If you know me, you’re probably sick of hearing that domestic violence doesn’t just involve physical abuse. I’M SORRY, I know it’s something I bring up – and write about – a lot. But I’m also not sorry, at all, because the more people that learn about this the better, and if shoving it down my Twitter followers’ throats means one less person ends up in an abusive relationship I’ll be happy as a clam, and Larry, and everyone else who’s ever been deemed content enough to inspire an idiom.
From today, coercive control (CC) becomes a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, which is BIG news. It was the first thing I told my boyfriend when he got home from work and we had a little dance together in the kitchen to celebrate while he cooked his egg sandwich. If the term ‘coercive control’ baffles you slightly as it does me (largely because I can never remember what ‘coercive’ means), think of it as psychological abuse, using threats to control someone – any kind of in-relationship bullying. Citizens Advice has reported massive increases in the number of people seeking help for this kind of thing – from October 2014 through to October 2015, 3,000 people asked for advice on emotional abuse, and 900 on financial abuse.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) says that checking up on a partner through apps or controlling their social media counts as coercive control, as does stopping a partner’s activities or dictating what they wear. These are all abusive, frightening elements of a relationship, but until today they weren’t crimes. Unless you were punched in the face, the law said you were on your own. But although CC might be harder to prove or provide physical evidence of, Women’s Aid chief executive Polly Neate says that it’s actually “at the heart of domestic abuse.” Perpetrators “usually start abusing their victim by limiting her personal freedoms, monitoring her every move and stripping away her control of her life,” she says, adding that “physical violence often comes later.”
Want to know why criminalising this is such a huge leap forward? Because, like Polly said, emotional abuse isn’t a standalone thing – it’s insidious, and it’s where it all starts. Women in this situation have been worn down and d o w n and d o w n until they genuinely believe their boyfriend/husband/whoever is well within their rights to demand access to their Twitter account. They listen when their partner says they’re not allowed to buy dresses that show cleavage. They’re repeatedly told that any problems they have with this set-up aren’t valid – that they’re crazy or unable to take care of themselves anyway. I’m shaking with anger as I write this, because I WAS one of these women – and if I’d understood that emotional abuse and coercive control was as ‘real’ an aspect of domestic violence as physical attacks, I wouldn’t have stayed one for so long. People aren’t property. The change starts now.