According to Essential Research polling commissioned by White Ribbon Australia, roughly 43% of cisgender men aged 18-34 do not consider “frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing a person” an example of domestic violence. The study also found 47% didn’t see “isolating a partner from loved ones and sources of support” as a sign of domestic violence along with a staggering 53% not recognising “harassment or spying via electronic means” (53%) as abusive behaviour. But, as a matter of fact, these are just as serious forms of abuse as physical violence and non-consensual sex, and examples of coercive control.
And, notably, coercive control and abuse isn’t just linked to heterosexual relationships, either, and men can be victims of it, too. Per the Australian Institute of Family Affairs, in 2006, the Australian Research Centre for Health and Sexuality conducted a national demographic, health and wellbeing survey of 5,476 LGBTQIA+ people and found around 28% of male-identifying people and 41% of female-identifying people surveyed reported being in a relationship where a partner was abusive. In another smaller study in Victoria by the ARCHS in 2008, a third of 390 LGBTQIA+ respondents admitted being in a same-sex relationship where they had experience abuse by their partner, with 78% of said abuse being psychological.
But, what exactly is coercive control? How do I recognise it and what are the signs that I might be the toxic person in the relationship? To best understand, Syrup spoke to journalist and author of See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, Jess Jill.
What is coercive control?
“Coercive control is a pattern of controlling behaviour that is humiliating and degrading, makes the victim feel like they are being surveilled and micromanaged, makes them doubt their instinct, isolates them from friends and family, and reduces them to a state of confusion and self-blame,” explains Jill. “Gaslighting is extremely common—denying things that happen in front of the victim’s eyes, or accusing them of being the abusive person in the relationship.”
“Abusive people who use coercive control may know exactly what they’re doing—they use these behaviours strategically, like tactics. But more often than not, they recreate these same behaviours unconsciously. To the victim, it doesn’t matter—the harm is the same either way. This is the most dangerous form of domestic abuse, and almost a constant in cases that end up in homicide.”
HOW CAN COERCIVE CONTROL AFFECT OUR MENTAL HEALTH AND SELF-ESTEEM?
“Victims of coercive control can feel like they are suffering from anxiety and depression, or even feel like they are losing their mind,” explains Jill. “Victims often describe ‘walking on eggshells,’ that they never know what will make their partner angry. Some people talk about being afraid of their partner, but often the feeling is a lot more confusing than that: you can still love them, but feel a growing sense of unease, and of inferiority, or a sense that you can’t even describe what feels wrong, but that you just generally don’t feel safe to be yourself.”
“They often feel like they’re losing their friends, or feel suspicious of people they used to trust. When it becomes clear to victims that they’re being abused, the realisation itself can be a moment of serious trauma, and it can trigger an intense traumatic reaction that may take weeks, months or years to fully process and feel recovered from—some say they go on to a type of ‘post-traumatic growth,’ others feel a type of chronic trauma that lasts their lifetime.”
“It’s important that, if you can afford [or] access it, you seek guidance from a counsellor. It’s extremely difficult to recover from coercive control on your own.”
How can I tell whether I’m the toxic person in a relationship?
“Be honest with yourself: are you constantly accusing your partner of being unfaithful, making nasty or belittling ‘jokes’ about them, criticising them constantly or texting and calling them obsessively,” asks Jill. “Have you screamed at or stood over them aggressively, or pressured them into doing something sexually that they don’t want to do? Do you throw or bash things when you are angry, drive dangerously with them in the car, or physically injure them? Have you threatened to harm yourself if they leave you?”
“Do you try to limit their independence, and are you threatened by them having close connections with friends or workmates? These are all signs that you are exhibiting toxic behaviour in a relationship—and, if you are ticking a lot of these behaviours, you may be using coercive control.”
What are some toxic traits we should look out for?
“Coercive control in teenage relationships can look like an intense kind of love: a partner who is jealous of attention you get from other people, always wants to be with you, who doesn’t want you going out without them, who often shows up unannounced, who wants to know where you are at all times, who is worried that your friends and family ‘aren’t good for you,’” explains Jill. “But these are not just the signs of infatuation; they are the early warning signs of coercive control.”
“Toxic traits to look out for include a partner who checks your phone, constantly accuses you of cheating, who never apologises and twists every argument into being your fault, who threatens to harm themselves if you break up with them, who tells you what to eat or wear (or just makes humiliating comments about either), who constantly makes degrading ‘jokes’ about you and then has a go at you for not having a sense of humour. It’s also common for abusive people to lie or conceal addictions, or to be unfaithful themselves.”
“Another common trait in abusive partners is an obsession with porn, and an insistence that unless you recreate pornographic acts, you don’t love them. Outside of the relationship, abusive people may be charming and well-liked—that doesn’t mean that you are to blame because their behaviour towards you seems ‘out of character.’”
“How they are in their intimate relationships may be totally different to how they are with friends and family. Coercive controllers may use physical or sexual violence, or they may not. The most dangerous abuser may never lay a hand on someone before they commit an act of serious, even murderous violence.”
What should I do if I recognise some of the things I’m doing are examples of coercive control?
“If you are worried about your own behaviour, call Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491—a specialist helpline for men using controlling or violent behaviour against a partner or family member—or Mensline on 1300 789 978, another confidential telephone counselling line.”
Note: If you recognise some of the things you are doing as examples of coercive control and either don’t identify as male-presenting or don’t feel comfortable contacting the above hotlines, we also recommend 1800 RESPECT or QLife on 1800 184 527.
What can we do to help collectively stop coercive control?
“Be aware of the signs,” says Jill. “If someone you care about starts to seem more withdrawn, more worried about upsetting their partner, more anxious and depressed, tell them about the changes you’re noticing in them.”
“Even if you think their partner is dangerous, don’t condemn the partner; condemn their behaviour, and help your friend to understand coercive control. If they’re willing, recommend that they call 1800 RESPECT to get advice on what to do next. If you are worried your friend or loved one is in imminent and serious danger, call the police.”
Coercive control is actually illegal in a number of countries including Scotland, the UK, Ireland and Wales, but not yet in Australia. If you want to help change this, sign this petition calling on the government to make coercive control a crime. It could help change the lives of thousands of people. You can learn more about coercive control in Jess Jill’s book here.