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Coercive Control in Groups

Coercive control is not limited to domestic situations, it can be found in any group or organisation in which members are isolated, exploited, and degraded. Often, the perpetrator is a charismatic leader who puts their needs and desires above individuals’ right to liberty, autonomy, and dignity.

It is a long-standing pattern of unhealthy behaviours that places one person (or a leadership team) in control of others without the opportunity for the dynamic to be altered through healthy communication and/or other interactions.

Coercive control in groups can be subtle and overlooked as simply being “culture”, however, it details the same abusive features as those found in intimate relationships (isolation, degradation, exploitation, etc.). Arguably, coercive control in domestic and group settings go hand in hand – that is, if coercive control is allowed in societal groups then it is more likely to be viewed as acceptable behaviour, therefore, can influence domestic settings. 

Domestic units are groups of people; the only difference between coercive control in domestic settings and other groups is that in the former stakeholders are usually, but not always, related by bloodlines, marriage, or similar. Whereas in the later, stakeholders are bound by a common cause, ideology, employment, or other uniting factor.

Coercive control can occur in a multitude of group settings such as business organisations, political parties, workplaces, educational institutions, wellness therapies, religious congregations, and others. The use of coercion by bosses or leaders can occur on a continuum, with the most intense combination of factors having the impact of “members [having] to follow strict rules or face the consequences of their actions … Once a person enters a coercive organization, [they are] not allowed to leave without permission”. 

“Victims gradually lose their ability to make independent decisions and exercise informed consent.” – Dr Margaret Singer

Current Fair Work guidelines appear to protect individuals from bullying, harassment, and coercive control, however these legislations do not capture all group scenarios.

Cult Information and Family Support (CIFS) is an Australian support and information network formed in 1996 by parents and family members of loved ones caught up in abusive groups. It is acknowledged that the word “cult” may not sit comfortably with some people; however, when the aims and function of CIFS are reviewed it can be noted that they provide support to victims and families of all forms of abusive groups that may or may not have a spiritual component:

“Abusive groups can take many forms. Some represent themselves as established religions, some as new-age spiritual groups, personal development groups, meditation groups, therapy groups, product sales groups, study groups, etc. A significant number of these claim charitable status and effectively a government subsidy through various forms of tax exemption. […] we are referring to harmful groups, and not to the liberal, diverse and open nature of healthy social and religious groups who do good work in the community.” (Source)

CIFS point out that abusive groups smear the reputation of legitimate and useful charities. Likewise, the stature of faith-based groups that duly respect all human rights can be tarnished by groups who use coercive control. 

The responsibility of assisting people caught up in abusive groups should not be left solely to independent support agencies. The government needs to step up and protect vulnerable individuals and populations from the damaging effects of coercive control in all scenarios. 

Presently, Australian parliamentary discussions predominantly focus on the impacts of coercive control conducted by males perpetrators on female victims in intimate relationships, with minor extensions given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, culturally and linguistically diverse groups, LGBTIQ+ people, elderly people, children and people living with disability; and intersectionality across these groups. (See Development of national principles on addressing coercive control.)

In contrast, in England (where coercive control laws were first introduced in 2015), the impact of coercive control on men by female perpetrators is increasingly being acknowledged and gender biases challenged. (See Coercive control: Male victims say they aren’t believed.) By making coercive control laws predominantly focused on women as victims (as Australia is currently doing) broader understandings of the issue are overlooked. 

In United Kingdom jurisdictions where coercive control has undergone more advanced research and recognition than other locations, a need to give specific attention to young adults (18-25) has been identified. This population generally has limited life experience which, coupled with desires to belong (a normal human impulse), means that they are susceptible to manipulation tactics when forming relationships and/or joining groups. 

To protect young adults and facilitate a cultural change aimed at mitigating abusive behaviours, campaigns like Early Action System Change have been designed to educate young adults on coercive control in intimate relationships. Additionally, programs are provided to teenagers in their final year of secondary education (Year 12) to help mitigate their vulnerability to abusive groups once they have left school.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, politicians are yet to acknowledge young adults as being a significant population who are vulnerable to coercive control across various contexts.

Steven Hassan, an expert on destructive groups, identifies the following mental health effects caused by prolonged coercion: (Source)

  • Extreme identity confusion
  • Panic and anxiety attacks
  • Depression
  • Psychosomatic symptoms (headaches, backaches, asthma, skin problems)
  • Anger, guilt and shame
  • Decision-making dependency
  • Fear and phobias
  • Sleep disorders/nightmares
  • Eating disorders
  • Fear of intimacy and commitment
  • Distrust of self and others
  • Grieving loss of friends and family
  • Delusions and paranoia
  • Loss of life meaning or purpose
  • Post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

In addition to the mental health repercussions of people who are subjected to coercive control in group settings, friends and family members can suffer from the vicious effects, namely, due to losing contact with their loved one/s. Further, children involved in abusive groups can suffer life-long mental health issues, just as they do if they are subjected to it in domestic settings. 

We need to #EndCoerciveControl