Opinion

Jess Hill
Stopping coercive control and family violence

There is a deep underground in this country, invisible to the naked eye. More than two million women alive today have lived there, and countless children. Some have escaped. Some will never leave. Some won’t be allowed to leave.

This is the world of domestic abuse in Australia.

The perpetrators who govern this underground aren’t just men with raging tempers, or men who use violence to get their way. They are men who run systematic campaigns of terror and control, in an estimated 60-80 per cent of the cases where a woman seeks help. Their tactics and behaviours are so alike, survivors say it’s as though they have studied some perpetrator’s handbook. They isolate, gaslight, micromanage, terrorise, degrade and threaten their partners to such an extent that survival – both physical and psychological – is virtually all she can focus on.

This is “coercive control”, or what some vividly label “intimate terrorism”. The system of psychological violence deployed by coercive controllers is the same used by hostage takers, cult leaders, pimps and captors seeking compliance from prisoners of war. Whether the victim is a lover or an enemy combatant, whether they act deliberately or unconsciously, the pathway is terrifyingly alike: establish trust; isolate the victim; exhaust them, monitor them, make them dependent, degrade them and create an atmosphere of hyper-vigilance and dread. But it’s at its most sinister in the home, because it’s the personal details we divulge in our intimate relationships – our deepest desires, secrets and fears – that get weaponised by the perpetrator, who uses them to form the blueprint for his abuse.

Women can be controlling, abusive and violent. But rarely can they create the atmosphere of fear and dread that is vital to the system of coercive control. That’s why, in heterosexual relationships, coercive control is almost exclusively perpetrated by men. “To make contemporary women their personal property, the modern man must effectively stand against the tide of history, degrading women into a position of subservience that the progress of civilisation has made obsolete,” writes Evan Stark, the American sociologist who popularised the term. “As batterers themselves have pointed out to me over the years, there would be no need for so many men to deploy elaborate means to control female partners if women still accepted subordination as a fate bestowed by nature.”

Even when women and children do leave, coercive controllers will often look for new ways to control or destroy them – a public campaign of abuse that can carry on for years, aided by our legal system. Many women wind up bankrupt, impoverished and traumatised. If they are disbelieved by the family law system, as many are, they can even lose custody of their kids.

When frontline workers insist domestic abuse is a national emergency, this is what they are talking about.

But there is a twist. Many of the most dangerous coercive controllers use physical violence sparingly, or not at all. Their system of fear and control requires only the believable threat of violence – to the victim or her loved ones. Savvy perpetrators know to avoid physical violence because while “incidents” of domestic violence are a crime, the system of coercive control is not.

It’s not a crime to tell your partner what to wear, or to say something happened when it didn’t so many times her sense of what’s real becomes broken. It’s not a crime to destroy your partner’s sense of self-worth, to force her to eat off the floor or to teach your child to call their mother a slut. You can’t be charged for turning someone’s entire family against them. And yet, these controlling and degrading behaviours are all red flags for future homicide.

So, what are we doing to stop these perpetrators? The short answer is: nowhere near enough.

Nationally, Australia has a plan to reduce domestic violence. It’s been going for almost a decade, and is focused particularly on long-term “primary” prevention – specifically, on changing gendered norms and attitudes through awareness raising and other initiatives, such as respectful relationship programs in schools. Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 was a world first and, to this day, no other country has a national plan to reduce gendered violence. It is radical and ambitious – of which we should be proud. In decades to come, it may fundamentally transform Australian culture.

But the question remains: how does this strategy help women and children who need protection right now? How does it stop perpetrators abusing today, tomorrow, next week? We call it a national emergency, but we don’t treat it like one. Why have we come to accept that it will take decades – possibly generations – to stop perpetrators? Why aren’t we doing everything in our power to stop them today?

If I had my hands on the policy levers, I would look at three new reforms.

First, we need to look seriously at how to make coercive control a crime. Because this abuse is legal, coercive controllers mostly evade detection and punishment. The media, too, still largely treats domestic abuse as an incident-based crime, not a behavioural regime. Criminalising coercive control, the most dangerous form of abuse, could change that.

In April, Scotland introduced new laws being held up as the “gold standard” in policing coercive control. Judges, sheriffs and 14,000 police officers and staff have been trained to recognise the “seemingly innocuous actions” that combine to create this system of abuse. Another 1000 police have been trained as “domestic abuse champions”, supporting frontline responders and helping change the culture in Scotland’s police stations.

But simply criminalising coercive control wouldn’t solve the problem at the heart of our justice response: most victims don’t want to report to police. In fact, only 20 per cent of victims in abusive relationships right now have ever reported their abuse. Even that small percentage sees police responding to a domestic abuse callout every two minutes. Women don’t report for many reasons – they think it’s trivial, they’re ashamed, they’re afraid their partner will respond, they’re afraid their children will be removed, or they just don’t trust police to act in their best interests.

These fears are well founded. Women who do report say the police response was inconsistent at best. The work done by police who go to extreme lengths to protect women and children is let down by those on the force who don’t take victims’ fears seriously, speak to them disrespectfully, collude with the perpetrator and refuse to pursue perpetrators who breach intervention orders. “On the whole,” the authors of a Victoria Police survey wrote, genuine “victims of [family violence] existed for officers only on a purely hypothetical plane, drowned out for the most part by a steady procession of imposters, liars and timewasters, presenting what were regarded as highly suspect claims to victim status.”

Reforming police attitudes among the rank and file could take years, even decades. That is time we can’t afford to waste. So why not try a new – and proven – way to police domestic abuse?

In several countries, “police stations for women” are revolutionising the reporting of domestic abuse. These stations have all the powers of regular police to investigate and make arrests but that’s where the comparison ends. Warm and inviting, they are set up in brightly painted houses where women can access all of the services they need: lawyers, social workers, psychologists, financial and medical aid. A carer will even take care of a woman’s children while she is interviewed by police. Critically, they are mostly staffed by female police.

The primary purpose at these stations is not to enforce the law; it’s to protect the victims. “They are completely guided by what the woman wants to do,” says Professor Kerry Carrington from the School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology. Carrington spent three months with the women’s police in Argentina, where there are 128 stations in the capital, Buenos Aires. “Sometimes they will help a woman apply for a protection order. Other times, she may want them to kick her abuser out of her house. She may just want them to talk to him. It’s not driven by punitiveness,” says Carrington. “It’s driven by what works.”

The results are compelling. A five-year study from Brazil, where these stations originated, showed barrios that hosted police stations for women saw their domestic homicide rate drop by 17 per cent. In metropolitan areas, the drop was much bigger: among women aged 15-24, domestic homicides were halved.

I’m not suggesting the criminal justice system is the panacea to domestic abuse. To defile an old saying, it takes a village to change a perpetrator. Communities need to own this problem, and they need to work together to fix it. In my book See What You Made Me Do, I profile two strategies that have radically reduced domestic abuse – focused deterrence in High Point, North Carolina, and justice reinvestment in Bourke, New South Wales. They have a lot in common, hinging on deep collaboration between community groups, social service agencies and police, which meet regularly to workshop individual cases. Both strategies also treat perpetrators as individuals capable of rationality and reform – if not in attitude, then in behaviour – and they prioritise victim protection. The message is clear: we want you to change because we care about you, and we will help you change your life, if you let us. But if you insist on continuing your violence, you won’t get away with it, and the penalty will be swift and severe.

“We’ve got so much awareness. We’re sick of talking about it,” says survivor turned campaigner Nicole Lee. “Just think: how many women and children this year have had to face the last moment of their life? That terror. That moment of going: Fucking hell, make it quick. Yeah, you’re gonna kill me right now, I get it. But please don’t make me suffer.

“How can I not do something?”

How can we not do something? It’s time to get real about stopping perpetrators. Not in generations to come, but right now. 

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Demote control". Subscribe here.

Jess Hill
is an investigative reporter and the author of See What You Made Me Do.