I have worked in the violence against women sector for over twenty years. Coercive control only became a criminal offence in December 2015. In the sector, we welcomed this news with open arms. Although the use of the legislation is off to a slow start, the message we need to get out to survivors is that coercive control is a criminal offence. The law can be used every day by professionals that work with survivors; and this message can make all the difference.
Coercive control might be ‘new’ in terms of legislation but it certainly isn’t a new type of abuse that is happening. Instead, it is the very essence of how perpetrators exert power and control over their partners; it is the ability to systematically destroy a person’s way of being, knowing and existing. Think of an invisible noose the perpetrator lays around a victim’s neck. You can’t see it, they can’t show it to you, it’s just there, always there, breathing with them, knowing their every move, weighing down their every day lives.
Now imagine that noose equates to every penny you spend, every conversation you have, every text you send, each person you make friends with on social media. Imagine it being the capacity to smile, but not too much, and not at the wrong person. To listen to the key in the lock, the footsteps in the hallway and know what the approaching mood might be. Imagine having to stay awake until you know it is safe to sleep because your kids are ok. Imagine having to pretend to be asleep to avoid another rape. Imagine feeling so isolated and so lonely that you cannot even bring yourself to call your mum, your best friend, your sister, your brother; you don’t know what to say and they wouldn’t believe you anyway…
Sometimes the noose becomes so tight you can’t breathe, and your body literally shakes. You can’t remember what you were meant to be doing or what the rules were.
Are you meant to have tea ready at 6.30 or 6.45?
Was it ok the way you asked for money towards the kids’ school trip?
Did he say you couldn’t wear that skirt, or was it the one he liked you in?
Shit, you bought skimmed milk, why did you do that? You know what happened last time….
Coercive control destroys lives. It is hard to spot and whilst everyone else is looking for signs of physical injury, perpetrators are able to continue to tie each knot, of each twine, of every necklace that becomes the invisible noose around survivors’ necks.
As professionals we need to spot the signs sooner, we need to accept that coercion is in the centre of the room; let us see it, let us make it visible, because all the time it is invisible the perpetrator has the control and we collude with it.
As a worker in the violence against women sector, my biggest joy is watching survivors undo each knot, take off the necklace and begin to breathe again. It takes time, courage, tears and support and I have been privileged to watch many survivors do this over the years. In my opinion, they are the bravest people I have ever met.
I’d like us to talk to each other more about coercion. I like to start the conversation there.
It is our responsibility to show victims and survivors that they are not alone, that what they are experiencing is not only abuse but is actually so serious it is recognised in UK law as a criminal offence.
This post originally appeared on Aurora New Dawn’s website. If you need support and are experiencing controlling or abusive behaviour, contact Aurora on 02392 479254.