Sunday, 2 April 2017

#CoerciveControl can occur in ANY kind of intimate relationship regardless of Gender Identity or Sexuality

Coercive Control (CC) is a concept that isn't always discussed fully. It can be well hidden by both perpetrators and survivors so can be very difficult to detect. What's even more frustrating is that at the moment, CC is often seen through a gendered lens. Ask the average person on the street whether they've heard of gay men or trans men going through experiences of domestic violence, domestic abuse (DVA) or CC and they tend to say no or that the issue is "relatively minor". Stonewall's research has found that 49% of gay and  bi men have experienced at least 1 incident of domestic abuse from a family member or partner.  The Scottish Transgender Alliance's research has found that 80% of trans people had experienced emotional, sexual, or physical abuse from a partner or ex partner. It seems that LGBTQ+ DVA is far from being "a relatively minor" issue. The Government's own definition from 2012 states clearly that DVA, which includes acts of CC are not  gender or sexuality specific crimes. CC is defined as: "an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten the victim." Acts of CC can include honour based violence, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage. The Government introduced the Serious Crime Act (SCA) in 2015 and Section 76 included a new offence of "controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship". Prior to the creation of the SCA, it was noted that it was quite difficult to prove a pattern of behaviour amounting to harassment within an intimate relationship. CC doesn't relate to a single act but is instead indicative of "a purposeful pattern of incidents that occurs over time enabling someone to exert power and control, or coerce another". Former partners who still live with the victim, as well as current ones and family members can be charged with the coercive control offence. It came into effect on the 29th December 2015 and carries the maximum prison sentence of 5 years. Karen Bradley, former Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, stated on that day that the coercive control offence would "protect victims who would otherwise be subjected to sustained patterns of abuse that can lead to total control of their lives by the perpetrator".

Examples of Coercive Control based on the Statutory Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service include:
  • Threats to harm a child -e.g. cut off a child's ear if a woman refuses to have sex with her partner.
  • Threats to harm or kill a family pet -e.g. kill the cat because a daughter refused to tell her father she loved him on a nightly basis.
  • Systematic abusive punishments that are unjustifiable (imposed for no reason): e.g. a child being beaten with a belt by her mother or a trans man being locked in a room by his partner for a week.
  • Punishments that are not justified even if the person had done something perceived as wrong by the perpetrator- e.g. a young woman being denied access to sanitary products because her boyfriend believed she had gone out to cheat on him when in fact she'd only gone out with her university friends.
  • Emotional control: e.g. being continuously told by a partner, sibling, parent that your life is worthless and has no meaning - e.g. being told several times a day to "go kill yourself".
  • A partner controlling your finances even if you are the main breadwinner; for example, a non-binary person not being given access to their own bank account by a partner because he says it's "for their own good".
  • Blackmail- e.g. a trans woman being told by a partner they have to pay them £1000 a month or they'll block their transition and they won't grant them a divorce to allow them to transition freely.
  • Medication control- e.g. partners may try and take away medicine from HIV+ partners or may try and convince a bipolar partner not to take their prescription despite the advice given by their doctors.
  • Husbands preventing their pregnant wives from being able to see their midwife or GP if they are having problems related to their pregnancy or a lesbian may be prevented from going to sign on by a partner because she believes "it's beneath them".
  • Religious-related control- e.g. a Muslim woman being forced to wear a burqa by her partner even though she didn't have to wear one before she met him.
Despite such comprehensive Statutory Guidance offered by the CPS, Section 76 has not been used regularly since its introduction. A Freedom of Information Request revealed in August 2016 that the law was used only 62 times in the first six months. 8 out of 22 police forces in the UK hadn't used the law once, and 9 forces had only made 2 or less charges, including Lincolnshire Police. This clearly needs to change and all victims of CC, including men, trans and non-binary ones, should be able to be protected from CC by police officers enforcing the law.

Coercive Control is NOT Gender or Sexuality Specific:

As organisations such as Stonewall and GenderFree DV have regularly stated, CC is not gender or sexuality specific. Imagine if your friend or colleague was in a violent, controlling relationship. Should they receive more or less tailored support because of their gender identity or lack of it? No. Every survivor deserves to have access to appropriate support mechanisms to help them feel safe and to keep them safe from the perpetrator. Don't assume that a trans male rugby player is any less deserving of support and advice than a trans female teacher!

CC can happen in any type of relationship, whether heterosexual or homosexual, bisexual or pansexual or asexual (ace). You don't need even need to be engaging in sexual activities to be in a controlling intimate relationship. CC can happen to a middle aged  rugby player who society may initially perceive as being stronger than his wife (because of his build) who has been constantly blackmailing him into silence over her affair. CC can happen to an admin assistant who has been beaten up by his boyfriend on a daily basis just because they had to work late for a few nights and he accused them of cheating. It's a myth that same-sex relationships are somehow "more equal" than heterosexual ones. Power dynamics can be more hidden but do exist; a lesbian survivor considered more "butch" than her partner can be subjected to months of financial and emotional abuse before she finds the strength to pick up the phone and call the police. A bisexual man beaten up by his gay partner on a daily basis may try and hide his bruises using make-up or makes sure he doesn't inadvertently reveal his body when going to the gym. Never ever assume that serious violence and control only happens in heterosexual relationships. Even in asexual ones a partner can be emotionally abusive or physically violent.

CC can happen to a non-binary or gender-fluid person getting bullied by their parents into adhering to religious based gender stereotypes by forcing them to wear gender-specific clothing or hitting them until they accept their original pronouns and names. This is clearly not acceptable. Education can help to combat such prejudice and discrimination and religious leaders and groups must be at the forefront of encouraging a compassionate and tolerant approach from parents of non-gender conforming young adults.

Trans survivors of CC are worried that disclosing CC behaviour, especially from cis female partners, will make them appear mentally ill, as is the narrative perpetuated by some gender critical radical feminists. Ideology that dismisses gender identity entirely off bat has to be challenged. It isn't right that partners can have control over the transitioning process by threatening to take away access to hormones or to take away access to their bank account to prevent them buying the clothes needed to help them feel they can adjust to their acquired gender or to stop them from attending Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) appointments by throwing away letters and/or preventing a trans person from speaking to professionals via mobile phone. Trans non-binary women have been told they'd "never pass" and are "worthless human beings" and would never be loved by anyone else. All in an attempt to stop their partner from leaving them. Yet few trans people feel confident in reporting acts of CC to the police until their partners or family members become violent.

LGBTQ+ survivors of DVA have said in the past that one reason why they chose not to report controlling behaviour to the police was because of their past experience dealing with public sector organisations. Older LGBTQ+ survivors could have had experience of being treated discriminatorily in the past by the police and are worried that their initial reporting of CC wouldn't be taken seriously, especially if a prejudiced police officer ended up being assigned to look into their case who then misgenders them or refuses to accept they could ever be a victim of CC because of their build or personality. Police forces are addressing this by providing comprehensive DVA and CC training to their frontline officers. Lincolnshire Police, for example, has released guidance that tells officers to question their preconceptions and adopt a compassionate, caring approach when dealing with all cases, including those involving male victims and female perpetrators.

Equally there is a perception that DVA and CC advice and support service providers are heavily skewered towards adopting approaches that only look after female survivors of DVA and CC. For example, trans activists have pointed out that service providers have been unaware of how to help trans survivors of DVA and CC because they don't fully understand the power dynamics behind trans-cis relationships. Practitioners may never have come across  a trans or non-binary or gender-fluid person in their personal lives so could find it difficult to accept how a trans person could end up being emotionally blackmailed by a female partner. There could be some professionals out there who ignore a non-binary person's identity and force them to tick-box themselves as female so that they can gain access to shelter accommodation. Few shelters have indicated whether they are totally accepting of post-op trans women or non-binary/gender-fluid people and there are currently very few shelters available to help male survivors, including trans men. Pre-op trans women may feel they have nowhere to go. This has got to change.

Some service professionals may be more reluctant to believe that a muscular tall guy such as a rower or rugby player can be a "true" victim of coercive behaviours, especially if they haven't disclosed their sexual orientation or gender identity at the time the CC offences were committed. LGBTQ+ survivors who aren't publically "out"may feel very alone indeed. Unable to come out to family members for fear of being ostracised and/or being made homeless, their mental health can deteriorate very quickly. Service professionals have to question whether gay or bi men or pre-op trans women should be forced to hide again just so they can have a roof over their heads. Personally speaking, I'd like to see accommodation being available in every county in England and Wales for LGBTQ+ survivors to move into so that they can recover from their experience and get themselves sorted out financially to rebuild their lives. Heterosexual cis male survivors also need shelters and such programmes should be funded by the Government in the same way that they fund women's shelters. The Government's funding for shelters generally is woefully inadequate, with 17% of specialist shelters being forced to close since 2010. Refuges rely on housing benefit to keep them going but the benefit cap has hit funding levels hard. Yet the Government refuse to omit refuges from the benefit cap. I'm with Sarah Champion, Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, who has suggested a National Statement of Expectations be issued mandating local authorities to provide for refuges but this male shelters and gender neutral ones must be included in the remit.

It is important to remember that it can be difficult for a survivor to inform the Police or domestic abuse & violence charities of what's going on. If you have a physical disability that restricts your movement and you rely on your partner to help you gain access to phones, computers etc, you are far less likely to be able to communicate to anyone that you've been suffering from emotional or sexual violence and abuse. If you have a speech disability or learning disability, family members of the perpetrator or even your own family members may believe that your claims are "mistaken" especially if the abuse is emotional rather than physical. If you're banned from leaving the house and from accessing the computer or mobile phone, it can be weeks or months before you get an opportunity to communicate to the police that your partner has been keeping you hostage against your will because you refuse to convert to their religious faith. It's incumbent therefore on the Police and adult social services to keep an eye on potential victims of CC, especially if there is any indication that their partner or family member may become violent towards them. Background checks should be conducted and any alarming information relayed to those in danger of facing CC so they can make an informed decision as to whether they stay with the partner or family member or not. Clare's Law, introduced in 2015, has helped 1335 women to escape from violent partners.  What isn't well known is that Clare's Law allows anyone to access their partner's history to see if they have a history of violence. Men and non-binary people should be able to make use of this law if they suspect their own partners of violence.  Men shouldn't be dismissed as paranoid (or ironically controlling) for wanting to check out a partner's criminal records if they have experienced coercive control from that partner. Don't just expect them to "look after themselves" if their wife comes at them with a knife intent on causing them harm for not giving into their demands!

How to further help LGBTQ+ Survivors of Coercive Control:
  • Better funding streams for LGBTQ+ DVA survivor charities from the Government is a must. Organisations such as Galop who run a specialist help line should get sustainable, regular Governmental assistance. Survivors in London can attend Bede House (in Southwark) or The Havens currently but accommodation should be available in every county across England and Wales. Devolved administrations should be encouraged to increase the number of shelters that offer gender-neutral accommodation.
  •  Funding streams made available for survivor shelters for LGBTQ+ survivors, especially gay and bi men helping support organisations such as Stonewall Housing. Clarity should be given as to the status of trans, non-binary and gender-fluid survivors in terms of where they can get access to advice and support and where they can stay accommodation wise. A discussion is needed with the Women's and Equalities Committee to see whether self-identification survivor wise is sufficient to allow trans people to access advice and support that corresponds to their acquired gender or whether trans men and women have to have had Gender Reassignment Surgery and gained a Gender Recognition Certificate (in accordance with the Gender Recognition Act 2004) before they can access services.
  • More research needs to be conducted into LGBTQ+ DVA, especially on how services can be better improved to suit the needs of trans, non-binary and gender-fluid survivors. This should include reviewing the effectiveness of legislation.
  • Non-binary and gender-fluid survivors must have their gender identities fully recognised by service providers. It's not acceptable for providers to enforce a tick-boxing binary exercise and then use this to treat them as being one gender or the other and differentiate provision according to this distinction. Professionals must use appropriate pronouns and not indicate in any way that non-binary survivors need psychiatric assessment on the basis of gender identity alone. Appropriate training delivered by Learning & Development professionals should be provided to frontline staff to reinforce this.
How to reduce cases of LGBTQ+ Coercive Control:
  • Increased awareness of Section 76 through basic police officer training to ensure that the law can be adequately enforced; that includes police officers realising that coercive control is NOT gender or sexuality specific. Survivors should be at the forefront of delivering this training so they can give first-hand accounts of their experiences. By equipping frontline officers with knowledge of Section 76, they should feel more confident in arresting perpetrators without fear of "getting it wrong". Hopefully, getting the perpetrator arrested on the coercive control charge should prevent their partner or family member becoming a victim of violent acts in the future.
  • Sex and Relationships Education, when introduced mandatorily into primary and secondary schools, should touch upon the issues of Domestic Violence and Domestic Abuse at Key Stage 4 (Year 10) and that survivors should create materials and if possible, deliver them to students. Allowing students to learn that coercive controlling behaviours such as being deliberately isolated from family and friends, having unnecessarily restricted access to bank accounts and credit cards or even having their HIV status openly revealed without consent is essential. Knowledge is power; if students know these behaviours are wrong, not only will they prevent themselves from exhibiting such behaviors, they will also know what to look out for in potential partners in the future and this may help safeguard them from becoming DVA victims. It will not prevent every case but at least it's better than allowing students to leave school unaware of Section 76 or the dangers of coercive behaviours. We're failing our young people at the moment by not informing them fully of the facts.
  • The Spousal Veto within the GRA should be scrapped; married trans people should not have to seek specific written permission from a partner to continue their transition or to seek a divorce in order to give them the freedom to transition. The veto gives draconian power to partners and could be used as a blackmailing tool. Most trans partners who are married will have discussed the changing status of the relationship prior to applying for a GRC anyways, so there is no need for a veto to be in place.
  • Potential victims of coercive control should be informed about their right to use Clare's Law to check out their partners, regardless of gender identity and sexuality. They should also know they can go to a magistrate to ask them to grant a Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO) which keeps partners from contacting their partners for up to 28 days.
  • Raise awareness of the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) especially within the BAME LGBTQ+ communities. Nobody should be forced into a marriage whilst they reside in the UK and/or are a British citizen.
  • Platforms should be made available for LGBTQ+ survivors who want to discuss their experiences openly to be able to do so, especially within mainstream media outlets. Assumptions regarding DVA and CC need to be challenged and the best way to do that is to present first hand accounts. LGBTQ+ presenters and backstage staff should be allowed to participate in the project. BAME LGBTQ+ and disabled survivors should be included.

CC ultimately leads to massive self-doubt for LGBTQ+ survivors. "Why Me" they ask..."what have I done to deserve that level of abuse and/or violence against me?" CC is not gender or sexuality specific. No survivor has done anything to deserve sustained, abhorrent levels of abuse and violence, whether perpetrated by a partner, parents, grandparents or siblings. Never blame a trans survivor for being blackmailed by their cis female partner and never blame a husband for their wife coming at them with a kitchen knife or another dangerous weapon. Of course perpetrators will try and downplay their role in CC; they'll say they were "forced into taking action" or that they were "defending themselves from being potentially attacked". Some perpetrators are very good at playing the "victim card", using their gender identity to try and shift blame. Sometimes, gender stereotyping can help them with their case. That's why it's important for service professionals to lead the fight against gender stereotyping in DVA and CC by challenging them head on. Automatic assumptions must be challenged, police officers must be allowed to conduct their investigation in a thorough way but adopt a compassionate tone when asking questions. DVA and CC shelter providers should be as open minded as possible and at the very least signpost those who they may not be able to help directly so that they can access the help and advice that they deserve. The Government must act to provide better accommodation for all CC and DVA survivors, including gender neutral facilities for non-binary and gender fluid survivors.  Most important of all, be 100% committed to supporting the survivor, regardless of your own preconceptions. Be prepared to listen openly and be kind. Kindness costs nothing.

DVA practitioners should certainly not force or coerce LGBTQIA+ CC survivors into revealing their experiences to raise awareness but they should be fully prepared to listen when survivors do come forward to tell their stories or suggest solutions so as to try and reduce the risk of other people having to go through those experiences. All of their voices should be amplified in debates on DVA and CC funding. Let's make sure the mechanisms are there to allow them to provide their perspectives free from prejudice.

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