Coercive control: a vital concept in domestic abuse
States around the world are moving to criminalise coercive control in their response to domestic abuse.
While awareness of coercive control is growing, it is sometimes thought of as being interchangeable with “l’emprise” or psychological violence. However, coercive control is distinct from these two concepts.
Understanding this type of perpetrator behaviour is essential to inform both policy development and service responses.
Commonly accepted definition of coercive control
Coercive control is defined as an intentional act or pattern of controlling, coercive, or threatening behaviours used by an individual against an intimate partner or ex-partner with the aim of making their partner or ex-partner dependent, subordinate, and/or depriving or restricting their freedom of action.
Perpetrators intimidate, humiliate, monitor, manipulate, and/or isolate to exercise power and control. Tactics may include psychological, physical, sexual, emotional, administrative, and/or economic abuse, which occur over a period of time.
Perpetrators of coercive control often isolate their victim from sources of support, exploit their resources, hinder their ability to acquire new resources, regulate their victim’s everyday lives, and deprive them of the means needed for independence, resistance, and escape.
Coercive control is distinct from isolated assaults.
Alternative terms, definitions, and conceptualisations
The term “coercive control” is often used interchangeably with other terms, such as “psychological or emotional abuse”, “psychological violence”, and “patriarchal or intimate terrorism”, despite there being differences in meaning.(1)
While the terms “psychological” and “emotional” abuse can describe certain aspects of coercive control, they do not incorporate other elements of coercive control such as stalking, physical violence, sexual, administrative, and economic abuse.(2)
Coercive control may be misconceptualised as psychological abuse and/or ‘l’emprise’ in the French context
Since July 2010, psychological violence within a couple that “degrade[s] one's quality of life and cause[s] a change in one's physical or mental state of health” is a criminal offence in France.(3) Those found guilty face up to five years in jail and a fine of €75,000.(4) Following the Grenelle des violences conjugales in 2019, the French Government announced a number of measures it would take to combat domestic violence.(5) The notion of “emprise” was subsequently included in the law n° 2020-936 dated 30 July 2020, which aims at protecting victims of domestic violence.(6)
The term “emprise”, meaning to be under the influence/domination of another person, is commonly mistranslated and misconceptualised as “coercive control”.
Coercive control focuses on the perpetrator’s pattern of oppressive behaviour towards their victim, such as the deprivation of rights and resources, surveillance as well as behavioural micro-regulation and control, and violence.(7) Emprise on the other hand can be defined as what the victim experiences and is only one aspect of coercive control.(8)
The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) uses the term “psychological violence”, instead of “coercive control”, to describe an intentional offence “seriously impairing a person’s psychological integrity through coercion or threats”.(9) While “coercive control” is not specifically recognised in the Convention, both Articles 33 and 46 are relevant when considering coercive control as a repeated or continuous form of psychological violence.(10)
Coercive control perpetrator behaviours and tactics
Perpetrators will often use a combination of tactics and/or take advantage of perceived weaknesses or insecurities in order to exercise power and control over their victim. Some examples might include, but are not limited to:
isolating a person from their friends and family
depriving them of their basic needs
monitoring their time
monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear, and when they can sleep
depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
putting them down repeatedly, such as telling them they are worthless
enforcing rules and activities that humiliate, degrade, or dehumanise the victim
forcing the victim to take part in criminal activities, such as neglect or abuse of children, to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
financial abuse, such as only allowing their victim a punitive allowance
threatening to hurt or kill
threatening a child
threatening to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone)
inflicting criminal damage, such as destruction of household goods
preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.(11)
A high-profile case of coercive control resulting in death
On 19 February 2020, Rowan Baxter murdered his former partner Hannah Clarke and their three children in Queensland, Australia.(12) Clarke had suffered years of emotional, financial, and sexual abuse by Baxter, including him controlling and monitoring her movements, who she could see, what she could wear, her access to money, and threatening to harm their children if she didn’t have sex with him. Baxter’s abuse tactics are all examples of coercive control. The abuse also continued after Clarke left Baxter, a few months before he murdered her.
American sociologist and forensic social worker Evan Stark published research in 2012, which found that between 60-80% of women who seek help for domestic violence have experienced coercive control, including multiple tactics to frighten, isolate, degrade, and subordinate them, as well as assaults and threats.(13)
In the year ending March 2020, there were 24,856 offences of coercive control recorded by the police in England and Wales, compared with 16,679 in the year ending March 2019. This increase could be attributed to improvements made by the police in recognising incidents of coercive control and using the Serious Crime Act 2015 accordingly.(14)
In the year ending December 2019, 1,057 defendants were prosecuted for the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in England and Wales in combination with another offence. Common assault and battery was the offence for which defendants were most commonly prosecuted in combination with controlling or coercive behaviour.(15)
A review of domestic violence-related homicides in New South Wales, Australia, between March 2008 and June 2016, found that out of 112 homicides, 111 involved coercive and controlling tactics by the abuser upon their victim prior to killing them.(16)
Arguments for the criminalisation of coercive control
Those in favour of the criminalisation of coercive control argue that laws would help change the way authorities understand and respond to gendered violence and better hold perpetrators to account; focusing on domestic violence as a pattern of abuse, rather than as isolated incidents.(17)
Criminalising coercive control would improve community awareness and enhance women’s safety by focusing on patterns of violence rather than discrete incidents of violence, and on all forms of violence rather than on physical violence alone.(18)
Coercive control entering criminal codes will allow prosecutors to access more evidence to establish the presence of domestic abuse, including but not limited to financial records, telephone and digital communication records, and statements from witnesses.(19)
Arguments against the criminalisation of coercive control
Those against the criminalisation of coercive control argue that a successful law reform would rely on victims’ willingness and ability to involve police. However, victims are often hesitant to report abuse.(20) This may be due to fear that they will not be believed, that the abuse will escalate if police intervene, or that they will be blamed for the abuse committed against them.
For cases proceeding to court, a key issue is how to prove coercion. When viewed in isolation, many coercive control tactics are not criminal, which may make it difficult to prove.
Without careful consideration, criminalising coercive control may give victims a false sense of security that in turn, adversely affects their safety.
Legislating the offence of coercive control may also encourage police officers to wait for a pattern of abuse to emerge before making an arrest, rather than act on a single incident.(21)
Some argue that criminalising coercive control could have an adverse effect on marginalised communities, which already face issues with over-policing and racial profiling.(22) Language barriers, for example, could lead to the misidentification of the perpetrator and create difficulties for police to understand the situation.
Advocates for the criminalisation of coercive control say these concerns can be addressed through carefully drafted legislation, investment in the training of judicial officers, and public education.
Countries who have criminalised coercive control, countries examining coercive control
In 2015, England and Wales became the first countries in the world to legislate against “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”, with the adoption of the Serious Crime Act 2015, making coercive control punishable by up to five years in jail.(23)
Following England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland adopted similar coercive control and domestic abuse laws in 2018.(24)
The state of Tasmania in Australia became the first jurisdiction in the country to introduce specific offences to criminalise elements of coercive control, such as intimidation, economic, and emotional abuse.(25) There are, however, increasing calls to make coercive control a criminal offence across Australia. In September 2020, the NSW Labor party presented to Parliament a bill to criminalise coercive control, with a ten year maximum penalty.(26) In November of the same year, a multi-partisan federal alliance was formed, calling for a national approach to understanding and criminalising coercive control.(27) The Queensland Government has also announced this year plans to set up an independent taskforce to consult on potential control legislation.(28)
Best practice legislation to criminalise coercive control
Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act 2018, which came into effect on 1 April 2019, is considered to be the “gold standard” globally for criminalising coercive control and domestic abuse.(29) Voted unanimously by the Scottish Government, the legislation creates a specific offence of “abusive behaviour towards [a] partner or ex-partner”, which covers not just physical abuse, but also psychological treatment and coercive and controlling behaviour.(30) This can include when an abuser isolates their victim from their friends and relatives, controls their day-to-day activities, or frightens or humiliates them.(31) In line with the Istanbul Convention, the Scottish legislation also recognises the adverse impact domestic abuse and coercive control have on children.
1. See for example Richard M. Tolman, “Psychological abuse of women” in Assessment of family violence: a clinical and legal sourcebook, Robert. T. Ammerman and Michel Hersen (eds.), New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992, pp. 291-310 and Michael P. Johnson, A typology of domestic violence: intimate terrorism, violent resistance, and situational couple violence, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2010.
2. Evan Stark, “Re-presenting battered women: coercive control and the defence of liberty”, unpublished paper presented at the Violence against women: complex realities and new issues in a changing world conference, Montreal, 29 May to 1 June 2012, p. 3, https://www.stopvaw.org/uploads/evan_stark_article_final_100812.pdf.
3. Code pénal, Art. 222-33-2-1, available from https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/codes/article_lc/LEGIARTI000022469910/2010-07-11.
Translated from French : “Le fait de harceler son conjoint, son partenaire lié par un pacte civil de solidarité ou son concubin par des agissements répétés ayant pour objet ou pour effet une dégradation de ses conditions de vie se traduisant par une altération de sa santé physique ou mentale est puni de…”. France was the first country to criminalise psychological abuse.
5. The Grenelle des violences conjugales in 2019 was a set of round tables organised by the French Government between September 3 and November 25, 2019. Its objective was to bring together people concerned by issues related to domestic violence, in order to determine the measures to be taken to combat them.
6. Loi n° 2020-936 du 30 juillet 2020 visant à protéger les victimes de violences conjugales, available from https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/jorf/id/JORFTEXT000042176652.
7. Andreea Gruev-Vintila and Francisca Toledo, “Le contrôle coercitif: repérer les violences au sein du couple dans les interactions et le rapport de pouvoir entre l’auteur et la victime”, in L’emprise et les violences au sein du couple, Éric Martinent and Isabelle Rome (eds.), Paris: Dalloz, 2021, pp. 277-290.
9. Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, Istanbul, 11 May 2011, no. 210, art. 33, available from https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/210. The Council of Europe Istanbul Convention is a human rights treaty to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. It was opened for signature in May 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey and entered into force in August 2014. As of March 2021, the treaty has been signed by 44 countries and the European Union.
10. Ibid., arts 33 and 46.
11. These examples are listed in the UK Home Office’s statutory guidance framework. See UK Home Office, Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship: statutory guidance framework, December 2015, available from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf.
12. For more information about this case see Madonna King, ‘‘‘Intimate terrorism’: Why the murders of Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey must spark change”, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-andrelationships/intimate-terrorism-why-the-murders-of-hannah-aaliyah-laianah-and-trey-must-sparkchange-20200910-p55ubz.html.
13. Stark, “Re-presenting battered women: coercive control and the defence of liberty”, p. 7.
14. Office for National Statistics, Domestic abuse prevalence and trends, England and Wales: year ending March 2020, 2020, accessed: 25 March 2021. These statistics exclude data from the Greater Manchester Police on domestic abuse-related incidents and domestic abuse-related crimes.
15. Office for National Statistics, Domestic abuse and the criminal justice system, England and Wales: November 2020, 2020, accessed: 25 March 2021, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabuseandthecriminaljusticesystemenglandandwales/november2020#prosecution-and-conviction-outcomes.
16. Domestic Violence Death Review Team, NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team Report: 2017-2019, Sydney: Domestic Violence Death Review Team, 2020, p. 154, accessed: 26 March 2021,
17. Kate Fitz-Gibbon, Silke Meyer, and Sandra Walklate, “Australia is not ready to criminalise coercive control — here’s why”, The Conversation, 1 October 2020, https://theconversation.com/australia-is-not-ready-to-criminalise-coercive-control-heres-why-146929.
18. Liz Snell, “Criminalising coercive control: why we need a thorough consultation process on how to effectively address coercive controlling violence”, Women’s Legal Service NSW, 23 September 2020, https://www.wlsnsw.org.au/criminalising-coercive-control/.
19. Dr Marsha Scott, “Gender based violence in the modern world”, 29 November 2019, video, https://www.communityjusticeayrshire.org.uk/2020/03/03/gender-based-violence-in-the-modern-world-dr-marsha-scott-chief-executive-scottish-womens-aid-everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-the-worlds-new-gold-standard/.
20. Fitz-Gibbon, Meyer, and Walklate, “Australia is not ready to criminalise coercive control — here’s why”.
22. Emma Brancatisano and Lin Elvin, “Push to criminalise coercive control in relationships sparks concern for migrant and refugee women”, SBS News, 20 January 2021,
23. See The Serious Crime Act 2015, C. 9/2015, available from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/9/enacted. The Serious Crime Act 2015 excludes ex-partners from its remit.
24. See Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, 2018 asp 5, available from
https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2018/5/enacted and Domestic Violence Act 2018, No. 6/2018, available from http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2018/act/6/enacted/en/print.
25. See Family Violence Act 2004, available from https://www.legislation.tas.gov.au/view/html/inforce/current/act-2004-067.
26. See Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control—Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020, available from https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/bills/Pages/bill-details.aspx?pk=3797.
27. See Dr Anne Aly, “International day for the elimination of violence against women”, Speech, Canberra, Parliament of Australia, 7 December 2020, https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F416a6e6c-248f-4d28-98cb-daf087380038%2F0090%22
28. The Queensland Government, “Former Court of Appeal judge to lead task force into coercive control”, Media Release, 17 February 2021.
29. Evan Stark, “The ‘Coercive control framework’: making law work for women”, in Criminalising coercive control: family violence and the criminal law, Paul McGorrey and Marilyn McMahon (eds.), Singapore: Springer Nature, 2020, p. 34.
30. Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, pt 1 s 1.
31. Ibid., p 1 s 2(2)(a).