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‘It’s like being in a cult for one’: Read 14 tactics used by coercive controllers

PUBLISHED: 12:40 07 March 2017 | UPDATED: 12:40 07 March 2017

Lisa Arsonson Fontes at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL

Lisa Arsonson Fontes at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL

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Experts in the field of domestic abuse gathered in Suffolk to explore the intricacies of a crime that is “invisible in plain sight”.

Evan Stark at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELLEvan Stark at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL

A sold-out audience filled the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds on Monday, March 6 for the third Conference on Coercive Control, with presentations from a line-up of celebrated professionals.

Keynote speaker was American university lecturer and author Lisa Aronson Fontes, who described a manipulative relationship as “like being in a cult of one”.

Dr Fontes said dangerous romances often started out happy, with abusers using methods that seem loving, such as constant texting or not wanting to be around anyone else.

She added: “It looks like the care that many women crave, then over time that warm beam gets narrower and narrower and she wants to get that back and she feels like it’s her fault she doesn’t have it.

Jane Monckton-Smith at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELLJane Monckton-Smith at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL

“Her life is then spent looking for ways of getting into that light again.”

One form of abuse that survivors often feel unable to talk about, Dr Fontes said, is sexual coercion, violence and degradation. This includes revenge porn, sex on demand and forced prostitution.

“Coercive control feels like being trapped in a cage and you can’t get out and you don’t know where to turn,” Dr Fontes added.

Professor Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and lecturer, praised the criminalisation of coercive control – calling it a “revolutionary moment in our women’s movement”.

Min Grob at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELLMin Grob at the Conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL

According to Mr Stark, around 25% of women in abuse relationships are never assaulted, and in some cases it is “low level” harm which police may not take seriously, such as biting, pushing and shoving.

This is where the new law, which was passed in England and Wales in 2015, can come into play.

It carries a maximum prison term of five years for perpetrators who repeatedly subject spouses, partners and other family members to serious psychological, social, financial and emotional torment.

Mr Stark deems coercive control a “liberty crime” that turns victims into “slaves in their own homes”.

He added: “When you smell the suppression of freedom the stench of injustice reeks through society like a great wind.”

Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, an expert in domestic homicide and stalking, told the conference abusers often used coercive control because they were experiencing “separation anxiety” – a fear of losing someone.

She said: “They do not want to be separated from this person that they control because that person is absolutely fundamental to the way they feel about their life.”

It is this trait that can lead to a domestic murder, Dr Monckton-Smith said.

She added: “Some killers say to me once they kill someone it’s like a relief, they don’t have to worry about owning her anymore because she’s gone.”

Organiser Min Grob said she was “ecstatic” about how well received the Conference on Coercive Control had been since she launched it last year.

She added: “What I wanted to do is have coercive control pitched at a level that anyone can get more knowledge or understanding, from frontline workers, professionals and people in relationships or those who know someone who is being coercively controlled.

“It is a day of learning because coercive control is invisible in plain sight and even if you don’t realise it we all know someone in our family that could be being coercively controlled.”

Ms Grob, who has experienced domestic abuse in the past, said putting on an event like this made her feel “safer”.

Here are 14 ways coercive control can exist in an intimate relationship:

- Controlling access to a phone and social media

- Enforcing a certain diet

- Prohibiting or limiting contact with friends, family and health services

- Monitoring and controlling a person’s time or movement

- Regulating what clothes, make up, hairstyle is worn

- Continual belittlement, telling someone they are worthless

- Harming or threatening children

- Jealous accusations

- Constant phone calls, texting and emails

- Controlling access to money and transport

- Forcing sex

- Name calling

- Refusing contraception

- Preventing a person from working and sleeping

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