Imagine that your friend gets into a relationship with a new man. At first, things seem good. She gushes about how wonderful and attentive he is. He always calls to check up on her. He drives her places so she does not have to take public transportation. He even offers to support her financially, so she doesn’t have to work long hours anymore. However, the longer they date, the less you hear from her. He becomes jealous of her friendships, so she stops seeing you. They move to another city, away from her friends and family. You text her, but she does not reply. When you do hear from her, it is only for a short phone call. You find out she no longer leaves the house, because he worries when she is not home. He is the one working, so he gets to decide how their money is spent. She tells you that he is really a very good boyfriend. He supports her, he never hits her, and their arguments are usually her fault for not being a good enough partner. She hangs up abruptly when she hears his car pull into the driveway.
As a friend, this relationship is raising some red flags for you. Yes, he does not hit her, but what has happened to your once ambitious and independent friend? You have never heard her sound so helpless or self-deprecating before. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do, besides send more unanswered text messages.
Now imagine that a few weeks go by, and you are watching the news when your friend’s face comes onto the screen. “Woman shot by jealous ex-boyfriend.” You find out that your friend had finally had enough of feeling controlled in her relationship. However, when she went to the police to get an AVO, they told her that since he had never been physically violent with her, there was nothing they could do. The next day he tracked her phone, found her and killed her.
This scenario is all too familiar here in Australia. A year after the death of Hannah Clarke, a mother killed by her estranged husband after years of psychological abuse, brought the horrific impact of coercive control into the public eye, it is still not against the law.
So what exactly is coercive control, and why should it be criminalised?
Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse describing a pattern of controlling behaviours that give a perpetrator power over their partner by removing their autonomy and self-esteem. Signs of coercive control include monitoring activities, being financially controlling, isolating a partner from friends and family, insulting or intimidating them, sexual coercion and even making threats against children and pets. Coercive control can happen in combination with physical violence or by itself. It slowly breaks down a victim until they are in a hostage-like situation, and is often very difficult to escape. Although coercive control does not necessarily involve violence, it is a common predictor of death for women in abusive relationships.
According to the NSW Death Review Team Annual Report, many relationships ending in homicide had no history of physical violence. According to the report, “homicides were preceded by histories of other forms of coercive and controlling behaviour. In a number of cases the perpetrator refrained from using physical violence apparently to avoid police intervention, and in other cases perpetrators used extreme manipulation and controlling behaviours to attempt to control and limit their victim’s freedom and rights. Victims did not always identify that what they were experiencing was domestic violence and abuse, instead believing that their experiences were part of ordinary relationship dynamics.”
In Australia, Tasmania is the only state or territory that has criminalised elements of coercive control. Other countries, including the UK, Ireland and Scotland, have passed legislation to make coercive control a criminal offence. The Scottish approach is regarded by many as the gold standard. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act, introduced in 2019, criminalises coercive and controlling behaviours. The Act focuses on the impact of coercive control on victims, allows physical and psychological abuse to be prosecuted together and lays forward a maximum prison sentence of 14 years for controlling behaviour. In addition, prior to the law coming into effect, Scotland ran training programs with police officers to prevent misconceptions and educate them on how to best support victims and implement the new law. While it is too early to tell the full extent of the impact of the new law in Scotland, the results are already promising. Within the first year, approximately 1000 coercive control cases had already been brought to court.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a woman is killed by a current or former partner every 9 days. If coercive control is criminalised, it will create a legal pathway for victims to receive earlier interventions, protection and justice. Legitimising concerns around the behaviour of controlling partners will prevent the escalation of abuse and lead to less senseless deaths.