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Domestic violence and Netflix’s ‘Dirty John’: What is Coercive Control?

Gry Apeland

07 Aug, 2019

 

A recent Netflix show focusses on the destructive reality of Coercive Control. This article explores this subversive form of psychological manipulation, how young people might be affected by it, and what can be done to help.

 

Gry Apeland is part of Youthscape’s Centre for Research. She has an MSc in Psychology of Coercive Control from the University of Salford, and an BSc in Psychology from the University of York. A volunteer youth worker, she has worked with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation who have experienced coercive control.

A few months ago a Netflix drama series aired titled “Dirty John”. Based on real events, the true-crime show documents the relationship between Debra Newell and her new partner John Meehan, and the havoc Meehan causes in Debra’s family. Fairly quickly, John Meehan is able to insert himself as a big part of the Newell family, to Debra’s daughters’ discomfort, and starts exhibiting controlling and disturbing behaviour. With charm, wit, coercion and control, he is able to keep a firm grip on Debra, her relationship to her family, and her finances for quite some time. Despite never once laying a hand on Debra or her daughters, they start feeling threatened and that he is capable of more than he shows. The series culminates in the (spoiler alert) dramatic scene of him attempting to stab Debra’s daughter after having been excluded from the family.

What is coercive control?

John displays a pattern of behaviour recently included in British law called “Coercive Control”. According to the Serious Crime Act (2015), coercive behaviour is a “continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim”, and controlling behaviour is “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.” This legislation recognised that physical abuse was not the only thing marking a domestically violent relationship that has the power to seriously inflict damage on a person’s psyche.

 

If you look closely at these definitions, you might notice similarities to what in popular culture has been named “mind control” or “brainwashing”. These terms are somewhat unhelpful in that they imply hypnosis, a silly magic trick, or a quick process of snapping one’s fingers wherein someone is suddenly under another's control. The reality is often far more sinister. Subtle shifts between showering someone with affection and being threatening. Slowly isolating someone under the guise of “I love you so much, I just don’t think so and so is good for you, I just want to spend all my time with you”. Infantilising someone whilst pretending to take care of them, slowly crushing their independence.

"Subtle shifts between showering someone with affection and being threatening. Slowly isolating someone under the guise of 'I love you so much, I just don’t think so and so is good for you, I just want to spend all my time with you'. Infantilising someone whilst pretending to take care of them, slowly crushing their independence...forms of this behaviour can be found in most types of abuse."

 

Forms of this behaviour can be found in most types of abuse; child sexual exploitation, sexual grooming, domestic violence, gangs, cults, and spiritual abuse. It is often the reason why abuse is able to happen in relationships in the first place, and why psychological abuse by someone you know tends to be more traumatic than abuse by a stranger. If someone stepped out of the shadows in front of you and attacked you, you wouldn’t then initiate a relationship with them. Yet individuals regularly stay in relationships with people who physically hurt them. This is due to the time and effort that has been spent building trust, intimacy and isolation, whilst using subtle coercive tactics, like breaking down their sense of self and confidence. The victim is already somewhat dependent on their abuser by the first attack. Often the physical abuse never happens, which is why the new law is so important. The recognition that those in coercive and controlling relationships might also be in danger, even without any physical abuse, will hopefully allow more agencies like social services and the police to take action earlier and in more cases.

Normalising control

Dirty John is not the only TV-show portraying coercive control. Whilst this show is important in that it recognises the danger of this pattern of behaviour, it is by no means the only in which it is present. Structured reality TV shows like Love Island, Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex have for years seen occurrences of this type of behaviour, although arguably on a less serious scale. The toxicity in some of these relationships has often been normalised, or laughed at, despite being serious and abusive. This is worrying both because of the wellbeing of the people taking part in these shows, but also because the young people watching these shows might see this as normal behaviour.

It should not be a surprise then when young people start exhibiting the same behaviours in turn. Cross-cultural studies have shown that young people in the UK, as well as in four other countries (Norway, Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus) experience online and offline surveillance and control, sexual pressure and verbal abuse on a regular basis, as well as taking part in this behaviour themselves, and this is regarded as normal (STIR, 2015).

"Knowing signs of coercive control can help us as youth workers to spot unhealthy or potentially harmful situations our young people find themselves in, before the situation has had time to escalate. It helps us spot abusive situations that don't have the 'classic' physical symptoms."

Another important aspect of the Serious Crime Act (2015) is the lowering of the age of when domestic violence is recognised. In the past, relationships in which individuals were over the age of 18 were the only ones that were recognised as domestically violent by law. Now this age has been lowered to 16, to account for all the peer-to-peer abusive relationship that exists in teenage years. Realistically though, it is fair to assume that even younger teenagers are likely experiencing, or using, coercive and controlling behaviour, as seen in the Safeguarding Teenage Intimate Relationships (STIR; 2015) study.

 
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A problem for the Church

It is also important to stress that the Church is not exempt from this kind of behaviour. In a survey of 438 churchgoers in the UK, 1 in 4 had, in their current relationship, experienced one or more of the abusive behaviours asked about. Only 16% of men and 25% of women in the survey had sought support from their church. For those who had felt comfortable seeking help in church, only just over half reported getting a supportive response (Aune & Barnes, 2018).

As youth workers it is important that we are able to recognise the signs of coercive control, in a way that minimises the damage to the young person involved. Does your young person feel like they have to ask their partner for permission before coming along to youth group? Do they suddenly isolate themselves from their friends after having gotten a new boyfriend? Does their girlfriend patronise them or talk down to them or about them around others? Are they made to feel as though they are overly emotional or ‘crazy’, and that thereby their opinions are invalid? Does their best friend not let them engage with other young people in the group? These are just some of the signs that your young person might be in a controlling relationship. Knowing signs of coercive control can help us as youth workers to spot unhealthy or potentially harmful situations our young people find themselves in, before the situation has had time to escalate. It also helps us spot abusive situations that don't have the “classic” physical symptoms, and gives us an understanding that helps prevent victim-blaming.

So what can youth workers do?

  • Read up on signs of Coercive Control so that you can spot it easier in your young people. This article on Women’s Aid is a good place to start.
  • Teach your young people about healthy and unhealthy behaviours in relationships, and how to spot the signs of coercive and controlling behaviour.
  • Enable safe conversations with your young people where they would feel comfortable disclosing experiences of abuse.
  • Don’t victim blame. Despite maybe not having experienced the behaviour yourself, it is important to recognise the subtle escalation of a coercive and controlling relationship.
  • Think through your own behaviour and the culture in your youth group. It is easy for unhealthy behaviours and cultures to accidentally develop.

References:

Aune, K. & Barnes, R. (2018) In Churches Too: Church Responses to Domestic Abuse – A Case Study of Cumbria. Coventry: Coventry University and Leicester: University of Leicester.

Header image credit: Nicole Wilder/Bravo

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