“He doesn’t punch me and give me black eyes, so I don’t think it really counts”.
This sentence, from a young survivor of coercive control, encapsulates perfectly the myths we have absorbed about domestic abuse.
He controls your money, but it’s okay because he’s never gotten physical.
He puts you down all the time, but that’s not really enough to get help, is it?
He stops you from seeing your friends and forces you to do things you don’t want to, but no one would believe you even if you told someone about it. In fact, maybe his jealousy and possessiveness are normal and just an expression of his love, like he says.
These insidious and harmful ideas run throughout society, from the general public, to the police and social services, to victims of abuse themselves. The public conversation is slowly shifting to recognise what the law already has – coercive and controlling behaviour became a crime punishable by up to two years in prison in 2015. In the sector, we tend to use the phrase “domestic abuse” as opposed to “domestic violence”, in recognition of the fact that “violence” (as commonly understood) isn’t always present in abuse.
However, attitude shifts can be glacially slow. Despite the legislation, we are still struggling to recognise just how big an impact being subject to coercive control can have on someone’s mental health, confidence and independence, even where there is no physical violence.
This desperately needs to change. Coercive control is so widespread, and yet unacknowledged. 56% of 16-21-year-olds report having experienced controlling behaviour from a partner. 1 in 3 young people say they find it difficult to define the line between a caring action and a controlling one. These figures don’t just “get better” as these survivors grow up – it takes education, awareness-raising, and support.
If the services designed to support victims of crimes and abuse don’t understand coercive control, and aren’t able to notice the signs, how on earth are the victims themselves supposed to understand what is happening to them? How do they find the strength to get out of a damaging and dangerous situation, when the whole world is telling them nothing is wrong, because they aren’t being hit?
The 2015 coercive control legislation was intended to help transform the response to abuse, but the ONS has found that the application of the law is not consistent. There were 9,053 recorded offences of coercive control in the year ending March 2018, but only 960 offences resulted in prosecution being taken as far as the courts. Most cases are dropped without charge – there have only been 235 successful convictions since the law was introduced.
The police, the wider criminal justice system, social services, and employers need a deeper understanding of how power and control work. Our whole society needs to understand that physical violence is not the be-all and end-all of domestic abuse.
Towards this aim, we welcome the Welsh Government’s new campaign, This Isn’t Love, #ThisIsControl. The campaign aims to raise awareness of coercive behaviours so more victims can come forward and receive the help they need.
At the campaign launch yesterday, many survivors spoke out about their experience of living under coercive control. One of those survivors was Luke Hart, who, along with his brother Ryan, aims to raise awareness of coercive control after their father murdered their mother and sister when they finally tried to leave the abuse.
“We never thought he was dangerous. We thought he was horrible – a nasty person – but never thought he was dangerous, but that’s because we didn’t understand that control is at the root of domestic abuse,” Luke has said. “The violence seemed to come out of nowhere, but control had always been growing and murder is the ultimate act of control, it was the next step on that journey.”
As a society, as services which support victims, as individuals who almost certainly know someone who has experienced or is experiencing abuse, we owe survivors and victims a deeper understanding. We owe them recognition that abuse is more than physical violence. As Luke Hart explained further of his father:
“Violence wasn’t the reason he was dangerous. It was his desire for control that made him dangerous.”
Survivors deserve to be respected and believed. They deserve to know that being controlled and coerced is not normal, is not healthy, and that they don’t have to live with it. They deserve specialist support which is fully informed about coercive control and how dangerous it can be to leave.
Raise awareness. Learn the signs. Support survivors.
And always remember, if you need support or advice, our specialist workers are here to talk, 24/7. Call 02920 460 566 whenever is safe for you.