This New Doc Challenges You To Spot The Signs Of Coercive Control

Photographed by Kristine Romano
You're probably familiar with some forms of domestic violence, such as physical or verbal abuse. In the weeks after the UK entered lockdown earlier this year, calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline rose by 49% while domestic abuse-related killings doubled. But there's a subtler type of abusive behaviour which is equally harmful and often happens under the radar, making it difficult to recognise.
Coercive control became a criminal offence in the UK in December 2015. It is described as a pattern of behaviour used by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim. It includes manipulation, intimidation, gaslighting and degradation, and could also include monitoring their victim's day-to-day activities, depriving them of the means for independence, resistance and escape. However, it is very difficult to prove in court.
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Police recorded 17,616 offences of coercive control in the year to March 2019, with one study from the Crime Survey for England and Wales finding that women are far more likely than men to be victims of abuse which involves ongoing degradation and frightening threats — two elements of coercive control.

Coercive control became a criminal offence in December 2015. It is described as a pattern of behaviour used by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim. However, it is very difficult to prove in court.

Would you be able to spot the signs? That's the question at the heart of an eye-opening BBC Three documentary, Is This Coercive Control? In this new social experiment, presented by journalist Ellie Flynn, a group of young people aged 18-30 are invited to observe the relationship between fictional Irish couple, Alex and Rachael.
Over two days, the group watches a drama about the couple's relationship which ends in an accusation of coercive control. As the story unfolds in six parts, the participants are asked to come to their own conclusions about what they see and whether they think that what they have witnessed is a crime in the eyes of the law.
The drama follows Alex and Rachael as they navigate a series of events, from Rachael getting fired from her job to Alex's increasing jealousy over Rachael's friendly relationship with her colleague, Vish. Later, Alex suggests that Rachael dresses differently – 'classier' – to help her get a job before encouraging her to drink alcohol the night before her interview.
The group's response to the film is mixed to say the least, with many unsure how to place each party's behaviour throughout and whether it constitutes coercive control.
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Unique, 21, who features in the documentary, believes it is fundamental for young people to learn to spot the signs of coercive control. "As the show demonstrates, it is very easy to be forced into a difficult situation with no way out," she tells Refinery29. "It seems that a lot of 18-30-year-olds are only aware of physical abuse, not the emotional and psychological manipulations that coercive control covers. If we can recognise the instant warning signs, we can potentially avoid dangerous relationships that could be detrimental to our lives."

It seems that a lot of 18-30-year-olds are only aware of physical abuse, not the emotional and psychological manipulations that coercive control covers.

unique, 21
Unique was surprised that the laws surrounding coercive control have so many loopholes and that the group was so split when watching the film. "I found it interesting, even though we were not told by Ellie or the production team what exactly the film was about. Instantly, I assumed it to be a film that would generate differing opinions between us. I think myself and a few others were instantly alert to the 'red flags' and warning signs in the film."
Photo Courtesy Of BBC Pictures
Presenter Ellie Flynn said: "Coercive control is an often misunderstood form of domestic abuse, and there are sometimes misconceptions that it is in some way less serious than physical abuse. We really wanted to challenge those ways of thinking and highlight the trauma caused by coercive and controlling relationships.
"After the UK went into lockdown in March, there were a record number of calls to domestic abuse helplines – with a call made to the police every 30 seconds in the first seven weeks. Unfortunately, this makes it more important than ever for us to learn what to look out for and how to help someone who might be suffering."
Is This Coercive Control? presented by journalist Ellie Flynn, is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.
The National Domestic Abuse helpline is free and open 24 hours a day, call 0808 2000 247 or visit nationaldahelpline.org.uk. If you are in immediate danger, please call 999.

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