“He would wait until I was relaxed, and then start doing things like making me take off his boots and telling me how ugly I was,” Cheryl tells me. Six months ago, she escaped an abusive man who routinely humiliated her “for fun”. “He would tell me that I stank and that my hair looked like rats’ tails. If I went out to the shops, he would time me and call me on my mobile if he thought I was taking too long. It was like I was a hostage.”
Cheryl’s experience is not uncommon. The most important lesson I ever learned about domestic abuse was when I first met the residents of a refuge where I had volunteered in the Eighties. I had expected the women to have been beaten to a bloody mess of broken bones — and some were — but the majority spoke about living in abject fear of “what would happen next”.
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We call it “coercive control” now, but back then, there was no particular language to describe the non-physical abuse that every one of those women had endured at the hands of abusive men. These perpetrators often had no need to lock a woman in a basement or hold a gun to her head — all they had to do was keep them in a state of perpetual fear, while keeping up the façade of a happy relationship.
According to the latest annual Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), coercive control is the most common type of domestic abuse faced by women today. Yet it wasn’t until 2015 that coercive and controlling behaviour was finally made a criminal offence in England and Wales. The law covered any behaviour designed to intimidate, punish or frighten a family member or partner — including isolating them from friends and family; constantly criticising their clothing and appearance; dictating where they could go and who they could see; controlling their finances; and threatening violence.
Now, politicians are promising to crack down even further. Last week, Rishi Sunak vowed to put controlling or coercive behaviour on par with physical violence. This means that offenders sentenced to a year or more in prison for coercive behaviour will now — like violent abusers — be actively “managed” by the police, prison and probation services to avoid future offending. Offenders will be placed on the “Violent and Sex Offenders Register”, and will be required to notify police of any change in name, address, banking or passport information, as well as any foreign travel plans.
The policy sounds good on paper. The problem is that it is rare for any domestic abuser to be arrested — let alone convicted and given jail time. This means that the vast majority of perpetrators will never end up on this register. While the number of police-recorded domestic abuse-related crimes increased by 7.7% in the year ending March 2022, there has been a steady decline in charging, prosecution and conviction for the crime. When it comes to coercive and controlling behaviour, it is even worse: 94% of cases reported to the police last year did not result in a conviction.
For many women, the coercive control laws came too late. Sally Challen was convicted of murdering her husband Richard in August 2010: she had battered him to death with a hammer at the kitchen table after he demanded that she cook him bacon and eggs. Reflecting on her crime while in prison, Challen came to realise that she had been psychologically tortured by her husband throughout their 40-year marriage. But in the eyes of the law, and in terms of public awareness, she was not seen as a victim of domestic abuse.
At her initial trial, Challen was painted as a jealous, spiteful wife taking revenge on her husband for having affairs. In reality, Sally had been forced to sign a humiliating agreement promising not to interrupt Richard or answer him back, and never to speak to strangers during a night out — a clear sign of coercive control. Despite this, she was convicted of his murder and sentenced to a minimum of 22 years in prison.
Justice for Women (JfW), the feminist law reform organisation I co-founded 30 years ago, began to campaign alongside Sally to overturn her murder conviction in 2012, on the basis that she had been subject to extreme coercive control by her husband for decades. And when, in 2015, the law criminalised the abuse Sally had endured, JfW lawyers submitted grounds of appeal in which they argued that had coercive control been recognised in law when she was originally on trial, she would likely have been acquitted. Sally was finally released from prison in June 2019, having successfully overturned her murder conviction, which was replaced with one of manslaughter.
It has been a long, hard slog for women’s rights campaigners to change the law on domestic abuse. The first time it was mentioned in a court of law was in 1782, when a judge stated that a man may beat his wife so long as he uses “a rod not thicker than his thumb”. A curfew on “wife-beating” came into force in 1895, with a City of London by-law that criminalised the beating of a wife between the hours of 10pm and 7am out of concern for noise complaints. In 1971, the world’s first refuge for victims of domestic violence opened in Chiswick, West London, yet it was not until 1991 that rape in marriage finally became a criminal offence.
Despite the government’s new initiatives, we are in danger of returning to the bad old days. It is almost impossible to convince legislators that domestic abuse is a high-risk crime when police insist on telling the public that cases of femicide — such as the recent murder of the schoolteacher Emma Pattison by her husband — are “isolated incidents”. In fact, a domestic homicide is rarely, if ever, an “isolated” event; usually, it is an escalation of a pattern of abuse over some time. Controlling behaviour is a big red flag when it comes to homicide risk, as men who feel they are losing control of their victims often commit the ultimate act of control: murder.
Up until that point, non-physical abuse is used to keep victims constantly on their toes, their sense of dread inescapable. All victims of domestic violence and abuse operate at a high level of anxiety, but a woman living under coercive control is constantly watched and scrutinised. This is often unbearable: as new research shows, women who suffer domestic abuse are three times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, and are more than three times as likely to self-harm.
Despite the encouraging words from Westminster, not enough is being done to protect women living under domestic terrorism. There are so many women still living in fear of coercive husbands, too ashamed or afraid to tell their friends or family the truth. And for those without broken bones and black eyes to prove their suffering, justice is still disgracefully hard to come by.
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