Coercive control: What every woman should know about the hidden side of domestic abuse.

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On January 1, new legislation came into effect in Ireland that expanded the country’s legal definition of domestic abuse. Now, as well as physical violence, it’s a crime for a person to exercise ‘coercive control’ against their partner – a term typically used to refer to emotional/psychological and financial abuse.

England and Wales enacted similar laws back in 2015, as did Scotland in 2018.

But what exactly does it all mean? And where does Australia stand on the issue?

Coercive control: “a pattern of abuse of power”.

Ireland’s new law criminalises someone engaging in coercive or controlling behaviour against their spouse or partner. That is, behaviour that causes the victim:
(a) to fear that violence will be used against him or her, or;
(b) serious alarm or distress that has a substantial adverse impact on his or her usual day-to-day activities.

As Moo Baulch, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, previously told Mamamia, “Domestic violence is not just about broken bones and bruises and visits to the accident and emergency department. It’s a pattern of abuse of power and control usually felt by one partner over another, and there may be a number of different sort of types of behaviour that are occurring.

A prime example comes via the case of Graham O’Shea, a man who was convicted and sentenced under England’s coercive control laws in 2016. As the BBC reported, O’Shea moved into his girlfriend’s home in March that year, and before long enforced a series of rules: he forbade her from washing; he took her bank cards and restricted her to a weekly allowance of 10 GBP; he cut her off from family and friends; and escorted her to and from her bus stop each day. He also physically assaulted her on two occasions.

As in O’Shea’s case, domestic abusers often use a combination of physical, emotional and financial abuse in order to trap their partner in the relationship. The latter two, especially, can help answer that persistent, reductive question: ‘why didn’t she just leave?’


Let’s unpack it a little further.

What is financial abuse?

Financial abuse is a powerful form of coercive control, designed to leave a partner financially incapacitated.

Domestic violence prevention organisation White Ribbon notes that financial abuse may include:

  • complete control of finances and money;
  • restricting access to bank accounts;
  • providing an inadequate allowance and monitoring what a woman spends money on;
  • forbidding a woman to work;
  • taking a woman’s pay and not allowing her to access it;
  • preventing a woman from getting to work by taking her keys or car;
  • identity theft to secure credit;
  • using a woman’s credit card without her permission;
  • refusing to work or contribute to household expenses.

More than 15 per cent of Australian women have, at some point in their lives, experienced being stripped of economic autonomy by their partner, having access to finances, assets and decision-making controlled or even taken away altogether.

Since 2012, it’s been identified as form of “family violence” under the Australian Family Law Act, and similarly at a state level in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. However, only in Tasmania is it a specific criminal offence.

What is emotional/psychological abuse?

Emotional or psychological abuse is deliberate, repeated behaviour that causes emotional harm. It can make the targeted partner feel scared, wounded and worthless, and according to White Ribbon typically includes behaviours like:

  • blaming a partner for all the problems in a relationship;
  • constantly comparing them with others to undermine their self-esteem and self-worth;
  • intentionally embarrassing them in public;
  • name calling, yelling, insulting or swearing at them;
  • telling them what to wear;
  • preventing them from seeing her friends and family;
  • stalking;
  • online humiliation and intimidation.

Again, emotional abuse and intimidation is currently only a specific criminal offence in Tasmania. Though it is identified as a form of Family Violence in legislation in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

How effective can coercive control law really be?

The limits of domestic violence legislation is something victims’ advocacy groups have long fought to amend here in Australia. The reliance on apprehended violence orders (which rely on the cooperation of the accused), the ability for the accused to cross-examine their alleged victim in court, and so on.

With coercive control, there are arguably even more limitations. Chiefly, how difficult a crime is to prove.

As Dr Charlotte Bishop, lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter, explained via The Conversation, “Unlike in cases of physical violence that can leave external bruising or broken bones, it’s difficult to objectively assess whether coercive control has taken place. The abuser will typically use signals and covert messages to exert and maintain control and often these have meaning only in the context of that particular relationship.”

That’s becoming plainly clear in the UK. Data obtained by the BBC, showed that in the first 18 months that coercive control was criminalised in England and Wales there were 7,034 arrests, but only 1,157 cases ended with someone being charged. As for successful convictions: there were just 235.

While that number seems low, proportionally speaking, it’s worth acknowledging that means up to 235 women who have been believed, who have received some semblance of justice and, hopefully, protection.

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