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Five reasons why coercive control has increased during COVID-19

Photo of a young woman crying with her head resting on her hand

This blog is written by Keren Lloyd Bright, Senior Lecturer in Law and Louise Taylor, Lecturer in Law. Both are members of the Feminism, Gender and Law research cluster.

Many people who have endured coercive control understandably prefer to describe themselves as survivors, as they have exercised agency and strength in resisting the actions of perpetrators. The word ‘victim’ has been used in this blog not to in any way denigrate the experience of a survivor, but to reflect the fact that they are the victim of a crime.

See Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse: Consultation Response & Draft Bill, pg 5.


When lockdown measures were announced by the UK government on the 23 of March 2020, most understood these to be the inconvenient but necessary restrictions required to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for those living within a coercively controlling relationship, the government’s order to stay at home has potentially put them at a greater risk of abuse. 

While the UK has recently seen some easing to the lockdown measures, it is clear that the impact of lockdown on victims of coercive control has been significant. Indeed, Refuge, the National Domestic Abuse charity, has identified that calls to their helpline increased by 66% during lockdown and that there has been a surge in women seeking refuge from their abusers since measures have eased. 

‘Coercive control’ is a term devised by forensic social worker, Evan Stark, but also recently adopted by the UK Government as the core of the coercive control offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, and as part of the statutory definition of domestic abuse in the Domestic Abuse Bill currently passing through Parliament. Through his work, Stark has recognised that domestic abuse is not always physical, but can include a whole host of behaviours such as surveillance, threats, humiliation and isolation. Indeed, Stark offers a wider understanding of the issues when he defines coercive control as ‘a strategic course of oppressive behavior designed to secure and expand gender-based privilege by depriving women of their rights and liberties and establishing a regime of domination in personal life.’

Although Stark focuses on the oppression of women, it is appreciated that coercive control is done to men too…and to the elderly, the young, to those of all races, religions, sexualities and identities. For the purposes of this blog, however, we will stay with Stark’s definition in recognition of the fact that most coercive control is perpetrated by men against a female partner.

So, what is it about living in lockdown that makes coercive control more likely? Here we set out five reasons why the incidence and severity of coercive control has increased because of the pandemic. 

Reason 1 - Isolation 

Isolating a person from their family and friends is one of the behaviours a perpetrator may use against their victim, as listed in the Statutory Guidance Framework to the Serious Crime Act 2015. In the first phase of lockdown, different households were unable to meet in outside space - as well as inside. During lockdown and since its easing, social distancing rules have served to validate and worsen the isolating behaviour of perpetrators, as they have a justifiable basis on which to limit visits to shops, family and friends. Home confinement has also provided the opportunity for more control over access to the internet or to the phone. 

Reason 2 - Emotional abuse  

The emotional abuse inflicted by a perpetrator can take many forms and the COVID-19 pandemic has simply added more weapons to their armoury. This is well described by the Battered Women’s Justice Project. Perpetrators may, for instance, invent COVID-19 symptoms and fabricate test results. They may refuse to share sanitisers and soaps, refuse to socially distance, or refuse to wear face masks to deliberately make their victims feel fearful. This is particularly abusive where a victim needs to shield themselves or others. 

Reason 3 - Micro-management  

The pandemic has also provided an air of legitimacy and increased opportunity for abusers to micro-manage their victims by insisting on excessive personal and domestic cleanliness, and to punish or shame victims for any perceived shortfalls. Such behaviour is a well-recognised tactic of coercive control, but the pandemic has meant that victims are likely to be spending more time at home with their abuser and have fewer chances to escape this type of behaviour. 

Reason 4 - Financial abuse 

Financial abuse is another of the behaviours listed in the Statutory Guidance Framework. Lockdown has increased the range of tactics available to a perpetrator. For instance, a perpetrator may spend large amounts while in lockdown. They may refuse to work outside the home or remotely, or allow the victim to work, resulting in loss of income or even a job. They may give untrue COVID-19 reports to employers or customers intending to worsen the financial position of the victim. 

Reason 5 - Limited avenues of escape 

In recent years many charities have experienced cuts in their funding. (Refuge, for example, has had funding cuts to 80% of their services and their refuge services cut by 50% overall.) During the pandemic, many domestic abuse services and shelters have struggled to provide even their usual levels of service due to staff shortages and social distancing requirements. The reduced availability of public spaces such as libraries, swimming pools and shopping centres has also meant that victims have been left with fewer short-term avenues through which to escape their abuse.

Supporting victims of coercive control during the COVID-19 pandemic 

The UK Government in general and its Minister for Safeguarding in particular, have been aware of the increased risk of coercive control and other forms of domestic abuse during the pandemic. Government advice web pages have been updated to take account of it and an extra £30 million in funding has been announced. The UK Government has also made it clear that ‘Household isolation instructions as a result of coronavirus do not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse’. Charities such as Victim Support and Women’s Aid have provided advice and guidance on their websites about COVID-19 and domestic abuse and Refuge has set up a live chat box on its website to enable victims to communicate with them silently. 

While these actions of charities and government are welcome, the advice and guidance can of course only reach those with access to the internet and who are not being closely monitored by their abusers. Those victims for whom English is a second language or who speak no English at all are harder to reach and those who are underprivileged may not even have smart phones.

The charity Hestia (in partnership with hundreds of other organisations) has been successful in campaigning for safe spaces for those experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence during lockdown. Consulting rooms in pharmacies in Boots, Superdrug and Morrisons were made available to those needing help. While this creative thinking provided a means of help and support, the degree of take up does not seem to be known and so its effectiveness during the first phase of lockdown cannot be measured. 

Now that we are moving from lockdown into the ‘new normal’, charities supporting victims of coercive control and other forms of domestic abuse have called for more substantial long-term funding. When the Domestic Abuse Bill becomes law, it will certainly be a cause for celebration, but only appropriate resources, funding and otherwise, will make a difference to the lives of victims of coercive control in these times of COVID-19 and beyond.

If you are affected by the issues discussed in this blog, please remember, you are not alone and there are trained, experienced professionals on standby ready to help you. You can call Refuge's National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free and confidential advice, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247. Visit the helpline website to access further information, a contact form and the live chat service. You can also find out about the Safe Spaces campaign in the UK where you can access discrete, professionally managed support in allocated spaces in places you may shop, such as Morrisons and Boots.

If you are in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police.