sexual assault. Yet when Chanel and her friends walked away from a Year 10 sex education class, it was the very first time they had understood that it was a crime for boys to force them to have oral sex. 

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, it makes me cry out in utter despair that despite everything we think has been achieved to empower young women, there are still so many of them who do not realise that what is happening to them is abusive and criminal.

I have sobbed reading the many horrifying stories prompted by Chanel’s petition and have screamed at the double-standards and corruption of our Parliamentary leaders handling the Brittany Higgins rape case.

Those wanting a separate law for coercive control argue that introducing new offences can send a strong message to the community and create significant cultural shifts, as when marital rape first became a crime in the 1980s and 1990s. 


But in NSW only one in 10 reports of sexual assault since 2009 has led to any kind of legal action.

And it begs the question that if we already have such tough laws for sexual assault and these recently highlighted atrocious crimes by society’s, supposedly, most educated and privileged men, are still being covered up, ignored and misunderstood, how then do we expect to fix a problem as nuanced and complex as coercive control with more criminalisation.

Indeed, we already have stalking and intimidation offences that can be used to prosecute perpetrators of coercive control type abuses, but they are rarely used because, according to submissions made to the inquiry, too many women don’t understand that what is happening to them is criminal.  

One tragic example of domestic and family violence was the murder of two teenage children by their evil father John Edwards on Sydney’s north shore in 2018. Edwards was a classic example of a domestic violence abuser who manipulated his family by using coercive control. But, he also broke several laws that are covered under current domestic violence legislation including stalking and intimidation, breaching an ADVO and physically assaulting his wife, Olga. 

He was still able to buy a gun. 

Listen to The Quicky, Mamamia's daily news podcast. In this episode, host Claire Murphy discusses the viral petition on sexual assault. Post continues after audio.


Many of the submissions to the inquiry argued that before introducing new laws we need to do a comprehensive monitoring of the other jurisdictions that have already introduced more criminalisation, particularly Tasmania, which introduced coercive control offences in its Family Violence Act 2004. 

Scotland is considered the gold star when it comes to legislating against coercive controlling behaviour, but they're the proof of whether there has been a crime is based on what a reasonable person would think. In this, a very patriarchal society, we know that what we actually mean by a reasonable person is a reasonable man. It is therefore terrifying that our own Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, had to seek guidance from his wife to understand that what happened to Brittany Higgins was not okay.

Yvette Vignando, the CEO of South West Sydney Legal Centre, an organisation that is on the frontline of domestic family violence services argues that among the crucial things needed, all Australians need to agree on a national definition of domestic and family violence that includes elements of coercive control, so that all states, territories and agencies are working together.

Vignando also believes there needs to be a huge increase in the investment in policing and a consistent and coordinated investment in frontline services. English police forces have firmly blamed a lack of training and resourcing on their poor success rate with coercive control.


"Coercive control is exceptionally nuanced, to expect our already stretched police forces to cope with the complexities of a new law when they are already struggling to cope with the existing one is unrealistic," said Vignando.

"They need a dramatic injection of resources, far more training, more authority and seniority for their wonderful Domestic Violence Liaison Officers and we should trial specialist onsite DFV support services in police stations."

"We desperately need more resources for victim-survivors of domestic abuse so they can actually leave a relationship, including more safety services, more public housing and more availability of interpreters for police services. Finally, the services to rehabilitate men, change behaviour programs, mental health and drug rehabilitation programs are drastically inadequate."

No one is saying that coercive control isn’t a terrifying form of domestic violence abuse. No one is saying that offenders shouldn’t be punished. 

But with all our severe penalties for sexual assault, how can we honestly argue, after the events of the last few weeks, that further criminalisation for coercive control is going to make women and children safer.

Louisa Hatfield is a Sydney journalist and former publishing director of some of Australia's leading women's magazines, including Marie Claire, InStyle and Women's Health. 

Feature image: Getty.