We NEED to Talk About Coercive Control!
By: Nish Israni (She/Her), Rosemary Moore (She/Her) and Maya Donald-Hamblin (She/Her)
What is Coercive Control in Domestic Violence?
Coercive control is a form of gender-based violence (GBV) that is prevalent in domestic settings, as well as within systems. It can be exercised through the use of force, pressure, threats, isolation, invalidating, stalking, gaslighting and mind games. Survivors also experience being forcibly isolated from their family and friends, as well as their important support systems. Coercive control can manifest in quite subtle ways, such as the restriction of phone use or wearing make-up. Subtle forms of violence are hard to prove and even harder to prosecute in the legal system.
Coercive control is meant to undermine the survivor’s sense of autonomy, self determination and basic rights, such as the right to freedom. In order to achieve this, the aggressor takes on the role of a puppet master. The aggressor wants to take away the survivor’s sense of self. It is a long process of surrounding the survivor with abuse and manipulation, while isolating them. The violence is cyclical, in the sense that the abuser goes through periods of being nice, charming, and understanding and then being mean, threatening, and controlling. This is meant to confuse and maintain power over the survivor. The aggressor may escalate the violence if the survivor tries to leave, through stalking, causing more harm, or even murder.
Survivors of coercive control and their children often live in a state of hyper-vigilance, even after they manage to leave the violent individual. They experience uncertainty, fear, displacement, and a constant feeling of being surveilled. Our legal systems and societal structures fail to address the complexity of this issue, and instead, focus on the individuals. Solutions offered far too often focus on only removing the survivor from the violence, rather than addressing the aggressor, the violence inflicted, and the systems that contributed to it. Coercive control is prevalent in society and we need to hold aggressors and systems accountable. We need structural reform because aggressors are committing human rights violations against survivors who need safety, security and routine in order to heal.
Parenting and Coercive Control
Children can be heavily impacted by coercive control within their family. In this section of the article, the father is referred to as the coercive parent and partner, and the mother and children as survivors of coercive control. It must be acknowledged that while coercive control is not isolated to male partners, it is most often the father/husband/boyfriend who is the aggressor (Meier, 2002). Coercive control affects parenting and mother-child relationships in many ways. Oftentimes, the father manipulates and controls the mother’s parenting style, and undermines the mother’s authority. The father may use verbal abuse to manipulate the children by using phrases like “your mother doesn’t love you” and “mommy only cares about herself” (Bancroft, 2002). Such verbal abuse provides a model for children of aggressive and demanding behaviour towards the mother and other siblings.
Childhood experiences with coercive control can leave children traumatized, with little sense of security. This may result in the children’s needs not being met or they may feel a sense of responsibility to maintain peace and civility in their household. UK-based domestic violence researcher, Emma Katz (2020), interviewed child survivors of coercive fathers. Many children expressed feeling emotionally manipulated and psychologically tortured, even if the abuse had ended many months ago. One child stated that they constantly felt unsafe and worried their father might kidnap them again. Courts may force contact with coercive fathers, without providing the parents or children with emotional and psychological support, regardless of children living in a constant state of fear. The courts make this choice because they are legally considering what is called the, “best interest of the child”. In practice, this results in both parents being granted parenting time regardless of abuse that has been perpetrated. Children affected by coercive control deserve protection and support from the Canadian court system and that starts with recognizing coercive control as a legitimate form of gender based violence.
Coercive Control and the Canadian Legal System
The Canadian government recognizes coercive control as “part of the dynamic” of interpersonal violence (Carman & McNair, 2021). It is not currently recognized by the government as its own form of gender-based or interpersonal violence. While the government purports to recognize physical, sexual, emotional, and financial forms of abuse, they have yet to recognize the impacts of coercive control, especially over a prolonged period. Additionally, the Canadian government currently views cases of gender-based or interpersonal violence on an incidence basis (Gill & Aspinall, 2012). Each incident is reviewed separately, and this leads to the compounding harm being overlooked or misunderstood.
Another form of coercive control often takes place within the court processes between survivors and aggressors. Court systems neglect to question, consider or respond to the manipulation of the court’s process in the abuser’s favour. This is litigation abuse and is often used against survivors and their children as a means of maintaining control over their lives, keeping them under their financial or legal power, and prohibiting them from moving forward, healing, and finding safety.
Proposed legislation to criminalize coercive control in Canada was tabled by the House of Commons Justice Committee in April 2021, while the Canadian Government moves forward with a national task force that will study the impacts of coercive control. A CBC investigative article claimed this legislation would allow police to intervene sooner in cases of interpersonal violence and would legally criminalize any behaviours that, “cause the victim to fear they will be physically harmed, causes their mental health to decline or causes the victim such alarm or distress that there is a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities” (Carman & McNair, 2021). The government stated this issue may be readdressed come 2022.
While it is important that the current legal system recognizes coercive control and GBV, it is also important to recognize the historical and contemporary failure of the legal system to recognize, respond to, and address GBV. Earlier police intervention, as the newer legislation would allow, is not a safe or sustainable option for many survivors. Police approaches are historically and disproportionately harmful to individuals made vulnerable by systemic injustices, leading to harmful practices and policies that are reactive, sanist, patriarchal, anti-Black, and colonialist. Legislation must instead look to systemically founded transformative and preventative responses that address the roots of racialized GBV, which should be led and centered around the expertise of survivors of coercive control.
Undeniably, coercive control is an important discussion point in Canadian law and court systems. This type of violence has dire repercussions on survivors, children, communities and systems. If coercive control declarations continue to be silenced, the compounded trauma puts the lives of many survivors and children at risk, while simultaneously enabling a continued cycle of violence.
Nish Israni, Rosemary Moore and Maya Donald-Hamblin are placement students at WomenathecentrE. WomenatthecentrE is a survivor centered and led non-profit organization working to eradicate all forms of GBV globally. We are dedicated to ensuring the voices and expertise of survivors are central in the inception, development, and implementation of all programs and policies aimed at preventing and responding to GBV. This article was developed in collaboration with HER Grey Bruce, the Owen Sound based survivor led Chapter within WomenatthecentrE’s Membership Program. Their advocacy focuses on supporting survivors in the Grey Bruce region through community capacity building, individual healing and systemic advocacy.
For more information about WomenatthecentrE, including connecting with Owen Sound’s HER Grey Bruce Chapter, please see-> https://www.womenatthecentre.com/
For more information about the content of this article, please see the following references and links->
- Carman, T., & McNair, M. (2021, October 13). Proposed legislation would allow police to intervene in domestic violence cases sooner | CBC News. CBCnews. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from
- Gill, C., & Aspinall, M. (2012, September 18). Home: Federal ombudsman for victims of crime. Community-Based Anti-Violence Worker Wellness: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from
https://www.victimsfirst.gc.ca/res/cor/UCC-CCC/index.html#TOC-5. ● Lundy Bancroft: Bancroft, L. (Winter 2002). The batterer as a parent. Synergy, 6(1), 6-8.
- Katz, E. (2020). Emma Katz on coercive control in domestic violence. broadcast. ● Meier, J. S. (2002). Domestic violence, child custody, and child protection: Understanding judicial resistance and imagining the solutions. Am. UJ Gender Soc. Pol’y & L., 11, 657.