Unpacking the BBC’s ‘Is this Coercive Control?’

BBC Is this coercive control?

I only very recently got the chance to watch the BBC’s ‘Is this Coercive Control?’. I wasn’t prepared for how much the programme shocked me – but I should have been. The programme took a group of 18-25 year old participants from around the UK and brought them together to watch a film showing the development of a relationship between two people, Alex and Rachel. 

The film the participants are shown is split into segments, with participants given the chance to comment on whether they think the relationship shown is coercive and controlling after each segment. The film culminates in a court case, and the victims are able to vote as to whether they think Alex is guilty of the crime of coercive control.

To my mind, it was very clear that Alex was coercive and controlling towards Rachel. He encouraged her to change how she dressed, harassed her with texts and voicemails whenever she left the house and put her down. His behaviour was constantly volatile – he’d snap and then say sorry time and again – the kind of behaviour that I could see left Rachel treading on eggshells.

Yet I realised that many of the participants did not really seem to be aware of what coercive control was, and nor did they always register that Alex’s behaviour was frequently unacceptable – even if they did acknowledge that it made Rachel scared. 

After watching this, I thought the best thing to do would to unpick some of the myths and misconceptions that dominated ‘Is this Coercive Control’. Read on for more.

Coercive control is not false imprisonment

At the court case that takes place towards the end of the film the participants are shown, Rachel says that Alex put her in such a position in the relationship that she felt like she couldn’t leave. Alex’s lawyer grills her and says she could have walked out at any time, causing Rachel to break down. 

When the participants were commenting on the court case, many of them insisted that Rachel could have walked out at any time. One woman suggested that Rachel had even been lying because she hadn’t mentioned that Alex had given her a key to the flat. This woman surmised that as Rachel had a key to get in and out, she couldn’t possibly have been ‘trapped’ by Alex. Another man suggested that the only way Alex’s actions could be seen to constitute a crime would be if he had locked her up inside his house. 

It seems that some of the participants were confusing coercive control with a different crime: false imprisonment. False imprisonment is kind of what it says on the tin. It’s the intentional deprivation of someone’s liberty by restricting their movement. If Alex had locked Rachel in his house he would be guilty of false imprisonment; but he does not need to do this to have committed a crime of coercive control.

In fact, in the scenario we were shown, there were many reasons why Rachel seemed to be trapped. Shortly before moving in with Alex, she had lost her job (we later find out that Alex deliberately sabotaged her employment). Alex was threatening her about the household finances, and as a result, she had taken out a payday load, putting her in a position of financial precariousness that would have made independence difficult. She was struggling with low self-esteem because of job rejections – and Alex fed upon this, putting her down and telling her that perhaps how she dressed was giving employers the wrong impression. This confidence-crushing behaviour is likely to have prevented Rachel from feeling as though she could successfully function independently of Alex; he had contrived things so that she felt as if she was falling apart – something that always makes it far more difficult to leave an abusive situation.

Additionally, Alex regularly made Rachel fearful, snapping at her and haranguing her whenever she left the house. Such fears would have made it difficult for Rachel to contemplate leaving the abusive situation, as the thought of the repercussions would have held her back.

Yet for so many, the fact that she was under no physical restraints seemed to signify that her pleas that she was trapped were false. Coercive control is all about using mental manipulation to create mental restraints – and this is something we should always try to keep at the forefront of our minds. 

coercive control false imprisonment
The victim is not to blame

I felt that a lot of the participants had quite black and white views on ‘morality’ in ‘Is this Coercive Control?’. At the beginning of the film, we see Rachel tell a white lie to get out of work. For many, this made Rachel a figure of intense suspicion and they were inclined to see her as deceitful and untrustworthy for some time. Yet these sorts of lies are not uncommon in society.

Seeing that Rachel liked drinking and had had a glass of wine to cope with a bad day, many of the participants jumped to the conclusion that she was an alcoholic, and many of them blamed this for her worsening relations with Alex. When asked what was affecting Rachel so badly, some participants saw her ‘addiction’ and emotional instability as the issue – and not Alex’s treatment of her. 

Additionally, the main reason that Rachel had moved in with Alex in the first place was because she lost her job and couldn’t afford the rent. Alex initially was very calm about money, but as the relationship developed, he started pressuring Rachel for financial contributions (despite her struggling to get a job) and made her feel guilty for not contributing. He insisted his income had gone down (though court documents found later that he had been lying about a depletion in his finances). As a result of this pressure, Rachel had taken out a payday loan, and is in significant debt at the time of the court case. Many saw her taking Alex to court as her trying to put the blame for her own debt on him – without accepting that Alex had put her in a position where she felt financially very under pressure. 

Coercive control is not solely about moments of violence and anger

As the cracks begin to show in Alex and Rachel’s relationship, there is one scene where Alex gets very angry at Rachel, calls her a ‘slut’ and smashes a plate out of her hand. 

For many of the participants who did believe Alex’s behaviour was abusive and even criminal, this was a moment they came back to time and again. They said that it proved that Alex was angry and threatening, and that that action showed how he was able to instil fear in Rachel. 

But violence and anger alone do not constitute abuse, and the fact that the participants’ perceptions of abuse centred heavily on Alex’s angry outburst is very revealing. You see, we are still very much in the stage of working towards an understanding of abuse and violence as something that is not just physical. For most people, abuse constitutes moments of force and violence, displayed by one partner towards another. And yet while these moments may be present in abusive situations, they are not typically what drives the abusive partner’s power over their victim.

In fact, it is only through patterns of behaviour that abusers develop the control over their victim that enables them to display moments of violence and feel secure in the knowledge that the victim will not leave. These patterns can include reducing a victim’s self-confidence (which Alex did when criticising Rachel’s clothing), making a victim feel guilty (which Alex did whenever Rachel left the house) and emotionally manipulating a victim (which Alex did every time he put Rachel down and then apologised afterwards). Yes Alex’s outburst was part of how he controlled Rachel through fear, but it was not a single or defining moment of abuse. 

coercive control is a crime
Coercive control is a crime

Some of the participants couldn’t believe that Alex’s behaviour was criminal. One of them felt that if it was, the courts would be completely inundated with such cases, as Alex’s behaviour was so common. 

Coercive control is common. But it is now a crime, and has been since 2015. Many people don’t recognise this. CPS figures suggest that the majority of such cases are dropped without a charge. And it’s not hard to see why. The lack of understanding about what constitutes coercive control, and the failure of so many to see it as a crime means that it is harder for victims to come forward, and harder for them to believe that they will find acceptance when telling their stories. 

The fact that that particular participant pointed out how common Alex’s behaviour was is important. Coercive behaviours are often normalised in society and perpetrated widely. It is perhaps because of this that we struggle recognise them, and struggle to recognise when they start to appear in patterns that manipulate victims. 

Perhaps only when we fully achieve an understanding of coercive control as a criminal offence will we become honest and open about the fact that it is unacceptable and no one should have to tolerate it. 

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