What is coercive control? We asked domestic abuse experts how to spot the signs

It's an issue that's more prevalent now then ever. Here's how to identify it and get help.
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  • The issue of coercive control has been brought to the forefront of the nation’s mind with the horrific storyline running on ITV soap Coronation Street.

    Centring around Yasmeen and her abusive partner Geoff, the plot – which has seen Geoff running a traumatising campaign of abuse against Yasmeen – has drawn in and appalled fans of the show in equal measure.  Viewers have witnessed as Geoff terrorised Yasmeen – belittling her, criticising her clothes, and shaming her for not doing things ‘correctly’ around the house. The storyline culminated last week in Yasmeen fighting back – with his abuse leading her to stab him in the neck with a broken wine bottle.

    The plot-line has been a depiction of coercive control – a form of domestic abuse that is often psychological.

    Credit: ITV

    Sadly, the storyline is not fiction or fabrication. The actress who plays Yasmeen – Shelley King – revealed on Loose Women that she’s had messages from many viewers who have gone through similar things. “Both men and women have begun to identify, or seen circumstances which they can relate to,” she said on the show. “Some of the stuff that you see is anodyne compared to what has happened to people. All the stuff we show is rooted in fact.”

    What is coercive control?

    Women’s Aid defines it as “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim”.

    For the abuser, coercive control is a way of isolating the victim from support, and policing their everyday behaviour to the point that they are fearful of their reaction in every element of their life. Experts like Evan Stark – founder of one of America’s first shelters for abused women – liken coercive control to being taken hostage, say Women’s Aid. He explained, “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear”.

    A 2014 study reported by Women’s Aid suggests that 95 in 100 domestic abuse survivors experience some form of coercive control. And while it by no means affects women alone, a 2015 study found that women are more likely than men to be victims of abuse that involves degradation and threats.

    Why is more coercive control happening in lockdown?

    Experts have revealed that all forms of domestic abuse has been on the rise during the current coronavirus lockdown, with men and women trapped indoors with their abuser, unable to escape. Sinead Cregan, director of development and innovation at domestic abuse support charity, Inspire North, explained, “all kinds of domestic abuse seem to be increasing during the lockdown. Previously victims may have had some respite when the perpetrator was at work, or they were at work, but lockdown is increasing the time people are spending together under one roof, with limited opportunities to leave”.

    Women’s Aid, a charity fighting against domestic abuse, reported a 41% increase in users visiting their Live Chat help section during the first two weeks of lockdown. Calls to Refuge, another charity against domestic violence, have also soared by 50% in the week before 15th April. Karen Ingala Smith, founder of Counting Dead Women, a project which records deaths of women by men, has suggested that, terrifyingly, domestic abuse killings have more than doubled during the lockdown.

    Dr Emma Katz, an expert on coercive control and Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth studies at Liverpool Hope University, agreed that a system of abuse like coercive control is likely to thrive during the COVID-19 lockdown. The author of upcoming book ‘Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives’, explains, “When it comes to coercive control, the lockdown means that dangerous behaviours might escalate more quickly. We know that perpetrators like to be in control. Now, however, a big part of their normal lives are restricted. So in order to get back to their normal levels of control, they may impose stricter control on their families, to up their sense of power and control once more. And that’s a terrible problem for the victims. Normal escape routes that help victims to cope with perpetrators’ control are cut off.”

    Sinead from Inspire North told us that storylines in shows like Coronation Street are also bringing more situations involving this form of abuse to light. “Coercive control has also become more prominent in the sense of awareness. We are receiving more calls and referrals to our domestic abuse services related to coercive control, and we have noticed that the Coronation Street storyline has helped more people to recognise the patterns of behaviour,” she said.

    Signs of coercive control: how to spot it

    Due to the nature of the issue, Dr Katz warns that coercive control is a form of abuse that can often go undetected – even by the victim. “This is a problem that can often fly under the radar, or be dismissed as ‘relationship problems’. But coercive control is nightmarish. It’s an attack on your liberty, your autonomy, your ability to make decisions.”

    Women’s Aid note that coercive control can include many forms of control on your daily life, from who you talk to, to what you buy.

    They state that some of the signs of coercive control include:

    • Isolating you from your support system, e.g. friends and family
    • Controlling your finances
    • Threatening you (sometimes physically)
    • Monitoring your time
    • Monitoring your online life
    • Depriving you of basic needs, such as food, and of essential services such as medical attention
    • Being verbally abusive – humiliating or degrading you, or consistently putting you down

    Elaborating on the signs of coercive control, Dr Katz explained that is can feel like someone has ‘hijacked’ your life. She said, “Ordinary, everyday decisions are taken out of your hands – who to be friends with, who not to be friends with, how we want to present ourselves, how we want to dress, whether we want to do a certain job or not.

    “Coercive control is nightmarish. It’s an attack on your liberty, your autonomy, your ability to make decisions”

    “The perpetrator doesn’t want a ‘partner’, or ‘children’, they want slave-like figures who are there to serve them,” Dr Katz elaborated. “And they gain compliance through an awful system of reward and punishment. There might be intermittent rewards to keep you hooked in, giving you a sense of hope and making you think, ‘Okay, things are not so bad’. But then you’ll also get punishment when you disobey the perpetrator’s rules and go against their regime of coercive control.”

    While anyone can face coercive control, at the hands of anyone, there can be some early warning signs in the first few weeks and months of meeting a new partner.

    “It’s easy for coercive control to escalate without the victim even realising what’s happening. When we’re talking about an adult perpetrator and an adult victim, the relationship might begin really quickly. The perpetrator seems to idolise you,” Dr Katz said.

    Credit: Getty Images

    “Things move along really quickly because they’re keen to get you committed to the relationship, fast. Importantly, the victim might not see this behaviour as a red flag. They might interpret it as, ‘He/she cares about me so much. It’s romantic’.”

    However, things can quickly escalate.

    Dr Katz continued, “But then the perpetrator might start sending too many texts in a day, getting annoyed if you don’t reply or pick up the phone. They might suggest a joint bank account, making it harder for you to break away financially. They might also want to know precisely what you’ve spent your money on, demanding to see receipts.”

    How can coercive control impact children?

    Lucy Hadley, Campaigns and Policy manager at Women’s Aid, warns that children can also be victims of coercive control.

    She said, “For far too long, however, children have been seen as ‘witnesses’ to physical violence rather than as individuals impacted by the power and control in their home. We know that children do not only witness domestic abuse, they are survivors in their own right.

    MORE: Baby loss: Maintaining a relationship with your partner after the death of a child

    “Recent research suggests that children and young people experience forms of control similar to that inflicted on their survivor parent – including isolation from support, restricted freedoms and control of their activities.”

    And this can even extend beyond the time when a parent may have separated from their abuser.

    child, what is coercive control

    Credit: Getty Images

    “The harm children experience can also continue after the parents have separated; child contact arrangements can be used by perpetrator of domestic abuse to continue controlling a mother and her children, and this can have severe and long-lasting impacts on their safety and wellbeing,” she told GoodtoKnow.

    As such, Lucy explained, “We [Women’s Aid] are calling for the Domestic Abuse Bill to clearly acknowledge the impact of domestic abuse and coercive, controlling behaviour on children.”

    The issues with prosecution when it comes to coercive control

    While strides in domestic abuse laws are being made, Dr Katz worries that too-lenient sentences for coercive control is a huge issue in stopping its occurrence. She said, “Sentences for coercive control are typically very low, with perpetrators handed a few months or a year or two on the back of horrific histories where they have psychologically tortured their victims for 15 years or more.

    “The maximum you can get for coercive control is five years in prison – but many perpetrators don’t get that maximum, they get a couple of years at most.”

    But it seems one country in the UK is miles ahead of the issue, with Scotland recently bringing in tougher punishments for coercive control. Dr Katz said, “In Scotland, however, a new domestic abuse bill came into force in 2018 which put coercive control right at the heart of the issue, and their maximum sentence is 15 years, which is so much better than five years when it comes to sending a serious message.”

    “Perpetrators are often handed a few months or a year or two [in prison], on the back of horrific histories where they have psychologically tortured their victims for 15 years or more”

    Women’s Aid told GoodtoKnow that sentencing needs to begin to match the severity of the crime, urgently.

    Lucy Hadley said, “Sentencing for coercive and controlling behaviour must reflect that it is a serious crime, which can have severe and long-lasting impacts on survivors’ lives. Sentencing plays a vital role in holding perpetrators accountable for their actions and sending a clear message to the public that this behaviour is not acceptable.

    “Women’s Aid remains highly concerned that there is still no national data collected on sentencing for domestic abuse, including coercive control, which we need in order to understand whether sentences are effective in tackling these crimes.”

    What steps do we need to take as a society to tackle it?

    Sinead Cregan believes that more early education is needed to help people in society – not only survivors – recognise coercive control as the horrific form of abuse it is.

    She said, “Education and awareness is crucial. We need more education so that people know what coercive control looks like, and what a healthy relationship should be. A national effort would make a huge difference, especially if this is built into the National Curriculum.

    “We also need to get across the huge impact that coercive control has. Victims are often left with PTSD and hyper vigilance, sometimes for years after leaving the relationship.”

    Where and how to get help for coercive control

    Recognising coercive control is one of the first steps to getting help.

    If you feel you are in a controlling relationship and need help, you can call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

    The helpline is open 24/7, and they can support you and advise you – without judgement – on what to do next, whether you’ve left your abuser, or are planning or hoping to.

    Call the National Domestic Abuse helpline 24/7 on 0808 2000 247

    However, if you feel unable to pick up the phone, you can contact the helpline via message as well, here. The message will go a secure inbox which only the team can access, and leaving a message here won’t leave any trace on your emails. They will also ask for the safest way to contact you, and the safest time, too. The helpline also reassures that they will not leave voicemails, for your safety.

    There is also a huge range of resources on the Refuge website and Women’s Aid website to help you if you are looking for your next steps out of a controlling relationship.