Graphic by Anya Wotton

The shifting politics of coercive control

The concept of coercive control has a long history, overlooked in recent discussions about intimate partner violence, Professor Carolyn Strange writes.  

Coercive control in intimate partner relationships is an issue that has shot to prominence in the past decade. A pattern of behaviour that includes isolation, threats, occasional indulgences, intimidation, and degradation, it enhances perpetrators’ sense of omnipotence. And it frequently precedes fatal incidents of domestic violence.    

Although the impact of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns has brought this problem into sharper relief, the concept of coercive control has longer roots overlooked in recent efforts to stem intimate partner violence.  

In the early 19th century, child-rearing authorities understood coercive control as proper parenting. They advised that young children must not be left to do as they wish: the wilful impulses of the child should bend to the wise direction of the parent.  

Similarly, the common law principle of ‘couverture’ dictated that the rights and obligations of women dissolved upon marriage, subsumed under those of her husband, whose total mastery of his mate was unlimited, short of extreme violence.  

Criminal law is ill- suited to alter behaviour, particularly in the realm of intimate relationships.

Women’s rights advocates identified these legally-sanctioned controls men had over their wives and children as unjust.

Before they marched for the vote, campaigners such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained that patriarchal marriage gave men “absolute tyranny” over women, which left wives “dependent and abject”. Amendments to marital property laws and provisions for women’s greater access to divorce were the fruits of these campaigns in many jurisdictions.  

However, the association of coercive control with gender inequality waned after the early-20th century. Instead, the term was used to condemn authoritarianism.  

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim said that the Nazi regime’s use of “terror and secrecy” was a “modern method of complete coercion” forcing individuals to “conform to the will of the totalitarian state”.    

During the Cold War, mind control and brainwashing were identified as coercive control, calculated to erode selfhood and implant alien thoughts and beliefs. An American report on Korean War prisoners of war (POWs) determined that this “extreme of coercion” was “beyond [the captive’s] ability to resist”. Thus, no man subjected to mind control should be punished for aiding the enemy.  

The revival of feminist politics and the establishment of women’s shelters in the 1970s led scholars to apply these findings to the gender dynamics of domestic violence. One of the clinical psychiatrists who interviewed POWs, Margaret T Singer, likened men’s domineering treatment of female partners to the psychological torture of servicemen.  

In the 1980s, the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ emerged to explain women’s violent treatment in intimate relationships. Women tolerated abuse because they suffered from ‘battered woman syndrome’. This notion, deployed in courtrooms and aired in popular media, effectively blamed victims. On top of that, the few women who retaliated with violence struggled to find sympathy or support.  

Nevertheless, research on coercive control continued to emphasise perpetrators’ manipulative behaviour. Like captors of enemies, men convinced themselves that controlling women’s bodies and minds was justified. In fact, their tactics were those of terrorists. In 1982, psychologist Steven Morgan declared that “conjugal terrorism is the use or threatened use of violence in order to break down the resistance of the victim to the will of the terrorist”.  

The difference, of course, was that female partners and ex-partners did not endure intimidation and violence through war or hostage-taking. Yet women everywhere made up the vast majority of domestic violence victims and fatalities, overwhelmingly at the hands of male partners.    

The first Australian jurisdiction to criminalise coercive control was Tasmania, which in 2004 set a maximum prison term of two years for “emotional abuse or intimidation”. Since then, enforcement has been spotty.   

Higher rates of policing and punishment have been reported in the UK, Ireland and Scotland, where criminal laws were modified in the mid-2010s. Several Australian states are poised to follow, including NSW, where coercive control was evident in the lead-up to 77 of 78 homicides of women perpetrated by male partners or ex-partners between 2017 and 2019.  

Yet, criminal law is ill-suited to alter behaviour, particularly in the realm of intimate relationships. Some critics warn of criminal overreach. Others fear that perpetrators will use the law against their victims.   

And no one, including advocates of criminalisation, imagines that women will be safer without public education, targeted training of police and court officers, plus fully-resourced support services for women — and for men.  

Supporting criminal law in these respects is costly and controversial. But without such commitments, criminal sanctions will remain symbols, not solutions. 

Professor Carolyn Strange is Head of the ANU School of History.