The vast majority of Australians consider coercive control unacceptable, but only just over half of the population know what the term means, according to a new study from The Australian National University (ANU). 

The study asked more than 3,500 adults about their views on coercive control, a pattern of abusive behaviour designed to undermine the autonomy of another individual.  

Over 90 per cent of respondents agreed various forms of coercive control — including threatening to harm other loved ones, financial abuse and restricting contact with family and friends —were unacceptable. But just 55 per cent of respondents answered ‘yes’ when asked if they knew what the term coercive control meant. 

Report co-author Professor Lorana Bartels said beyond these statistics, attitudes and knowledge varied significantly. 

“There were significant gender differences — women were more likely than men to be very disapproving of different forms of coercive control, and they were also more likely to know what coercive control is,” Professor Bartels said. 

Support for the criminalisation of coercive control was very high, with 83 per cent of Australians agreeing or strongly agreeing that coercive control should be a criminal offence. This support was strongest among English-speaking Australians, older people and respondents with higher levels of education.  

Conversely, a significant proportion of younger people had “condoning or minimising” attitudes towards some forms of coercive behaviour. 

“These findings were really concerning for us. At 18 to 24 years old, a lot of people are starting their first serious intimate relationships,” report co-author Dr Hayley Boxall said. 

“It’s during these formative relationships that we develop our understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours within intimate relationships. So if young people think certain behaviours are ok, they may be more tolerant of them in their own and other people’s relationships.” 

Support for criminalisation of coercive control was lowest among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents.  

“This wasn’t really unexpected. Over the past few years we’ve seen a number of domestic violence and First Nations advocates and organisations express serious concerns about the over-policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” Dr Boxall said.  

According to the study’s authors, the results show a need for targeted campaigns to raise awareness of coercive control in Australia. 

“This is particularly important for young people, men and people from non-English speaking backgrounds, who were less concerned about coercive and controlling behaviours,” Professor Bartels said. 

“Showing diversity of relationships in these campaigns is also crucial, to ensure people can identify coercive control in multiple contexts. 

“More research is also needed into the reasons behind these variations in understanding and attitudes.” 

The survey is published by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.  

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