Coercive Control

Content Warning: intimate relationship violence.

Have you ever felt that someone you know – someone you love, even – has lingered cruelly in a space that should have been your own? The psychological violence of it might have confused you. After all, governmentalities have long dictated, forcibly, which of our actions are to be understood as socially permissible; the normalisation, surveillance and examination of patterns which yield outcomes that would otherwise have been preceded by violence or aggression, such that victims’ consent is manufactured, is arguably the macropolitical equivalent of ‘coercive control’.
Instances of coercive control can be committed at any stage of, and even before or after, any intimate relationship. Behavioural examples include: initiating the relationship via ‘lovebombing’, feigned charm or other forms of manipulation; ‘gaslighting’ victims, so as to misshape their reality; imposing undue financial restrictions upon them; isolating them; requiring that they wear or do things they otherwise would not; stalking; intimidation; micromanaging; dehumanisation; contrasting abuse with kindness, intermittently, to entrench the relationship; and, throughout, operating according to a double standard. Often, these form part of a pattern which engenders, or sustains and thus habituates, physical and emotional violence. As journalist-author Jess Hill described, “each abusive strand is woven so tightly and imperceptibly that it is almost impossible to describe … to themselves [and] outsiders what is going on, unless the abuser is brutish and clumsy – leaving evidence on her skin”. Sociologist Evan Stark argues evidence suggests that patterns of control are better predictors, of future sexual assault and severe or fatal violence, than past acts of physical assault.
Late last year, the Queensland Labor-Palaszczuk Government affirmed its intent for enacting coercive control legislation. Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman expects the issue to enter parliamentary debate early next year. This comes as bills proposing the criminalisation of coercive control sit before the Parliaments of South Australia and New South Wales, and in view of similar legislation in Tasmania and abroad. Di Farmer, Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, emphasised the need for a comprehensive approach.
This will comprise a stakeholder and legal expert consultation process, community awareness campaign, training for first responders and case workers to better recognise coercive control.
Even as part of a comprehensive approach, criminalisation is not itself uncontentious; Queensland’s 2015 Special Taskforce made no such recommendation.
Indeed, as UQ Law Deputy Dean (Research) Heather Douglas explicates, revictimisation – via courts processes – manifests in errant judicial behaviours, overzealous and misguided policing, and systems abuse or ‘procedural stalking’. For Douglas, that legislature have been slow to “explicitly identify legal system abuse as a form of domestic abuse” is unsurprising, since “engaging in the legal system is generally considered a right and … a tool rather than a behaviour”. In this way, criminalisation may give rise to systems abuses which would not otherwise occur. Broadly, false hope is an issue the newest taskforce must consider, lest it ‘fruitlessly’ (for want of a better word) endanger victims. Hope, though, must never be contentious; at the very least, that much is certain.

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