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The invisible nature of coercive control

What does coercive control look like?

Researcher Evan Stark (2007) has used the term liberty crime to describe the actions associated with coercive control and thereby to diminish their partner’s autonomy and space for action. He also suggested that coercive control can and does occur in public settings and is not limited to “behind closed doors” behaviour that restricts the liberty and free choice of the victims of this crime.

For victims it can mean having to ask permission to meet the most basic of their needs – going to the toilet, showering, eating, sleeping, seeking comfort – but also the micromanagement of all aspects of their lives from the moment they wake. Stark (2007) argues that because it goes on in the prevailing environment of gender inequality, this ‘management’ appears normal or justified.

As we learned earlier, the reason coercive control tactics are so successful and can occur in public and other settings, is that these specific acts can be viewed by those in proximity or in a position to learn of the tactics, in the context of a man being protective of his partner and children.

An abuser can be in the most public of places, surrounded by family or friends – at work, travelling, even in prison – without losing a single inch of the ground captured through this invisible form of invasion.

Brennan et al., (2019. p 638) noted: ‘although it (coercive control) infiltrates many areas of the relationship, it can continue undetected to outsiders, increasing feelings of powerlessness and disconnection to the wider networks. Given the invisibility of many of the mechanisms of coercive control to those outside the relationship, emerging research suggests that this form of abuse is difficult to identify, assess and respond to in practice’.


Another challenge in the identification of the acts of coercive control as domestic violence is that our service system is primarily built around a justice response, and a justice response requires evidence of acts of violence to prosecute.
Stark (2007, p. 86) suggests that part of the problem can be that the conventional definition of domestic violence has been adapted from criminal justice, which considers crimes as discrete acts.
Terms such as recidivist offenders, re-offending etc and responses built around police call outs shape understanding of domestic and family violence as an incident, rather than a pattern of behaviour that is occurring all the time.
(Vlais et al., 2017, p.18).
After interviewing perpetrators of violence, academics Kelly and Westmarland (2016, p. 114) argue that;
Framing domestic violence in terms of incidents – whether in research, policy definitions or practice response – reflects how violent men describe their behaviour rather than what we know from survivors. What women describe is an ongoing ‘everyday’ reality in which much of their behaviour is micro-managed by the abuser; this includes what they wear, where they go and who they see, household management and childcare. None of these are incidents, nor would they be considered crimes.

The Psychology of Coercive Control

With the act of coercive control being so “hidden” (in plain sight) it then becomes important for a responsive service system to develop the capacity to measure it or see it.
In their 2017 article, Hamberger et al. suggest that our understanding of coercive control “can only advance theoretically and empirically if it can be adequately measured” (p. 3).
In reviewing the literature, Hamberger et al. (2017) found and reported on 22 different psychological measures of coercive control, some dating back decades, noting that no one consistent psychological measure has emerged, partly because of the absence of a definition.
In the United Kingdom, where coercive control is now recognised as a criminal act, Brennan et al. (2019) suggest the individual judgements of first responders are the most predictive of the prosecution of the crime. In summarising their findings of interviews with a cross-section of front-line service providers about their understanding and ability to enforce the relatively new UK criminal act, the authors conclude that:
Services… were not conceptually, structurally, or procedurally prepared to respond to abuse that was not violent, which limited the potential for the successful reporting, prevention, and prosecution of coercive control offences. The most significant factor shaping the way discretion is exercised in relation to domestic abuse and coercive control is the individual’s knowledge of the issue.

(Brennan et al., 2019, p. 636)

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Understanding Coercive Control

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