Abuse by one partner towards another comes in various forms. It might be hits and slaps when arguments get out of hand, the violent expression of jealousy and insecurity, or in its worst form, a pattern of strategic acts designed to inflict maximal terror, subjugation and humiliation. This last form, a pattern of torture known as ‘coercive control’, gradually destroys its victims’ spirits. In our report, ‘Beyond Violence: breaking cycles of domestic abuse’, published next week for the Centre for Social Justice, myself and Dr Samantha Callan call for it to be made a serious criminal offence.
Perpetrators of coercive control deliberately target their victim’s ‘weakspots’ and vulnerabilities. They use tactics such as stalking, threatening and hurting children (to get at the victim), sexual humiliations such as insisting upon degrading ‘inspections’, locking up and isolating from friends and family, controlling money and possessions, playing mind games designed to make the victim think they are going mad, and threats and punishments to make them stay and comply.
In my clinical practice I have worked with both victims of coercive control and victims of more classic forms of torture (for example those inflicted by repressive regimes).
The similarities are striking, in fact the only major difference is that victims of coercive control have to deal with the added horror that their torturer was their partner – someone they once trusted and welcomed into their life. And contrary to popular belief these victims are not a one-in-a-million rarity. When asked, many traumatized victims in refuges for people who have been domestically abused recount the ways their partner or ex- used to control and terrorise them. The problem is they are not often asked.
Society and the law focus on the physical violence in domestic abuse – it is tangible, easy to measure and notice. But if we stop to listen to victims, we find that they are most hurt not from the physical blows, but from being the object of a co-ordinated attempt to dominate and crush them. It takes all their strength to resist, and even this might not be enough: many are killed or commit suicide each year, and thousands more end their lives as ghosts of their former selves.
With its focus on incidents of physical violence, the law has a blindspot for coercive control: it is unable to respond appropriately to the serious wrongdoing embedded in the pattern of acts. Yet the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Often each act could only be classified as a minor crime (if a crime at all), but over weeks, months and years they accumulate to destroy a life.
The law must be updated to include a new serious criminal offence of coercive control, in which prosecutions can be brought on the basis of a course of conduct in which a person has acted strategically to control, isolate, terrorise and/or degrade their victim. This law would be a giant step towards stopping perpetrators of the worst form of domestic abuse eluding the system, and will communicate to its victims that society takes their suffering seriously.
Forty years ago there was little recognition of the wrongdoing involved in domestic abuse. As society started to see that physical violence was as, if not more, harmful when perpetrated by family members, the law was applied to domestic assaults more proactively. It must now be updated to reflect a new understanding – that the worst violations, harms and malicious intentions in domestic abuse are in strategic patterns of control and subjugation, not in discrete acts of physical violence. It is time to find justice for those tortured by coercive control.