The paradox of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse

Domestic-violence campaigners are pushing for a change in the law to make ‘coercive control’ and psychological harm within a relationship a criminal offence. This call comes off the back of a new wide-ranging Home Office redefinition of domestic violence, which itself includes coercive control as a form of domestic violence.

There is no doubt that coercion is a reality in many abusive relationships, but this expanded definition blurs the lines between thoughts and actions. What’s more, by extending the definition of domestic violence to include mental harm, which is already a vague concept, the government is needlessly expanding the population of potential criminals and their victims. All this does is fuel fearmongering about domestic violence and, in the process, undermine women’s capacity to tackle non-violent forms of coercion in a relationship.

In, say, the Victorian era, non-violent coercion was a clear means of control in relationships. Men didn’t have to physically harm the women in their lives to deny them their autonomy. Men controlled the finances, divorce was almost impossible and, for many women, movement was severely restricted. Leaving an abusive or just unpleasant relationship was all but impossible. But we are not living in Victorian England. We are living in a modern, (relatively) free society. If a woman is living in a ‘mentally abusive’ relationship, and has the soundness of mind to report her other half to the police, why doesn’t she just leave the relationship?

That is not to say that a genuine threat of violence should not be scrutinised under the normal provisions of the law. However, this new reframing of domestic violence includes such behaviour as trying to control what your other half wears and who they socialise with – this may, in some cases, indicate bad things to come, but it is not the same as physical abuse. By eliding the distinction between an action someone takes which denies someone else their autonomy and the mean bullying that goes on in some relationships, we are criminalising increasingly mundane behaviour and inviting the state to further meddle in our private lives.

Saleha Ali is a writer and researcher based in London.

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