How coercive control holds women hostage



“Nowhere was safe, not even the shower.” Those seven words sum up an experience where home became hell and life a torment for Maeve McGloughlin Doyle at the hands of her husband Mark. Her story, told in interview with Oliver Callan on RTE 1 revealed a litany of psychological and physical abuse ranging from being kicked with boots as she lay on the ground to having her eardrum burst twice.

During March stories of male violence against women hit the headlines ranging from murder involving decapitation, to rape and domestic abuse. On the day that Mark Doyle was sentenced for six years for assaults on his wife and stepsons, another victim of systematic abuse appealed for the return of her baby taken by her partner while the survivor of rape by a man jailed for seven years called for more action to be taken to stop the tide of violence against women.

Maeve McGloughlin Doyle’s torment continued for 12 years, due both to the nature of coercive control he exercised over her the fact that her husband was a respected member of the community and a garda. She described the insidious way his dehumanisation her and slowly reduced her from an outgoing confident woman to someone in a state of constant fear and anxiety where her every move was monitored and he described her to friends and neighbours as “ditzy and slow”.

In reports on men killing, abusing and controlling women, the focus so often falls on the victim. “The perpetrator has disappeared,” says Davina James-Hanman, a UK specialist for more than 30 years in the reduction of male violence against women. “When the victim-survivor is the only one visible, it is she who is judged, blamed, held accountable. We need to flip the switch so that instead of, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’, we ask ‘Why doesn’t he stop’.”

This is equally true for Ireland, where women have to seek refuge and initiate legal action, rather than there being intervention to stop the perpetrators’ totally unacceptable behaviour (men are seven times more likely to be involved in gender-based violence than women). And in a situation where one in four women experience abuse by a partner – worryingly higher than the European average – wouldn’t prevention be better still?

Coercive control, which can lead to violence and murder, has been a criminal offence here since 2019. Prosecutions rose from 23 in 2019 to 143 in 2022.The Department of Justice has a policy of zero tolerance for domestic sex and gender base violence which involves prevention, protection, prosecution and policy co-ordination. So far the statistics for gender based violence are hardly heading for zero. Women’s Aid had 33,990 disclosures of abuse in 2022 and 239 women were killed by men between 1996 and 2022.

It’s worrying that many teenagers, especially boys watch online porn to find out about sex and to turn on, without balancing education that porn doesn’t represent reality or deal with consent. An ESRI report found that 64% of teenage boys watch porn, from as young as 13 and 15% of girls.

For prevention to work it clearly needs to deal with the underlying causes of gender-based violence. Sexual inequality and socialisation, where patriarchy gives some males a sense of entitlement or a need to dominate to be real men, are blamed, while with coercive control the causes can run deep.

Perpetrators, subject to violence and control when young, can be determined to be in control themselves, known as trauma-based entitlement, being thwarted results in ‘humiliation fury’ – a mix of insecurity and toxic behaviour. Therapeutic programmes meet with varied success; 65% of men in an Australian programme reported they were violence free, other schemes found that men were difficult to shift out of habitual behaviour.

Since the purpose-built Amber Women’s Refuge Kilkenny opened in 2001, 1,125 women and 1,581 children have been given short-term shelter. Amber run a drop-in community  service and a business support and training programme. “Control is the bedrock of all forms of abuse. It’s about the perpetrator enforcing power and control,” says Naoimh Murphy, Communication Officer, Amber.

Amber Refuge’s advice to women experiencing abuse is to have a safety plan, with phone numbers to contact, with a safe place planned where they and their children can shelter and with emergency money and documents or copies left with a friend.

Concerned relatives or friends should leave the door open for a woman to confide without interfering and being there as a support.

The Amber 24/7 helpline is 0818424244.

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