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Coercive Control in Cultural Kinship & Family of Choice Relationships

Imagine it being illegal for a pastor to use coercive control on their spouse and children, but they can legally use the same coercive control behaviours on their congregation. Likewise, imaging a boss not being to use coercion on their staff, but the same person could use coercion on a fellow member of their religious group. Up until 29 March 2023 it was looking like Australia was going to allow such an irregularity to pass through into legislations. Two little phrases potentially hold the key to ensuring logic prevails: cultural kinship and family of choice relationships.

Coercive control under any circumstances is a problem, however, the issue has only been building recognition on Aussie soil within domestic settings. Thus, victims who subtly have their freedom taken away by people in positions of power in other scenarios have been overlooked. A recent report released by the Australian Federal government potentially rectifies this issue by its recognition of common features of coercive control being present in broader family relationships.

Principle 1 of a consultative draft on National Principles to Address Coercive Control states:

“Coercive control is most often identified in the context of intimate partner relationships, it can also be used by perpetrators in broader family relationships (including cultural kinship and family of choice relationships).”


For decades there have been numerous calls to the Federal Australian government to acknowledge the harm caused by coercive control in high-demand groups, also known as cults, radical extremist organisations, and millennial communities but no effective action has been taken. There are approximately 3000 such groups operating in Australia. Some are reprimanded due to proof of sexual harassment or physical violence, although for the most part, Australia’s failure to act on non-physical forms of violence means we are becoming a breeding ground for covert abusers.

Australia’s Fair Work Commission supposedly recognises such groups in “voluntary” and “unpaid work” scenarios, however, applying their definition of coercion into real life situations is nuanced by the faith-based affinity members have with each other and their leader. The inclusion of the terms “cultural kinship” and “family of choice” relationships within domestic violence legislation may just hit the mark. 

The report recognises that coercive control is sometimes overlooked because its features can be excused as socially acceptable behaviour. Therefore, it stands to reason that attempts to eliminate coercive control in domestic settings cannot come to full realisation if the legislation has loopholes in which the same behaviours are unaddressed in other settings.

A thorn by any name is still a prick 

To be honest, I’d never heard these terms before I read the report. So I did a little informal research (Google) which indicated cultural kinship is not a common phrase. It appears the term began being used in academic papers a few decades ago to describe groups that have evolved around shared values. The emphasis is usually on indigenous communities who view “family” in broader terms than standard western ideas of the nuclear family.

Clan, mob, folk, and kin, are all terms that can be aptly to cultural kinships. In Australia, the term can be used to to define Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Throughout the country, there are hundreds of different cultural kinship groups, each with their own unique language, stories, beliefs, customs, and social values. The individuals therein may be related by blood or by social interactions. The suggestion within the National Principles that some of these cultural kinships groups are effected by coercive control is an important step forward in recognising abusive behaviours in broader family contexts. However, to only view cultural kinship as a being a reference to indigenous groups would be a racist act.

Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and any other faiths formed around shared beliefs, stories, customs, and social values are also cultural kinships. Moreover, coercive control can and does occur in some groups affiliated with these religious namesakes. Christian-inspired groups like Jonestown and Branch Davidians are classic examples of leaders who use non-violent control protocols prior to turning violent, just as is recognised in domestic settings.

Not all religious groups use coercive control. Likewise, not all indigenous cultural kinship groups use coercive control. A simple definition to distinguish is as follows:

Any group with an elitist cause, and view of itself, which has a pyramid type of authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from that person/persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only what to God, Nirvana, Paradise, Ultimate Realty, Full Potential, etc., and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members.

CIFS: Identifying a cult

The above definition shares the key feature of coercive control in domestic settings, that it is all about a one person having dominance over others.

Coercive control involves perpetrators using abusive behaviours in a pattern over time in a way that creates and maintains power and dominance over another person or persons. Perpetrators may use physical or non-physical abusive behaviours, or a combination of both.

National Principles to Address Coercive Control

The line between coercion in domestic and group based settings is a blurry one. Domestic settings are generally defined by means of connections associated with DNA and marriage. However modern societies’ acceptance of de-factor relationships, step-families, adopted children/aunts/uncles/etc, and LGBTIQA+ mean DNA and marriage are not as significant in defining family as they once were. In so-called contrast, cultural kinship groups are different biological kinship because they are *only* formed based on shared values.

Family of choice relationships is a self explanatory phrase. While it could be applied to any group who chooses to live as a family irrespective of being connected through marriage or biology, it’s been widely adopted by the LGBTQIA+ community. A common feature of family of choice relationships is that they are usually formed due to rejection of some kind. In LGBTQIA+ scenarios, individuals may connect and form a unit due to being ostracised by their biological family. Paradoxically, religious based families of choice may reject their natural clan in favour of embracing “spiritual” parents, siblings, or the alike.

Personally, I’d like to thank the political wordsmith who suggested these phrases. Alternative words such as “cult”, “high demand group”, “extremist organisation”, “millennial community”, or “gang” are loaded with potential biases. Whereas “cultural kinship” and “family of choice relationships” are more neural, therefore, help to highlight the act of coercive control as being harmful, regardless of whether it occurs in a traditional or non-traditional domestic setting. Besides, virtually all marriages between a man and a woman could be called a “family of choice relationship”. Likewise, whether members are biological, step-children, in-laws, adopted, or have members who are integrated into the “family” unit by other means, they may all be said to be members of a cultural kinship.  

Coercive control is always wrong 

Coercive control is wrong regardless of what language is used to describe the role of the perpetrator or the group who it is directed at. 

Coercive control is an insidious form of subtle form of abuse that needs to be understood as being the total impact of multiple strategies used upon a person or group of people. It is not a single action but a collection of behaviours that perpetrators gradually implement upon victims. Like a lobster being slowly boiled, the harm creeps up so slowly that the line between a nice warm bath and deadly heat is crossed so gently there is no opportunity to escape the ramifications. 

Controlling finances, reading personal messages, and constant surveillance are typical examples of the types of behaviours that may be viewed as abusive “parts”. Metaphorically each part is like a degree of heat, so the more parts there are, the hotter the water. (See What is Coercive Control? for more examples.)

In a domestic based scenario, one person being in charge of finances may be viewed as a rational decision designed to bring order to the family unit and help achieve goals that are mutually shared. However, if a husband refuses to allow his wife to work and gives her a restrictive allowance that does not allow for any personal choice, then the money is weaponised as a means of control. Further, the inability for a spouse to interact with others through work stifles the possibility for socialisation and positive attributes associated with interacting with influences outside the family home, like hearing other people’s opinions and the encouragement of critical thinking skills. 

In cultural kinship groups, the scenario is no different. If a leader dictates financial matters and prevents group members from working outside their organisation, then individuals inadvertently become dependent upon the leader, just like a wife becomes dependent upon her husband. The servitude may appear to be based upon freedom, however, by enforcing a severing of connection with others there is limited ability for ongoing self assessment of the situation. 

In domestic and group-based situations, coordinating the estrangement from biological families (and friends) is a common strategy applied by people who want to dominate others. Specifically, in group scenarios, the emotional void of caused by separation of biological families, is filled by instructions to view other group members as family.

Gaslighting – The glue that holds coercive control together 

A classic covert tactic of control is gaslighting, getting the victims to mistrust their version of reality in order to ensure complacency. Gaslighting could represent in the form of overt verbal abuse and/or insults, or it could be subtle. Following the theme of controlling finances, gaslighting may include things like: 

  • “You’ve never been able to keep a job in the past.”
  • “But you don’t enjoy working anyway.”
  • “You’re needed at home to look after the kids.”
  • “Your qualifications won’t get you anywhere meaningful.”  (Note: words like “meaningful” can become supercharged with inferences about in-group cultural values.)
  • “God will not allow anyone who earns money *that* way to enter heaven (*that* could be anything from working in a bank to being a cleaner, the occupation doesn’t matter – the point is the abuser wants to dictate how the victim earns money. Spiritual Narcissism contributes to these types of messages.)
  • “Working for God is more important than any other duty, including caring for children.”

It’s a victim’s choice to stay?!

A recent national survey about domestic violence indicated that 20% of respondents believed victims contributed to the abuse because they did not leave the relationship. No similar survey has been conducted on cultural kinship or family of choice relationships, however, it may be inferred there is a similar misunderstanding. 

In domestic settings, it is common to hear stories about a spouse saying their partner told them they were free to leave, however, the reality is that if they did so they could not take any possessions or items of value with them. Similarly, I know of a cultural kinship/family of choice group whose leader claims everyone is free to leave whenever they want. Once again the reality is that if any member decides to leave, they can only do so with the clothes they were wearing; no money, phone, or ability to contact support from old friends and biological family. Further, this leader, who resides in Australia, moves Australian citizens overseas because they know that being on a different continent will help ensure they do not try to leave his control.

Freedom of religion cannot justify coercive control

In some circumstances, cultural kinship and family of choice relationships are one and the same. These types of groups sit outside mainstream religions and are most likely to be dubbed cults. They often practise extreme beliefs and the leaders are prone to using persuasive techniques that radicalise members. Just like in domestic settings, members gradually lose autonomy and the ability to make independent decisions.

Historically, one of the problems with legislating against this form of coercion has been the issue of religion. If a group follows beliefs based upon faith then perpetrators are prone to use “freedom of religion” as a means of  avoiding accountability. There is an absence of suitable terminology applied to legislations that are supposed meant to prevent infringements of basic human rights. Consequently, scenarios that don’t sit neatly within domestic and vocational spheres are missed.

In organisational situations, Fair Work and Workplace Health and Safety guidelines offer protections against psychological abuse. However, in practice, coercion can easily be unrecognised. All the group leader needs to do is claim that the members are working to support their faith, and the indicators of modern slavery and servitude are overlooked. Thus, “religious freedom” allows perpetrators of coercive control to get away with abusive acts that not allowed anywhere else in modern Australian society.

Recognising cultish groups as cultural kinships or family of choice relationships, helps to highlight the issue of coercive control as being a blatant act of abuse, just the same as other offences like sexual harassment and physical violence. 

Religious freedom does not allow exceptions for rape, injury, or killing. So too, it should not be allowed to be used as an excuse for coercive control.

Summing up 

For decades individuals and advocacy groups in Australia have been asking politicians to address the issue of coercion in group settings, most often by referring to these groups as cults, high-demand groups, or extremist organisations. To date, no effective measures have been taken. Perhaps having domestic violence laws that cover cultural kinships and family of choice relationships will suffice? 

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