Understanding of coercive control 'absolutely imperative', Jess Hill says

We need to talk about coercive control

It's the abuse that doesn't leave a physical mark but leaves victims humiliated, threatened and frightened. It's coercive control.

And award-winning investigative journalist believes the time is now for us to have a greater understanding of its impact.

Jess Hill's comments came as a federal parliamentary inquiry prepared to hear evidence about making coercive control a criminal offence.

They also came as the number of women in Australia known to have lost their lives to violence in 2020 rose to 49.

Hill, the author of 2020 Stella Prize winner 'See What You Made Me Do', addressed attendees at a webinar by Greater Bendigo Against Family Violence, Women's Health Loddon Mallee and the City of Greater Bendigo on Tuesday.

The event formed part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, a global movement which started on November 25.

November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Four women are known to have died by violence in Australia since that date.

Hill said coercive control had become the subject of intense media interest since Rowan Baxter murdered Queensland woman Hannah Clarke and their three children in February.

And she believed that interest would intensify as states including Victoria considered criminalising it.

"What we're talking about when we understand coercive control is finally moving away from our incident-based approach to domestic violence, to understanding how the systems of abuse actually never switch off," Hill said.

"It's not about an explosion or overreaction... that all these other behaviours are part and parcel of the abuse."

Understanding coercive control

Hill said Rowan Baxter had become an exemplar for coercive control because he showed exactly how dangerous controlling and degrading abuse could be.

"What shocked people was to hear there had been little to no physical violence in the relationship before that horrific act of violence that took Hannah and the three children's lives," she said.

Yet, Hill said there was a distinct pattern of abuse, which included:

  • Isolating Ms Clarke from family and friends;
  • Depriving her of basic needs like food, clothing and sleep;
  • Controlling where she went, who she interacted with and what she wore;
  • Preventing her getting medical attention;
  • Belittling her for her appearance and mothering ability;
  • Punishing her for breaking made-up arbitrary rules;
  • Stalking her and tracking her online;
  • Tracking and confronting other members of Ms Clarke's family;
  • Threatening to kill himself to stop Ms Clarke leaving the relationship;
  • Sharing intimate photos of Ms Clarke; and
  • Destroying the children's toys as punishment for not having put them away.

"They're not just red flags for future physical violence or domestic homicide, they're actually incredibly harmful forms of abuse in their own right," Hill said.

"Physical violence might, or might not, be used in this system of abuse, same with sexual violence.

"When it is, it's just one of many tools the abuser is using to gain greater power over their partner."

Greater Bendigo Against Family Violence supporters at the launch of this year's 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence in Bendigo. Picture: NONI HYETT

Greater Bendigo Against Family Violence supporters at the launch of this year's 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence in Bendigo. Picture: NONI HYETT

Hill said coercive control included many different types of harms that basically ended up either eroding or completely overriding someone's autonomy.

The overwhelming majority of perpetrators were men.

"More often than not the abuse in these intimate relationships follows a plot line that is so predictable," Hill said.

"You'll have been isolated in some way; you'll have had your access to money probably restricted in some way or your access to independence; you'll have been belittled and degraded; he will probably have made threats either to self-harm or to harm you and/or the kids or the animals.

"Coercive control is basically the model for understanding what this typical plot line looks like."

Recognising coercive control

Hearing coercive control explained and anatomised was often a light bulb moment for victim-survivors, Hill said.

"Especially for those who never thought of what they went through as domestic abuse because they were rarely physically assaulted," she said.

"The majority of coercive control victims actually don't know they're being abused because they're commonly made to believe they're the crazy ones, they're to blame, and they're living in this type of fog where they can't pin down what is actually happening to them."

In addition to gaslighting, Hill said monitoring and tracking was typical of coercive control.

"Front line services have reported a rise of that during COVID," she said.

Coercive control wasn't always obvious, especially at first.

"For many, what's very difficult is that coercive control is initially masked as care giving," Hill said.

"It starts with that partner who wants you to text every time you get home, not just when you arrive home after a night out, but even maybe just text where you are throughout the day because they want to make sure you're safe.

"Then over time that morphs into, 'You need to reply within five minutes otherwise there'll be consequences'.

"Or the partner who persuades you that you should spend less time with your friends and family because they're kind of bad for you and it seems like that person is looking out for you, but actually what they're doing is removing your trust in your supportive connections and therefore they're isolating you in just the same way as the partner who says you can't see friends and family."

She said victims often second guessed themselves, wondering why an apparent act of care giving felt so much like sabotage.

"In that way, that victim starts to doubt their own perceptions, doubt their own instincts, and starts to feel like they are the problem in the relationship, not their partner," Hill said.

In an environment where there was coercive control, Hill said the threat of violence was ever present - even when the perpetrator was being nice.

"If you've only got two modes of communicating with someone, one of which is a polite request and the other which is violence, the polite request is the threat of violence," she said.

She was aware of women who had been admitted to hospital for psychiatric care by partners who were abusing them. The victims initially believed they themselves were the problem.

How do we prevent violence?

"It is absolutely imperative people start to understand how severe coercive control is," Hill said.

She believed society needed to give greater signals that coercive control was unacceptable.

"At the moment a lot of men who perpetrate this abuse would not even probably identify those behaviours as a form of domestic abuse," Hill said.

"One perpetrator said when he was sitting in men's behaviour change program, aside from the physical or sexual acts of violence, 95 per cent of the men who were present could not name those other parts of coercive control as domestic abuse.

"They just did not even know that was the case. They just felt a level of entitlement or a level of socialisation that made that normal for them."

Hill believed the two predominant models for understanding men's violence - the feminist model, which asked why men abused; and the psychopathology model, which asked why a specific man abused - were essential.

However, neither fully explained what was happening.

"These are complex people with complex histories that share things in common," Hill said.

Examples included overblown senses of entitlement, victim complexes, and "a sense they are on a hair trigger for humiliation, for being disrespected, for not getting what they deserve."

"When they feel thwarted they get triggered into this type of humiliated fury," Hill said.

"Too many men are on these hair triggers because they themselves have been fundamentally disconnected from their emotionally embodied selves and they don't really have a sense of real self-love or self-worth."

Hill said grandiosity, narcissism and victim-hood were part of the defence those men had built up against being exposed.

"It's important as we really start to explore how we interrupt this violence that we think about how we connect with men who see themselves as victims," she said.

'We're in a crisis period'

Hill expressed frustration at a system that was still "no match for the power and influence perpetrators wield, not only over their partners and children but even over their ex-partners, and sometimes for decades after that relationship has ended."

"We're in a crisis period," she said.

Violence and abuse worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a large number of people either reporting that it was happening for the first time, or it was becoming more severe.

"We've come into COVID out of what was really a national disaster, which was the bushfires," Hill said.

"We know from previous bushfires that you see the same sorts of exacerbation of domestic abuse and coercive control.

"When we look at climate change science, it's fairly clear we're entering an era of what might be a new normal of rolling crises.

"So what we're seeing come out of COVID might be just giving us an indication of the sorts of exacerbated conditions we're going to be living with for the foreseeable future"

As the global movement to end gender-based violence gathered support, women experienced backlash.

Hill said family violence response services had received calls from women asking to stop advertisements against violence being aired because their partner "went nuts" whenever he saw them.

"There's something we're missing about addressing men," Hill said.

"I feel like there's some way we can be more sophisticated in our approach, and I think we have to be."

Seeking support

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, help is available:

In an emergency, phone 000.

This story We need to talk about coercive control first appeared on Bendigo Advertiser.