'I don't feel safe': The family is the most violent group in our society.

'I don't feel safe': The family is the most violent group in our society.

The family is the most violent group in our society. Never has that been more true of Australian society. This line has been taken from the first national survey on family violence that was conducted in the United States in 1975. Since then, the statistics have worsened, not improved. 

One in four women will report having been sexually or physically assaulted by an intimate partner since the age of 15. Around 2.2 million Australians alive today will have seen their mother physically assaulted before the age of 15; another 800,000 will see their father physically assaulted. 

Germaine Greer has famously said that the nuclear family is a breeding ground for violence — that what we’ve done in putting a man and a woman or two people in a home with four walls around it, with children, with sometimes very little community around them, no longer that communal upbringing, that you are creating a pressure cooker situation, and a lack of transparency, in which this kind of violence can flourish. 

Rosie Batty was not lying when she said family violence can affect anyone, no matter how nice your house is. 

The idea of home as a sanctuary has made people who feel like they do not grow up in a sanctuary feel like the outliers, feel like they are to blame, because their family is not like everyone else’s. When in fact, this has become virtually normal. 

Most people however don't experience violence in the sense of fists to the body. In fact, the violence that is most prevalent is only just now starting to be recognised by legislation in this country, and very slowly at that. That is coercive control.

Coercive control involves perpetrators using patterns of abusive behaviours over time in a way that creates fear and denies liberty and autonomy. Coercive control is a form of psychological abuse characterised by a pattern of behaviours used by one person to dominate, manipulate, and control another within an intimate or familial relationship. It encompasses a range of tactics aimed at undermining the victim's autonomy, independence, and sense of self-worth. These tactics may include intimidation, threats, isolation, monitoring, surveillance, gaslighting, and financial control. 

On 6 March 2024, Queensland passed laws to criminalise coercive control.  The legislation is expected to come into force in 2025 and will carry a maximum jail sentence of 14 years. Queensland is the second jurisdiction in Australia, after NSW, to make these changes to legislation. 

In November 2022, the NSW Parliament passed the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Coercive Control) Act 2022 (the Act). The Act makes coercive control in current and former intimate partner relationships a criminal offence. The offence occurs when an adult engages in a ‘course of conduct’ of abusive behaviour that is intended to coerce or control the other person (the coercive control offence). It will likely commence in July 2024 as law. 

This is extremely important because it means that Queensland and NSW are moving away from incident-based response to domestic and family violence (DFV) and towards an approach that acknowledges and addresses the harmful patterns of controlling, coercive and other violent behaviours. When we look at the way domestic violence is undertaken in a couple, it is vary rarely possible to pinpoint specific events that occur. In an isolated capacity, often these actual events don't sound that bad or difficult and victims can be dismissed or ignored, or the situation's severity reduced by police. This will help protect people in Queensland from this core element of DFV which, in itself, causes significant suffering and trauma.

Coercive control operates through a systematic erosion of the victim's agency, often leaving them feeling trapped, helpless, and dependent on the perpetrator for their basic needs and safety. What makes coercive control so dangerous is its insidious nature and long-lasting impact on the victim's mental and emotional well-being. It can escalate over time and lead to severe psychological harm, trauma, and even physical violence. By exerting power and control over every aspect of the victim's life, coercive control deprives them of their fundamental rights and freedoms, making it incredibly challenging to break free from the abusive relationship.

Jess Hill, renouned Australian jjournalist and author of "See what you made me do" which SBS also turned into a docu-series tells of the harrowing experiences of thousands of Australian women in this country. The book was first published in 2019 and called for domestic abuse to be seen as a national emergency. Unfortunately, the stats have only worsened since.

Hill explains the concept of coercive control to Kerry O'Brien in an interview in 2020: "...you hear stories where a guy can turn on a dime from being, you know, fully supportive of that woman’s independence, of gender equality, looking like the perfect husband. And like one woman who spoke to me, turned on a dime the day she announced she got pregnant, literally became the total image of a coercive controller. And she spent the next 18 months trying to manage him like a psych patient. She wasn’t actually a nurse, or I should say she’s actually a doctor. She was thinking that this was an aberration, that the man that she met and knew and fell in love with, that was the real person. And the other was an aberration. And the number of women who stay because they believe themselves to be the strong person and the that they are the only wants you can fix this man, I can’t — I’ve lost count."  

One account of coercive control that demonstrates the point very well is the case of Rowan Baxter with his partner, Hannah Clarke. This case really woke Australia up to the nature of coercive control.When Hannah and her three children were murdered by Rowan Baxter, it shocked the nation in much the same way that the murder of Luke Batty did. And in much the same way that Rosie Batty stepped out onto that street that day in front of the media and didn’t stop, Sue and Lloyd Clarke (Hannah's parents) have done much the same. 

They knew that that relationship, almost intimately. They knew exactly to what Rowan had been subjecting Hannah. They had been trying to talk to her about the sorts of things that Rowan did: he would isolate Hannah from friends and family; he would tell her what she was and wasn’t allowed to wear; he would prevent her from accessing food and sleep, he would induce that debilitating exhaustion in her, so that there was that feeling that just getting by on an hour-to-hour level was a matter of psychological survival. He would destroy his kids’ toys as punishment for them not putting them away. He’d use surveillance on her phone to track her; he would turn up when she’d be out at a cafe and just stand outside and menace. He would expect sex virtually every night, and if he didn’t get it, he would sulk and he would stonewall the entire family. 

Without coercive control as a law under the domestic violence act, if you spoke of any of these things to police officials prior to this law, they would be powerless to help women. Being told what to wear wasn't against the law. Being controlling of your wife hasn't been against the law and is rooted in such deeply held beliefs that a wife is a man's property and he owns her. 

These laws are radical statements that women are in fact their own independent beings, who are legally protected entities under the law. Whereby a man, even her husband, cannot intimidate or control her, cut her off from friends, family and support networks and she has a right to protection against these abusive behaviours. The definition of abuse has broadened and made it safer for women to seek protection under these laws.

One of the most horrible behaviours that perpetrators of coercive control use is stonewalling, literally going quiet, like this menacing presence in the house, when nobody knows what’s coming next. It creates a sense of great discomfort, hypervigilance and fear. The perpetrator may be unpredictable in that state and creates angst.  Reviewing the case notes again, Rowan would use those techniques and behaviours. He’d also threaten to kill his previous wife and son, which is a red flag about future violence but also extremely discomforting to his own wife and children having to hear that. It is a threat and it is fear-inducing behaviour designed to control and manipulate, that previously wouldn't have been against the law. 

All of these behaviours together are coercive control. It is not one thing and it is more than the things we've listed here. When you list behaviors like that together, coercive control becomes a predictor of future behaviour and that is the hope of the government to be able to gather more data, make more predictions on future behaviour and be able to reduce this kind of behaviour at its root. 

What may be surprising to those unaware of data on coercive control or domestic abuse is that these stories are actually so predictable, and they run along a plotline so similar, that anyone who spent any amount of time in this sector can almost finish a woman’s story before she’s halfway through telling it.  It is the plan of the workers within the industry that with more data points, more preventative measures can be taken, under the support of these lawas to make this country safer for women. 

There are several key advantaged to creating an offence of coercive control, these include;

  • Increased protection for people against an under-recognised yet core element of family and domestic abuse,
  • Preventing escalating forms of violence and abuse, including murder
  • Filling critical gaps in existing laws
  • Reducing misidentification and over-criminalisation of women
  • Transforming community norms for acceptable and healthy, safe relationships.

But passing laws about coercive control is not as simple as having solved the problem.  One of the most surprising inisghts that’s what’s so confounding about coercive control is that you’ll have a group of perpetrators who will actually be able to describe to you exactly the steps by which they managed to coerce and control their partner, and others who will see themselves operating in response to what their partner did to them. So the victim complex amongst perpetrators is nuclear. 

For many perpetrators, it has been reported that they will stand in the doorway, even with their partner standing bloodied and bruised behind them and claim the victim status to police. Hill said, "I was told 90% of the callers to men’s lines will claim to be the victim up front, and by the end of the phone call, it’ll be around 10%, once they’ve worked through actually what’s going on."  It is in these circumstances where the victim has been manipulated over time to believe in her wrongdoing and the destruction of her self-esteem having been years in the making at times, that the compounding belief of the perpetrator seeing himself as the victim makes the issue so incidious and so inter-generational in nature. When infecting the mindset and belief system of children, it can be so hard to undo that, even with specilaised trauma therapy and psychoanalysis. 

For now, the marches in the cities and the attention of parliament as well as the laws changing in two states, we are making movements towards better outcomes. But for every women in this country to feel safe in their homes, more needs to be done. We need to hear stories from women, we need to listen and we need to act. 

25 women have already given their lives. How many more will need to follow before we really listen? Before we really change? Before we really save them all?


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