This content contains information some readers may find distressing as it refers to information about family, domestic and sexual violence. If the information presented raises any issues for you, or someone you know, contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. See also Find support for a list of support services.

Family, domestic and sexual violence Home

Understanding FDSV

Data

Coercive control

Topic last updated: | See what’s been updated

The work of survivor-advocates and researchers has led to a growing public awareness in recent years of coercive control in the context of family and intimate partner relationships. Historically, family and domestic violence (FDV) was understood as physical and/or sexual violence, with a focus on single or episodic acts of violence. It is now seen to cover a wider range of behaviours and harms, including emotional abuse, harassment, stalking and controlling behaviours. Coercive control can be understood as a commonly occurring foundation for family and domestic violence (ANROWS 2021; Boxall et al. 2020; Hardesty et al. 2015).

The National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–2032 recognises coercive control as a key area of focus for addressing gender-based violence in Australia. However, widespread national reporting on coercive control is currently limited and this has been highlighted as a critical information gap (Standing Committee for Social Policy and Legal Affairs 2021).

This page discusses what is currently known about coercive control, the work being done to identify and respond to it, and how it is discussed in the AIHW FDSV reporting. While the AIHW’s FDSV reporting focuses on national quantitative data, some contributions from people with lived experience are included on this page to deepen our understanding of coercive control.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is often defined as a pattern of controlling behaviour, used by a perpetrator to establish and maintain control over another person. Coercive control is almost always an underlying dynamic of family and domestic violence and intimate partner violence. Perpetrators use coercive control to deprive another person of liberty, autonomy and agency (Cortis and Bullen 2015; ANROWS 2021).

What does coercive control mean to you?

'It’s a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to control their partner/family member and create an uneven power dynamic in the abuser’s favour.'

Sanda

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

While some of the behaviours that contribute to coercive control can be considered acts of violence themselves – and may be recognisable as emotional abuse, harassment, financial abuse, stalking or technology-facilitated abuse – it is important to see coercive control as the overall pattern within a relationship that is ongoing, repetitive and cumulative in nature (ANROWS 2021).

What did coercive control look like for you?

'My lived experience of coercive control involved isolation from family and friends, gaslighting, name-calling, financial control, restricted autonomy, jealousy and threats of violence for non-capitulation. These behaviours resulted in psychological harm, and escalation from threats of violence into inflicting actual violence as he wanted to enhance the threat’s credibility.'

Sanda

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

'At the beginning of my abusive relationship, my partner put me on a pedestal and treated me like a queen – gifts, flowers; spoilt my son with gifts and treats. She took us on holidays, and we spent all our time together. After 3 months she moved into my home and slowly but surely started isolating me from my friends and family. She would send me messages when I was out with friends asking me when I would be home, or she would insist on coming everywhere with me because she “didn’t want to be without me”. As time went on, she had convinced me what I was experiencing was all in my head. She would lie to me all the time but had me convinced I was delusional. She told me if I went to the police, they would put me into a psychiatric institution and I would lose my son, our home and my family and friends.'

Martina

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

'I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions without him. My texts were read, he answered my emails. He was in the background telling me what to say on any phone calls. I was not allowed to go to the doctors because he said there was nothing wrong with me. It was a living hell.'

Maggie

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

Coercive control is not defined by specific incidents

Coercive control is not measured by specific incidents. Perpetrators can use many different types of abusive behaviour to exert power and dominance, and can integrate coercive controlling behaviours into everyday life as a means to manipulate others.

Physical and/or sexual violence do not need to be present for coercive control to occur, or for it to have harmful or traumatic consequences. Coercive control can involve subtle or covert behaviours that would be perceived as innocuous to an external observer, but would be experienced as abusive or controlling by the victim–survivor (Boxall and Morgan 2021). The effects of coercive control are pervasive, and cumulative rather than incident-specific.

What do people get wrong about coercive control?

'Because coercive control doesn’t leave bruises, the seriousness of it continues to be minimised. Our society still prioritises physical and sexual violence. This is despite research into physical and sexual violence identifying that it is psychological harm that is the hardest and takes the longest to recover from. It’s like we’re screaming into a void.'

Lily

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

Coercive control can also involve, or occur alongside, behaviours and harms commonly referred to as technology-facilitated abuse (TFA). TFA can take the form of stalking, surveillance, tracking, threats, harassment and the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. Perpetrators may misuse devices, accounts, software or platforms to control, abuse and track victim-survivors. In intimate relationships, TFA can enable violence to occur or continue. The overlap between TFA and intimate partner violence is discussed further in Intimate partner violence.

What do we know?

Given the complex nature of coercive control – the way it occurs repeatedly, subtly and sometimes over a long period of time – it can be difficult to measure the prevalence precisely. Coercive control can be experienced by anyone, but is entrenched in gender inequality, and predominantly perpetrated by men towards women (Buzawa et al 2017; ANROWS 2021). A growing body of international research highlights some of the key challenges with measuring coercive control (Box 1).

What national data are available to report on coercive control?

Data on coercive control in Australia are limited. Some existing data sources are available to report on specific (non-physical) harmful behaviours noting the limitations in using survey data to generate robust estimates for the prevalence of coercive control.

What do the data show?

Survey data available to date only show the prevalence of specific harmful behaviours, some of which may be used in the context of coercive control. The survey instruments used to collect these data are incident-based, so they are unable to capture the ongoing nature of, and more subtle forms of, coercive control in everyday life. Further, given the way coercive control can restrict a person’s autonomy and deny their personhood, self-reports of controlling behaviour are likely to underestimate true prevalence. The data presented in the following section should be interpreted alongside data about violence, abuse and harassment, and stories from people with lived experience.

Emotional abuse, economic abuse and coercive control

The 2021–22 PSS collects data about emotional abuse and economic abuse by current or previous partners. Partners are those that the respondent lives with, or has lived with at some stage. For a full list of behaviours that are considered economic abuse or emotional abuse, see Intimate partner violence.

Women are more likely than men to have experienced economic abuse and emotional abuse

Data from the 2021–22 PSS show that:

  • 23% (2.3 million) of women and 14% (1.3 million) of men have experienced emotional abuse by a current or previous partner
  • 16% (1.6 million) of women and 7.8% (745,000) of men have experienced economic abuse from a current or previous partner.

Emotional or economic abuse are characterised in nature by their intent to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate the person they are aimed at, and are generally repeated (ABS 2023). They are also commonly used to control another person’s behaviour and cause them emotional harm or fear. These data cannot be used to show the prevalence of coercive control, but they can be used to raise awareness of non-physical forms of abuse and lead to greater recognition of harm.

How do physical and sexual violence overlap with other forms of abuse?

Based on the 2021–22 PSS, 1 in 5 (21% or 4.2 million) people aged 18 years and over have experienced violence, emotional abuse or economic abuse by a partner since the age of 15. The prevalence of violence and abuse by partners was higher for women than men:

  • 27% (2.7 million) of women aged 18 years and over have experienced violence or emotional/economic abuse by a partner.
  • 15% (1.5 million) of men have experienced violence or emotional/economic abuse by a partner (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Prevalence of partner violence, emotional abuse, and economic abuse since the age of 15, 2021–22

Source: ABS PSS 2021–22 | Data source overview

Emotional abuse often occurs repeatedly and as a range of behaviours during the course of a relationship. These may fluctuate over time and can be made worse by factors that affect the dynamic within a relationship or household (Box 2).

Multiple forms of non-physical abuse were common among survey respondents during the COVID-19 pandemic

Data from the 2021 AIC survey summarised in Box 2 show that:

  • 2 in 5 (42%) surveyed women who experienced any non-physical violence in the 12 months prior to the survey only experienced one category of abuse. The most common form of abuse experienced by women in this group was financial abuse (35%) followed by verbally abusive and threatening behaviours (27%).
  • 3 in 5 respondents experienced more than one category of non-physical abuse (22% experienced two categories of abuse, 16% experienced three; 14% experienced four; and 6.1% experienced five (Boxall and Morgan 2021).

For more information about experiences of intimate partner violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, see FDSV and COVID-19.

What are the responses to coercive control?

Existing survey data indicate that non-physical forms of abuse are commonly and repeatedly used in abusive relationships, and often multiple forms are combined to inflict harm. It is not clear whether strategies designed to respond to physical and/or sexual forms of FDSV, can identify the presence of controlling behaviours or intervene to prevent these behaviours from recurring (Morgan et al. 2020).

Support services

Specialist services for victim-survivors of FDSV often use screening or risk assessment tools to identify and respond to FDSV. These tools are generally designed to gather information to determine the level of risk, as well as the likelihood and severity of future violence (Toivonen and Backhouse 2018). The National Risk Assessment Principles for domestic and family violence, developed by ANROWS in 2018 (see Toivonen and Backhouse 2018), emphasise the importance of including coercive control in all assessments of family and domestic violence risk. While most states and territories adopt common risk assessment tools, and these tools often involve the assessment of risk from coercive control and non-physical forms of violence, no national risk assessment data are available. Data from specialist FDSV services is currently a national information gap. For more information, see Key information gaps and development activities.

Identification of coercive control in other service settings, particularly in mainstream health and welfare services, may involve a number of challenges. Screening processes do not always take place, and when they do – in settings such as health services – they may rely on the identification of physical and/or sexual violence, which can overlook coercive control. Further, people experiencing coercive control may not be inclined to report it, or may face barriers to accessing services due to the micro-regulation of their lives by their perpetrators (ANROWS 2021; Boxall and Morgan 2021).

Research has also shown that it is possible for the services and systems to be manipulated by perpetrators of FDSV to threaten, harass, and assert power and control over people (systems abuse).

More information about legal systems abuse can be found in Legal systems.

Criminalising coercive control

All states and territories have laws that respond to family and domestic violence. Recent discussion about ways to respond to coercive control has centred on the introduction of a specific criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour (Standing Committee for Social Policy and Legal Affairs 2021). There are wide ranging views about criminalising coercive control and a lack of consensus within the sector and broader community. Evidence on the success of criminal justice approaches to tackling coercive control is limited, both in Australia and internationally (Box 3) (ANROWS 2021).

More work is needed to understand the effectiveness of criminalisation, and other responses, to coercive control, including unintended consequences (ANROWS 2021).

National Principles to Address Coercive Control

The Australian Government has collaborated with all state and territory governments to develop the National Principles to Address Coercive Control in Family and Domestic Violence (the National Principles). The National Principles create a shared national understanding of coercive control, which is important for improving the safety of Australians, particularly women and children.

The Standing Council of Attorneys-General released the National Principles in 2023. The 7 National Principles focus on:

  • a shared understanding of the common features of coercive control
  • understanding the traumatic and pervasive impacts of coercive control
  • taking an intersectional approach to understanding features and impacts
  • improving societal understanding of coercive control
  • embedding lived experience
  • coordinating and designing approaches across prevention, early intervention, response, and recovery and healing
  • embedding the National Principles in legal responses to coercive control.

The National Principles are designed to be used by government and non-government organisations involved in addressing coercive control. 

For more information, see National Principles to Address Coercive Control in Family and Domestic Violence.

What is the impact of coercive control?

Coercive control diminishes a person’s liberty and can have devastating impacts on a person’s perception, personality, sense of self, sense of worth, autonomy and feeling of security (ANROWS 2021).

What does coercive control look like over time?

'Coercive control is particularly insidious as it’s done slowly over years. All the qualities the perpetrator found so attractive in the beginning are used as weapons against you. Over time, due to the constant emotional abuse, you start questioning your own sanity. Your independence – physically, emotionally, financially, religiously, sexually, verbally, and psychologically – is slowly eroded.'

Maggie

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

Coercive control can also be a risk factor for homicide, even in relationships without a history of physical violence.

Many female homicide victims had experienced a history of abuse

The Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network reports on deaths that occur in an FDV context, including information on the history of abuse, and characteristics of offenders and victims.

Between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2018, there were 311 IPV homicides across Australia. Over 3 in 4 (77% or 240) cases involved a male killing a current or former female partner, with the vast majority (95% or 212) of those male offenders identified as primary abusers of the woman they killed.

For more information about FDV-related homicides, see Domestic homicide.

Non-physical forms of violence were common in these relationships

Of the 212 male primary domestic violence abusers who killed their current or former female partner:

  • 82% (173) exhibited emotionally and psychologically abusive behaviours against the female partners they killed – behaviours employed to frighten, belittle, humiliate, unsettle and undermine a victim’s sense of self-worth.
  • 63% (134) had perpetrated social abuse, which involves isolating the victim from support networks and controlling her movements.
  • 42% (88) had stalked the woman they killed.
  • 27% (58) used economically or financially abusive tactics to diminish the victim’s ability to support themselves and force them to depend on the abuser financially (ADFVDRN 2022).

These findings highlight the need for services and first responders to recognise the pattern of coercive and controlling behaviours that can be precursors to homicide.

For detailed findings from the ADFVRN, see Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network national data update.

Is coercive control the same for everyone?

No two people’s experience of coercive control is the same, and the harmful behaviours inflicted by perpetrators can be experienced differently across population groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, LGBTIQA+ people, refugee and migrant women, people with disability and younger women.

Additional research and improved data are required to address the information gaps. Expertise from people with lived experience is critical for informing our current understanding and for building the evidence base.

For more general information about data gaps, and work being done to address these gaps, please see Key information gaps and development activities.

  1. Previous page Consent
  2. Next page Who uses violence?