As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each article will be dedicated to a woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Dr Preethi Reddy, killed by a man on 3 March 2019, at the age of 32.
By Jessica Sutton.
Content warning: This article contains descriptions of violence which may distress readers.
It is almost 10 years since Lisa Harnum’s fiancé threw her to her death from the fifteenth floor of their apartment building. Lisa had been trying to end the relationship and return home to Canada.
More recently, Dr Preethi Reddy was killed by her former partner after she agreed to meet to give him “closure” about their relationship. Her body was discovered crammed into a suitcase, displaying signs of blunt force trauma and knife wounds.
This year, Hannah Clarke and her three children were doused in petrol by her former partner and set alight, leading to their deaths. Hannah had just reached a custody arrangement with the perpetrator.
These crimes have one horrific commonality: a background of sustained psychological abuse, taking the form of coercive control. By all accounts, Lisa Harnum’s fiancé had not been physically violent towards her until he killed her. Hannah reportedly struggled to identify her former partner’s behaviour as abuse, because “he never hit me”. Preethi had also not experienced violence at the hands of her former partner, until he ended her life. Coercive control has become a buzzword in the aftermath of these deaths, sparking national conversations about how to prevent and punish abuse that leaves no physical trace.
How do you identify coercive control?
Coercive control is a pattern of controlling behaviour within a relationship designed to isolate, frighten, and psychologically harm one partner to the benefit of another. This form of abuse has an inescapable gendered element. Coercive control is present in between 60% and 80% of domestic abuse cases involving female victims. It has historically been pushed aside as less serious than physical abuse. Yet, coercive control is a strong indicator of impending femicide. A New South Wales study reported that 99% of the femicide cases assessed were preceded by a period of coercive control.
Coercive control is particularly insidious for two reasons. First, the abuse tends to be gradual. A relationship with a controlling man may begin innocently, idyllically even. The female partner may be pursued intensely in the dating phase, placed on a pedestal, and treated with unusual levels of adoration. This paradisal beginning serves to trap women in relationships that later become controlling. Coercive control can begin when the controlling partner’s fantasy of a perfect woman does not live up to reality. In short, abusive men are “looking more for a personal caretaker than for a partner”.
Coercive control typically begins with seemingly innocuous actions on the part of the controlling partner. Early warning signs may include narcissistic and sexist tendencies, demanding sex, speaking insultingly about former partners, and trying to control what you wear and who you see. Over time, adoration turns to insults, intimacy to possessiveness, romance to intimidation. Women may blame themselves for this apparent decline in their relationship. I was so sure that he was the one. What did I do wrong to make him start acting like this? Is it my fault?
Eventually, abusive behaviours escalate into isolating the victim from their loved ones, attacking their self-esteem, controlling their finances and social life, monitoring their social media, and blaming them for the perpetrator’s own manipulation. These are conscious behaviours aimed at establishing control over the daily life, sexual autonomy, and domestic labour of a victim. By the time that coercive control has reached this level, leaving the relationship is extremely difficult. Leaving, or attempting to leave, may lead the perpetrator to employ physical violence to retain control or punish the victim, as was the case for Lisa, Preethi, and Hannah.
Another reason why coercive control is hard to identify is that it does not play into typical conceptions of abuse. Hannah Clarke was not alone in equating ‘real’ abuse with physical assault. Abuse that leaves no marks is harder to prove and easier to justify and ignore. Further, those who commit abuse are often stereotyped as monsters, making it more difficult for women to identify abuse when it is perpetrated by seemingly ‘good guys’. Stereotyped views of what abuse is, mean women in abusive relationships may lack the information to identify the pattern of controlling abuse and seek help to leave. Leaving the relationship is the only way to end coercive control. Due to the high risk of violence during separation, women in this situation need an exit plan, and the support of services such as Women’s Refuge listed at the end of this article.
Criminalising Coercive Control
It can be difficult for people who have never experienced abuse within a relationship to understand the significance of violence that isn’t physical. Without a breach of a protection order or a prosecutable harm such as assault, little can be done to hold perpetrators of coercive control to account. In court, coercive control is often approached with little understanding and considerable scepticism. It is easy for victims of coercive control to be portrayed as confused, overreacting, or lying, with reference to myths about domestic violence victims. Defence lawyers may appeal to widely held biases: that men have a right to have control over their household and to ‘discipline’ their partner, that women provoke men into being psychologically or physically violent, that women giving confused or inconsistent testimony means they are lying, and that “real” domestic violence victims would complain to Police immediately. Many people are quick to blame women for remaining in relationships with controlling men. Far fewer ask the question, why do so many men abuse women in this way, and how can it be stopped?
Some countries have considered that the answer to the problem of coercive control is the creation of a stand-alone offence, notably the United Kingdom, Australia, and some parts of Europe. It seems like the obvious solution. Criminalising coercive control recognises that domestic violence must be assessed cumulatively, recognising the harm perpetuated by repeated harassment and controlling behaviours. However, criminalisation alone will not significantly improve the safety of women experiencing coercive control. Coercive control will be a difficult crime to prosecute due to its insidious nature, and the small risk of legal intervention will likely not dissuade perpetrators.
The problem can be mitigated to an extent by educating young women about the warning signs of coercive control as outlined earlier in this article. Recognising the early signs of abuse may allow women to leave an abusive relationship before significant harm occurs. However, the problem can only be fully resolved by improving the behaviour of the main perpetrators of coercive control: men. Education about gender equality in relationships is desperately needed in schools worldwide, to ensure that no young man grows up thinking he is entitled to control the life of a female partner. The root causes of the problem, male entitlement and misogyny, need to be addressed, so that no other woman like Lisa, like Preethi, or like Hannah, has to ask herself, is it my fault?
Support for leaving an abusive relationship
New Zealand helplines:
0800 733 843 Women’s Refuge crisis line — free call, 24/7.
0508 744 633 Shine Helpline — free call, 9am to 11pm every day.
0800 456 450 It’s Not OK info line — free call, 9am to 11pm every day.
0800 SHAKTI / 0800 742 584 Shakti Crisis Line – free call, 24/7.
 Lundy Bancroft Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 2002) at 296.
 Lundy Bancroft Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 2002) at 301.
 Walklate and Fitz-Gibbon “The Criminalisation of Coercive Control: The Power of Law?” 8(4) IJCJ&SD 94 at 97.