Would you recognise coercive control? These are 5 signs of toxic non-violent abuse

Written by Alex Sims

Coercive and controlling behaviour has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015. But would you recognise it?  CPS domestic abuse lead, Kate Brown, tells Stylist what non-violent abuse red flags really look like and why it’s so important we learn how to spot them. 

Trigger warning: this article includes accounts of domestic abuse.

Coercive and controlling behaviour has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015. But would you know how to recognise it if you saw it happening to a friend or family member, or to you?

Since coercive and controlling behaviour became illegal, the number of cases charged in England and Wales has gone up from five in 2015 to 1,403 in 2020/21, with women far more likely than men to be victims of abuse.

However, research from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) found that 83% of cases included additional allegations of assault, suggesting many victims don’t go to the police until an abuser has inflicted physical violence.   

Coercive and controlling behaviour in relationships is wide-ranging. It can encompass everything from allegations of cheating to someone using technology like social media or even video doorbells and Fitbits to monitor someone’s behaviour.

Last year, the BBC documentary Is This Coercive Control? brought together a diverse group of 20 young people aged 18 to 30 to test if they knew what constitutes coercive control. They watched a fictional film about a couple and then decided if what they had seen was a criminal offence. Only 10% identified the actions they’d seen as illegal.

This is something Kate Brown, CPS domestic abuse lead and chief crown prosecutor for CPS South East, wants to change. “It’s important to recognise it isn’t all about violence. There are criminal behaviours that stop just short of violence and still have a highly detrimental effect on victims,” she tells Stylist

“We’re particularly concerned about young women especially when they’re embarking on those first serious relationships. It’s important that they can recognise ‘red flags’ in behaviour which can escalate to become more extreme.”  

Brown is hoping to educate more and more people to understand what constitutes coercive and controlling behaviour.

“Coercive behaviour is typically an act or a pattern of acts,” says Brown. “It could be threats, humiliation, intimidation, or other abuse to harm, punish or frighten the victim. Controlling behaviour is usually designed to make the person subordinate or dependent, like isolating them from support and depriving them of independence and escape by regulating their everyday behaviour.”

After looking at hundreds of cases of coercive and controlling abuse, the CPS has identified a number of red flags that continually crop up. 

Kate Brown is the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) domestic abuse lead and chief crown prosecutor for CPS South East.

Mobile phones and social media

The monitoring of mobile phones and social media is a common thread in a lot of these cases. “Victims frequently describe being bombarded by a high level of messages often asking where they are, what they’re doing and who are they seeing,” says Brown. 

“We see cases where perpetrators will look for access to the victim’s phone and social media passwords so they can check on activity and who they’re in contact with, deleting people they don’t like.” 

In some cases, victims are not even allowed to go to the shower or the bathroom without being accompanied or able to have normal day-to-day contact on their phones.

Ever-evolving tech is also giving preparators more sophisticated and underhand ways of interfering with a victim’s life. “We’ve had cases where a doorbell camera and cameras within the house were installed by the perpetrator that only he had access to, which enabled him to monitor the victim all the time,” says Brown. “In another case, a defendant hacked into his partner’s Fitbit, and accused her of cheating when her heart level was raised.”  


Another common element of these cases is abusers controlling what the victim wears. “We came across men demanding how their girlfriends dress, what makeup they wear, or the style of their hair,” says Brown. Often the victim is banned from wearing certain types of clothing, underwear or footwear. “On occasions, the perpetrators destroy items they don’t approve of,” adds Brown.

Accusations of cheating

Perpetrators accusing the victim of sleeping with friends or colleagues are also prevalent in these types of cases. “We’ve seen cases where somebody will suddenly turn up at a work party where partners were not expected and accuse a male colleague of sleeping with their girlfriend,” says Brown.

Demeaning comments

Other pervasive behaviour includes lambasting the victim with insulting and demeaning comments. This uses humiliation as a way to assert control.

“We repeatedly see victims who tell us they are being called ‘whores’, ‘fat’, ‘ugly’ and other insults,” says Brown. “This clearly damages their confidence and their ability to be resilient.”

Emotional blackmail

Another feature of these cases is the perpetrator using emotional blackmail to convince the victim to remain in a relationship.

“Often when a victim finds the courage to try and end a relationship the abuser will emotionally blackmail them by threatening to kill themselves or saying their mental health and wellbeing is dependent on the victim,” says Brown. “It’s extremely toxic.”  

All of these behaviours have been criminal since 2015. Yet, many people aren’t aware they’re illegal. “Someone may notice the deplorable behaviour is unacceptable, but not that this is something they can actually report to the police,” says Brown.

“It can also start out as quite flattering behaviour,” adds Brown. “The preparator is interested in spending all their time with the victim, they’re showering them with attention and messages. But as it goes on it can become much more menacing.”

If left unchallenged, coercive and controlling behaviour can invade almost every aspect of a victim’s life, affecting their finances, who they socialise with, isolating them from loved ones and filling the victim with a constant fear of violence.

Brown acknowledges there is more to be done to improve victim support and increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice but says people should have confidence they will be listened to and supported if they do come forward. 

“The long term psychological effects for victims can be really detrimental. It can leave untold emotional scars,” says Brown. “This is why it’s vital we get the message out so people can recognise this abuse.”

Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is free to call and available 24/7 on 0808 2000 247. See their website here for more information.

Images: Getty

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