From Rom-Com Stalking to Real-Life Coercion: the Shifting Landscape of Coercive Control

While traditionally, pop culture and media have portrayed abuse in extremes, with dramatic fights and villains, coercive control, an insidious form of domestic violence which can exist in seemingly “healthy” relationships, has gained increasing attention across media and the justice system in Australia.

Although there is no single definition of what is, or what constitutes, coercive control, it has been described as involving perpetrators using patterns of abusive behaviours overtime in a way that creates fear and denies one’s liberty and autonomy.1 The abusive behaviour perpetrated may be physical, non-physical, or a combination of both.

Some have described coercive control as a course of conduct aimed at isolating, dominating, and controlling, usually an intimate partner, but can also be other family members. It is a common understanding no matter what definition is adopted, coercive control is almost always an underpinning dynamic of family and domestic violence.2

Coercive control can occur online, via technology or in person and can manifest in numerous ways, including:

  • Emotional manipulation including humiliation, threats, and intimidation;
  • Damaging, destroying, or stealing property;
  • Threatening to hurt themselves, family, friends, children and/or pets;
  • Abuse, stalking, monitoring, and surveillance;
  • Financial abuse including controlling household income, limiting access to bank accounts, ‘hiding’ assets or limiting the ability to find and maintain employment;
  • Isolation from family and friends, being jealous or suspicious of the victim’s friends and/or accusing them of having an affair;
  • Preventing the victim from doing things to help themselves including going to medical appointments, taking medication; and
  • Restricting the victim’s use of their phone, the internet, or the family car. 3

The impacts of coercive control on victim-survivors are often traumatic and pervasive not only on themselves, but also on their families and communities. The impacts can be physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, cultural, social, and financial. It is important to note they are intersecting and cumulative and not incident specific. 4

While coercive control has always been a prevalent issue requiring social and legal change, the topic has gained well needed attention as of late with scandals involving celebrities such as Kanye West and Britney Spears. West has recently come under media scrutiny for his alleged treatment of his Australian-born wife, Bianca Censori, with reports he is dictating her social media use, wardrobe, diet and when she can speak. 5 Similarly, the ‘Free Britney Movement’, dedicated to “freeing” popstar Britney Spears from her father’s controversial conservatorship over her, shed light on the proposed controlling abuse she was subject to under the legally imposed regime.6

Legislative change has also been on the forefront of the recent discussion with the Queensland Government becoming the second Australian jurisdiction, after New South Wales, to criminalise coercive control. The Queensland legislation7, passed on 6 March 2024, is expected to come into effect in 2025 and will carry a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.8

Similar changes may be on the horizon in Western Australia following the Office of the Commissioner for Victims of Crime publishing the Legislative responses to coercive control in Western Australia: Consultations outcome report, which outlined 24 recommendations to Government for systematic and legal changes to curb coercive control. 9 The Commissioner accepted that in Western Australia, the law recognises coercive control to some extent, but rightfully acknowledged that the legislation is not able to respond adequately to behaviour that represents a pattern rather than a one-off incident.

While the Commissioner’s report focused on the criminal justice system, it is reported to have received multiple submissions detailing challenges with the family law system. Though beyond the scope of the report, in addition to noting the significance of the intended recent legislative changes, the subject of our article Navigating Change: Amendments to the Family Law Act, the report emphasised the need for faster, less expensive, more effective, cohesive and consistent response to domestic violence across federal and state family law systems to ensure victims, including children, are safe and perpetrators are held accountable. To achieve this the Commissioner recommended, among other matters, additional training for legal professionals including judicial officers and lawyers, and further policy work.

Lavan Comment

Navigating the intersection of family law and domestic violence, particularly concerning coercive control, exposes significant challenges. The veiled, subtle, and insidious nature of coercive control can be difficult to identify and requires a nuanced approach, currently hampered by limited resources and training in the legal profession.

Ultimately, addressing coercive control effectively demands not just legal reform but a broader societal shift that raises awareness and dismantles the culture of control that allows it to flourish.

If you need support after reading this article or you or someone you know, is experiencing domestic violence, help is available through the following services: 

  • Police - In emergency call 000. For non-urgent police assistance call 131 444
  • Lifeline 13 11 14 or text 0477 13 11 14 at night (6pm-midnight AEDT)
  • 1800RESPECT - 1800 737 732 | www.1800respect.org.au
  • Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline (WA) – 1800 007 339
  • Men’s Domestic Violence Helpline (WA) – 1800 000 599
  • Crisis Care – 1800 199 008
  • 13 Yarn - 13 92 76 (first national crisis support line)
  • Q Life - 1800 184 527 | www.qlife.org.au   (LGBTQIA+ community aged 16+)
  • Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800 (kids 5 – 25 years)
  • Advocare - 1300 724 679 (older people)  

Thanks to Jonathan Tartaglia, Law Clerk, for his valuable research and input into this topic.

Disclaimer – the information contained in this publication does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should seek legal advice in relation to any particular matter you may have before relying or acting on this information. The Lavan team are here to assist.
11 April 2024
Family Law Updates
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Dragana Blackwood
Senior Associate
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Tamara Arapovic
Partner
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FOOTNOTES

[7] Criminal Law (Coercive Control and Affirmative Consent) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2023 (QLD)