Commentary: Silent spouse abuse – how coercive control is at the heart of family violence
Coercive control should be recognised as an act of family violence so individuals have recourse under the law, says AWARE President Margaret Thomas.
SINGAPORE: When Annie* offers an opinion, her husband mocks her: “Wow, you are so smart now, is it?”
He often talks loudly, but if she begins to raise her voice, he gets upset. He discouraged her from looking for work. When she did find a job, he turned up at her workplace and shouted at her. He has had multiple affairs, but he accuses her of cheating on him.
This has been going on for some three decades.
If Maria* has to work late, or if she goes out with her friends, she has to watch the clock closely. She must get home by 11pm - because that’s when her husband will bolt the front door from the inside.
She and their children do not always have Wi-Fi access at home. He decides when it is switched on and off.
He also controls their use of the air-conditioner and other devices in the flat. He sometimes gets violent, so they quietly make do without the aircon or the Wi-Fi.
Tien* is a migrant spouse. Soon after she married her Singapore husband, he stopped talking to her other than to give curt instructions. When her parents sent her money, he confiscated it and gave it to his parents.
She has a job, but he insists that she give all her wages to him. The allowance he gives her is barely enough for their meals. When she was ill, he would not let her see a doctor and told her if she needed medical treatment, she should get it in her home country.
These are just three examples of family violence cases handled by AWARE’s Helpline in 2020 and 2021. There have been many others, particularly as family violence spiked during Singapore’s COVID-19 circuit breakers last year.
Husbands isolating their wives, not letting them see or even communicate with their parents, siblings and friends. Taking away their mobile phones. Going through their text messages and emails. Smashing their work laptops.
Forcing them to stop work. Cancelling their credit and debit cards. Belittling and body-shaming them. Embarrassing them in public.
Telling them what to wear. Managing their movements. Demanding acknowledgement of being right all the time. Controlling every aspect of their lives.
These are not random, unrelated, innocuous behaviours. They add up to a phenomenon called coercive control, which sits at the core of much family violence.
WHAT IS COERCIVE CONTROL?
Coercive control is a pattern of controlling behaviour: Threats, humiliation, intimidation and other demands used to establish power over and to harm, punish or frighten its victims.
It has been called a “strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism” that creates a “hostage-like” situation” of “entrapment”, whereby a perpetrator engenders a sort of forced dependence in their victim, subjugating them and limiting their personal liberty.
The man who coined the term, American sociologist and social worker Evan Stark, defined it as “a new conceptual and legal framework for international progress in women's rights that frames male partner abuse as a crime against autonomy, dignity, equality and liberty.”
Stark estimated that between 60 and 80 per cent of women seeking assistance for abuse experience coercive control.
Coercive control often precedes, or occurs in conjunction with, physical or sexual assault, and can be just as traumatic and harmful - sometimes even more so. Yet for many reasons it is rarely discussed within the context of family or intimate partner violence.
One reason is its insidious subtlety. Many aforementioned behaviours are frequently excused as “normal” jealousies that prove how much a perpetrator loves their partner.
While few people would interpret a punch as an expression of affection, many more might believe a spouse who says he “loves you so much", he wants you to stay at home all the time.
Sometimes this misunderstanding is shored up by “love-bombing”, or over-the-top demonstrations of affection that serve to manipulate victims.
All this can add up to a situation of crippling stress, anxiety and vulnerability – and a loss of the self.
“He brought me so low, below myself, that the idea of leaving him and having to work myself back up just seemed impossible,” said musician FKA twigs last year about her experience of coercive control at the hands of partner Shia LaBeouf.
How do videos and photos of innocent victims end up on disgusting illicit Telegram chats? CNA's Heart of the Matter dives into how one young woman infiltrated those groups and reached out to victims:
RECOGNISING COERCIVE CONTROL AS FAMILY VIOLENCE
Women's rights organisations around the world have long asked for coercive control to be made a criminal offence. Their advocacy efforts were successful in the United Kingdom.
In 2015, England and Wales legally defined coercive control and made it an offence. Scotland and Northern Ireland have more recently done this too, and similar efforts are being driven elsewhere around the world, reflecting an ongoing paradigm shift in understanding.
Singapore needs to keep up with such a shift. So far, though, we seem to be falling behind.
In early 2020, the Government formed a taskforce to study the issue of family violence in Singapore and to make recommendations to prevent or reduce its occurrence, support victims and rehabilitate perpetrators.
In September, the Taskforce on Family Violence presented its report and made 16 recommendations, all of which are commendable and necessary as we strive to eliminate domestic violence. But while the Taskforce spoke of the need to study “emerging trends” in family violence, the report disappointingly made no mention of coercive control.
While the report recommends for public communication campaigns to “unpack different types of abuse and what they entail, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect”, not much was said about the tactics of manipulative emotional abuse and control that often predict physical abuse.
Conceiving of violence as episodic incidents instead of a pattern of behaviours obscures its true nature, confuses victims (who may think “my situation can’t be that bad - at least he doesn’t hit me”) and allows perpetrators to escape accountability.
This traditional narrow view leads the criminal justice system to fragment longstanding patterns into individual interactions to prosecute.
This thinking seeps into the way social workers may approach family violence situations, when the time between outbursts of physical violence is sometimes viewed as a break from violence entirely, and a chance for victims to recuperate - yet other forms of abuse, such as humiliation and isolation, may well continue in that period.
We need publicity campaigns that list the many forms of coercive control so that people can recognise them in a partner. The publicity campaigns should help people realise they do not have to stay in abusive relationships, that there is help and support to get out of these situations.
But we also need recognition in our laws of coercive control so that there is scope for intervention by the authorities.
Without this legal definition of what constitutes coercive control, victims may not feel confident they will be believed if they speak up and seek help, and so they stay trapped, suffering in silence, in their abusive relationships.
HOW TO PREVENT COERCIVE CONTROL
There may be some hesitation to criminalise coercive control because of the challenge of proving it. Much will of course have to depend on the testimony of the victim.
Yet this can be backed up by evidence of controlling and abusive behaviour in emails and phone messages, and by the testimony of family members, friends, colleagues and perhaps also neighbours.
Social workers and police officers will need to be trained to spot tell-tale signs of controlling behaviour in a household and the unspoken messages in a victim’s body language.
Research is needed, and much discussion and debate, before we can come up with a suitable conceptual and legal framework for dealing with emotional abuse and coercive control. It is an effort we must make if we are to get to the heart of family violence and have any hope of one day ending partner abuse.
Our understanding of abusive relationships and what we can and should about them is constantly evolving. It was not long ago the police were powerless to intervene in instances of domestic violence unless there were broken bones or other “grievous hurt”.
As a society, as a judicial system, we were simply blind to the reality of domestic abuse, the shocking violence that goes on behind closed doors.
The Women’s Charter was passed in 1961, but Personal Protection Orders, which today are the first line of defence against family violence, only came about later when the Charter was amended in 1980. And it was only last year, in January 2020, that marital rape became a crime.
The Government will present its White Paper on gender equality early next year. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has indicated that family violence is a key area the paper will cover.
I look forward to proposals that will be today as progressive as the Women’s Charter was when it was first passed in 1961.
I look forward to recognition in the White Paper of the vital importance of understanding and criminalising coercive control.
* Pseudonyms were used in this commentary.
Margaret Thomas is President of AWARE.