Control by stealth: a life lived in terror

2 December 2014

Written by: Erdem Koc

If Kon Karapanagiotidis’s tweet is correct, the number of Australian women killed each week by a partner or ex-partner is on the rise.

This is incredibly alarming given the stats around domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

One woman is killed every week because of intimate partner violence.

Domestic and family violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and their children.

One in three women over the age of 15 reports physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives.

Intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and ill-health in Australian women aged 15 – 44.

One in six women will experience domestic violence at the hands of a partner she lives with or has lived with.

This violence costs the economy an estimated $14.7 billion.

To give these statistics perspective, try this: calculate how many women you are friends with on Facebook. Divide the number by six to see how many friends are likely to experience violence at the hands of a partner. Divide the number of women you know on Facebook by three to find out how many female friends will suffer physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives.

Looking at the stats, anything is possible. The information gleaned from statistical data about intimate partner violence doesn’t just inform our understanding of what’s happening behind closed doors. More importantly, the information is used to ascertain and address the damage caused by intimate partner abuse.

The writings of Evan Stark on coercive control and Michael P Johnson’s concept of the intimate terrorist have been instrumental in understanding the psychological effects of relationship abuse but their conclusions wouldn’t have been possible without the thousands of real life experiences that form the basis of their work. It was Stark’s introductory work on coercive control that led to a better understanding of the use of the term ‘violence’ when dealing with psychological rather than physical abuse.

Violence encompasses more than the actions that cause physical harm. ‘Violence against women’ also refers to emotional, psychological, sexual and financial abuse. These can be referred to collectively as coercive control and are best understood as a pattern of strategies.

The other point Karapanagiotidis makes in his tweet, while political, is also relevant – that is, women who live with intimate partner violence spend their lives in a state of constant terror. The fear of physical violence is used to control and refine the behaviours of an intimate partner.

Ella* has experienced the terrorised state that comes with an abusive relationship. Her mother, father and stepfather were all physically abusive. Unsurprisingly, she ended up in an abusive relationship herself.

“Sadly, if you’ve grown up with it, it seems kind of normal,” she tells upstart.

“You just assume every woman is copping it in some way. I was 27 when I started going out with him and the signs were VERY much there from the start. I was discouraged from talking to my male friends whilst out, or any men really. I’d get a dirty look, the silent-moody treatment. Nothing physical but the message was very clear.”

After falling pregnant a couple of months into the relationship, the emotional abuse began.

“Once we moved in together, I was really isolated. I had no family support at all, had lost contact with many friends. At this time he was working sporadically, drinking heavily. He became even more possessive. We only had one car between us and if I went anywhere he’d call and text loads. He never stopped accusing me of having an affair every time I left the house. We fought a lot.”

Ella’s enforced seclusion was littered with nasty traps. She was not allowed male acquaintances but was permitted to see one female friend, the wife of one of his workmates. She quickly figured out that her new friend was being seriously physically abused by her husband, “a real abuser, a wife basher”. Ella got the message loud and clear. She had been shown the endgame.

This process of isolation and intimidation is part of the suite of behaviours that make up coercive control. Manipulation tactics are used by an abuser to control the behaviour of an intimate partner. However, because they are introduced over an extended period of time, it’s sometimes difficult for the victim to put a finger on exactly what’s happening and/or wrong.

There’s a creeping tension that seeps in. Occasions that are supposed to be celebrated are easily ruined by spite and nastiness. Ella describes what should have been the joy of having her first baby. After a routine appointment revealed a loss of amniotic fluid, she was admitted to hospital.

“I ended up having an emergency caesarean. He had forgotten to bring me the hospital bag I’d packed from home. I cried and he called me a f**king asshole. My baby was less than twelve hours old.”

“When it got closer to the time of my discharge I broke down and told a midwife I couldn’t go home. She told me I’d be fine, it was just the baby blues setting in. When I got home, the house was filthy and stank of stale beer and cigarettes. I lost it at him, screaming and crying. He threatened to call someone because he said I was hysterical and he was worried about the baby’s welfare.”

Ella knew in her rational mind that she was perfectly able to take care of her baby but the idea that she could actually lose custody of her child stopped her in her tracks. The scare tactics had intensified and they were starting to work.

Ella’s ex wanted total control of everything, which is often the case with intimate partner abuse. He not only limited the people she could associate with but he also controlled her access to money.

“I had barely enough money to live on and he kept any money he made to himself. But when I got the opportunity, I’d buy stuff like coffee, nappies and toiletries on sale and hide them at the back of my closet.”

Financial abuse is a common coercive tactic and it assists in the reinforcement of other forms of abuse. It can be used to enforce isolation, which is one of the cornerstones of maintaining coercive control. A lack of resources is also one of the reasons women find it difficult to leave.

Ella knew she would have to leave if she wanted a normal life. She was also aware of the danger she would place herself in by doing so.

“I was told many times that if I left him he’d hunt me down and kill me. Or he’d take the baby from me because I was crazy. Or I’d get raped because I couldn’t afford a safe place to live. I stayed with a friend for a while but one night he rang and told me he had slit his wrists. I went straight home. He’d pretty much trashed the house. His wrists were fine.”

After months of threats and screaming, Ella finally found a place to live but interactions between her and her ex were always contentious and stressful.

“Whenever he came to see the baby he’d get sulky, then angry. The threats and accusations got even bigger. I’d moved because I was a whore having an affair etc. He’d say stuff like, ‘You won’t see it coming. Remember who I know.’”

She could switch off on these threats because she felt like she was moving on. After years of intimidation and abuse, Ella thought she had finally found a way out. She had a new house and was starting to feel free of the tentacle-like reach of her ex.

“The first week or so in my new place my hot water stopped heating up. The real estate sent someone around and it had been turned off from the outside. One morning I went to leave the flat and couldn’t get the wire door open because someone had pumped super glue into the lock and the fitting. Once, after a long night of drunken abusive calls and texts threatening to kill me, he broke into my shed and got into the house.”

The police were called and a restraining order was put in place. Her ex was served with papers the next day but it didn’t seem to bother him. He drove past Ella’s house that day, slowed down and waved. She reported him to police and he was given a warning.

“By this time I was off my head with stress. I guess I went a bit OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), checking windows and doors over and over. I really believed he would do something to me or the baby out of spite. One night I’d got up to go to the toilet and, in my OCD state, I thought I’d triple check the windows again. I saw a silhouette outside my front windows. It was a man smoking. Next thing he moved away and my front light went out. I was petrified but I couldn’t prove it was him so nothing was done.”

After some particularly nasty texts in the lead up to Mother’s Day that year, Ella finally sought legal action. Despite the mountains of evidence, Ella was informed that a magistrate was likely to restore his immediate access to her child and penalise her for not allowing access in the first place. If it was supposed to provide some remedy to the harm being inflicted, in Ella’s case, it failed.

Luckily for Ella, her ex started seeing another woman and the abuse receded. He visits once a month and even pays child support. Ella describes it as her “DV joyride”. He still threatens her sometimes but he no longer has a hold over her emotionally so she’s fine with it. She’s grateful she can feel this way about it now.

When asked if there’s any advice she’d like to share from her experience, she responds instantly:

“There’s a misconception that abuse only happens to subservient women. Any woman can be a victim. A lot of times an abuser is attracted to a woman’s strength and out-goingness but as the relationship progresses, they begin to resent or feel threatened by these qualities. That’s when the abuse really begins.”

Domestic violence research is chillingly accurate. Ella’s story reads like a case study from the pages of a DV handbook about coercive control. Intimate partner psychological abuse including insults, threats, humiliation, put-downs, restricted freedom and constant surveillance – check! Manipulative behaviours that allow the abuser to maintain control over the situation and the person – check! Fear used as a weapon with the threat of escalation if the victim tries to leave – check!

Sporting culture, religious belief systems, the porn industry, the family structure and basic economics all contribute to the toxic space around women. Men’s violence against women is a massive problem in Australia so it’s fortunate that organisations like White Ribbon are at the coalface.

White Ribbon is the only national male-led violence prevention organisation in Australia and it’s been working hard for 11 years. The aim of White Ribbon Day is to engage men to help stop violence against women while highlighting the positive role men can play in violence prevention.

The ideas about positive engagement are based on the global bystander theory. The theory posits that anybody who is not a perpetrator or a victim in a given situation is a bystander. Friends, teammates, colleagues, co-workers, family members are all bystanders and it’s up to them to address the toxic attitudes some men have towards women.

Jackson Katz’ TedX talk ‘mansplains’ the theory perfectly.

Men’s violence against women, whether physical or psychological, must be addressed and understood for the problem that it is. Violence against women has to stop, not because it’s illegal but because it’s unacceptable in a modern, progressive society. Adult men with power need to start prioritising these issues.

Kon Karapanagiotidis is one of those men and he’s doing a pretty good job. Whether you agree with his politics on the issue is irrelevant.

His message that a life lived in terror is not really lived, is a message more people should hear.

If you or someone you know is experiencing intimate partner violence, you can ring the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 737 732.

Ingrid Vaughan is a graduating Bachelor of Media Studies student from La Trobe University, and is a former editor of upstart. You can follow her on Twitter: @IngridVaughan