Inside the Cage: A More Nuanced Understanding of Domestic Abuse

Content warning: domestic abuse; murder

Start with the cage and everything changes.

Or so says Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and leading voice on ‘coercive control’. Despite recent changes to the law, the public perception of domestic abuse remains outdated: confined to the individual and thought to only include physical violence. We must appreciate the ‘cage’ structure within which domestic abuse victims live. 

The term ‘coercive control’ was first coined in Stark’s influential work Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (2007). However, it was only criminalised in England and Wales in 2015. In the Serious Crimes Act 2015, coercive control was defined as ‘a pattern of acts, including assault, threats, monitoring and intimidation designed to frighten and punish the victim and isolate them from family and friends.’ Implementation has proved difficult. By the end of August 2016, there were just 59 convictions for coercive control. This figure is low, given that coercive control is the bedrock of most domestically abusive relationships.

The nature of coercive control is insidious. Bruises are not always visible. Rather, personalised knowledge is power. It is effective because threats of violence are tailor-made to their victim; or what Stark calls, ‘intimidation that feels like love’. Various tactics such as arbitrary rules, cyberstalking and constant phone contact serve to erase the line between confinement and freedom. This is achieved by extending surveillance tactics beyond the home, to all those places where the victim might restore a sense of their autonomous identity or access support. Stark also emphasises that coercive control is a gendered crime. One of the reasons why it can be so difficult to spot is that it involves behaviours that conform to normative gender performances. Men are more likely to deploy coercive control tactics successfully because they fit within a cultural script of masculinity which demands they take control. Abusers often draw on women’s feminine identities in their abuse, such as criticising their abilities as housewives and mothers.

To understand the dynamics of coercive control, we need to shift our understanding of domestic abuse away from one defined solely by incidents of physical violence. In February 2020, Hannah Clarke and her three young children were brutally killed in a car fire in Brisbane set by her abusive ex-partner. Yet before her murder, Hannah was subject to little physical violence. However, Hannah’s former partner controlled microscopic details of her life. He told her what to wear. He monitored her phone. He isolated her from her family. The traditional ‘calculus of harms’ used by the police is, in fact, a very poor marker of domestic violence. The best indicator of domestic abuse is not its severity, but its frequency, duration and cumulative impact. Instead of measuring the suffering of women in bruises and broken bones, the experience of coercive control is better understood as akin to living under a tyrannical regime. 

Coercive control has even more complex implications in cases where women have killed their abusers. A landmark case which drew attention to coercive control was that of Sally Challen, a woman who was convicted in 2011 for the first-degree murder of her husband, Richard. She was released on appeal in 2019, after Harriet Wistrich, founder of Justice for Women, used Richard’s manipulative behaviour over thirty-one years of  marriage to explain Sally’s actions. For example, after the couple separated, and Sally found it difficult to cope on her own, Richard came up with a ‘post-nuptial contract’ as conditions for having her back, which included the insistence that Sally quit smoking, not interrupt him amongst friends, and only accept £200,000 in a settlement of their joint assets.

However, the apparent triumph for the coercive control argument, used in Sally’s defence was far from absolute. Though Sally’s appeal was granted, the judges emphasised that they were more persuaded by the recent psychological discoveries about Sally’s mental health, than by the new coercive control framework. This is because, coercive control in itself does not fall under the two possible defences for murder: provocation and diminished responsibility. Stark, who was an expert witness in the Challen case, believes that lawyers should be able to use a “liberty defence” rather than a psychiatric one. When framed as a capture crime, the narrative changes. After all, no one would charge a hostage victim with homicide for killing their captor. In Sally’s case, it was not enough that her husband had constrained her liberty for decades and controlled her, she had to be seen as mentally ill. We are a long way off recognising the retaliation of abused women as self-defence and a desperate bid to escape rather than an act of fatal insanity.

Coercive control remains a difficult offence to prosecute. Police are not trained to ask about the signs of coercive control, such as the sequestering of finances, dictating a partner’s physical appearance and even reproductive control. The sheer number of cases means that police cannot often afford to look beyond the isolated incident which has been called to their attention. Because crimes of coercive control are difficult to identify and to prosecute, repeat abusers may have no official criminal history. Moreover, victims often retract their statements. Natalie Hemming, who was murdered in May 2016 by her partner had made statements to the police about his controlling and abusive behaviour as far back as nine years before her murder but had retracted them all. Yet retraction should be recognised as a potential sign of coercive control in and of itself. 

The difficult reality is that, for many domestic abuse victims, it is far easier to stay with their abuser than to leave. Some of the reasons women might feel they can’t leave their abusive home life include economic dependence, wanting to protect their children, lacking a support system and fear of the escalation of violence. This reluctance to leave their abusers, or press charges against them, can cause frustration amongst the authorities. 

Yet, once we are able to understand domestic abuse as a long-term capture crime, rather than a series of individual violent episodes, we will have a clearer view of the ‘cage’ which entraps domestic abuse victims. It will also help us to see why victims respond to abuse in the way they do, either in their reluctance to leave or, in rare cases, their violent retaliations. The coercive control framework allows us to see the nuanced workings within the intimate crime of domestic abuse.

Photo courtesy of Deleece Cook

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