What is coercive control?

Domestic abuse isn’t always physical. Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.

We campaigned and succeeded in making coercive control a criminal offence. This has marked a huge step forward in tackling domestic abuse. But now we want to make sure that everyone understands what it is.

Coercive control creates invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life. It works to limit their human rights by depriving them of their liberty and reducing their ability for action. Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage. As he says: “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”

How do you know if this is happening to you?

Some common examples of coercive behaviour are:

  • Isolating you from friends and family
  • Depriving you of basic needs, such as food
  • Monitoring your time
  • Monitoring you via online communication tools or spyware
  • Taking control over aspects of your everyday life, such as where you can go, who you can see, what you can wear and when you can sleep
  • Depriving you access to support services, such as medical services
  • Repeatedly putting you down, such as saying you’re worthless
  • Humiliating, degrading or dehumanising you
  • Controlling your finances
  • Making threats or intimidating you

You can read more in this article we wrote for The Telegraph

Statistics on coercive control

  • One study found that 95 out of 100 domestic abuse survivors reported experiencing coercive control. [1]
  • Another study found that women are far more likely than men to be the victims of coercive controlling behaviour abuse that involves ongoing degradation and frightening threats. [2]
  • HMIC found that 62% of professionals working with survivors said there needs to be improved understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour among frontline officers. [3]

Read our blogs on coercive control

10th August 2017

Hilary Fisher, Women’s Aid Director of Research, Policy and Campaigns comments on the recent case of Harley Smith who was convicted of coercive control. “Women’s Aid urgently calls for sentences for coercive control to reflect the severity of the crime and to hold perpetrators accountable, not only to ensure that justice is done but to also improving survivors’ confidence in the criminal justice system and to send a clear message that coercive control is unacceptable and that this crime is taken seriously.”  Read more

Thursday 29th December 2016

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “The number of convictions is worryingly low – especially as we know that the vast majority of women experiencing domestic abuse are victims of coercive control. If we can increase the convictions for coercive control, and recognise patterns of perpetrator behaviour – such as those revealed by the Femicide Census – it will have an enormous impact on the reduction of domestic abuse.” Read more

29th December 2015

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Women’s Aid and other organisations campaigned to have this recognised in law, and we are thrilled that this has now happened. It is a landmark moment in the UK’s approach to domestic abuse, and must be accompanied by awareness-raising among the public, and comprehensive professional training for all agencies that deal with domestic abuse.” Read more

Watch videos on coercive control

Getting help and advice

If you’re in a controlling relationship and need help, call us for free on the National Domestic Abuse Helpline.

Find out more

If you think your teenage daughter is in a coercive relationship, we’ve created a toolkit to help.

Download toolkit

Find out more about domestic abuse, how to spot the signs of abuse and how to get help and support.

Read more

[1] Kelly, L; Sharp, N and Klein, R, Finding the Costs of Freedom How women and children rebuild their lives after domestic violence (London: Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit and Solace Women’s Aid, 2014), p.19

[2] Myhill, A, Measuring coercive control: what can we learn from national population surveys? (Violence Against Women 21(3), 2015, pp. 355-375)

[3] HMIC, Increasingly everyone’s business: A progress report on the police response to domestic abuse (Published online: HMIC, 2015), p. 47

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