Countering ‘rape as routine’: world expert explains the key to getting coercive control laws right

Australia’s first laws to make coercive control a crime must be expanded to include rape in relationships as well as stalking and other forms of violence, according to the international expert who coined the term.

Prof Evan Stark and his wife, Anne, began sheltering domestic violence victims in their home in the early 1970s.

The American academic and social worker first used the term “coercive control”, the title of his 2007 book, to describe what victims of domestic abuse told him was “far worse” than the physical violence they had experienced.

“What we are dealing with here is a complete change in the way we understand violence against women,” Prof Stark said. “It’s essentially a systematic campaign of terrorism.”

On Friday, federal and state attorneys general will discuss developing national principles on coercive control – which involves patterns of behaviour that can include physical, sexual, psychological and financial abuse – at a meeting in Melbourne.

The New South Wales attorney general, Mark Speakman, last month released a draft law to criminalise coercive control. Many other states are considering their own laws, while some already recognise coercive control under civil law.

Prof Stark is glad to see Australia following the UK in criminalising coercive control, and largely praised the NSW draft law that carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ jail.

“It’s a beautiful law,” he told Guardian Australia.

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However, he said it needed to be expanded to address offences of coercion such as rape, sexual assault and stalking.

“You must have the coercive part – it’s not just psychological abuse,” Prof Stark said.

While the omission is because these offences already exist in the Crimes Act, he said those are completely different in the context of an abusive relationship.

“They look nothing like the stand-alone offences and require completely separate systems of reporting, identification, assessment and intervention,” he said.

“The rapes don’t look anything like stranger rapes.

“The most common type of rape in coercive control is ‘rape as routine’. She doesn’t say ‘no’ any more because she’s too frightened. You must have a rape component in coercive control. Stalking is even more important.”

In cases of long-term coercive control, such as that against Hannah Clarke, the perpetrator coerced his wife into sex by smashing the children’s toys if she refused. The perpetrator’s control of Hannah was maintained by his sexual coercion of her.

Prof Stark congratulated NSW authorities on the inclusion of abusive behaviour or threats involving children, who offenders often target as a way to hurt or frighten their partner.

“Whoever thought of including that in the … legislation is brilliant. In my view, much of what we call child abuse is coercive control.

“Offenders use the same tactics of isolation and intimidation and degradation and violence with the children as they use with their partner – there needs to be a recognition of that,” he said.

He said offenders also used court systems to continue abuse.

“In family court, the image is that parents are fighting over their children. What is really happening, if there is coercive control, is the man is using the children to get at the mother. That does not belong in family court.”

Speakman responded to Prof Stark’s comments by saying it is “exactly the sort of feedback we very much welcome”.

The NSW attorney general reported to parliament last year that 99% of intimate partner domestic homicides in NSW from 2008 to 2016 occurred in relationships where the perpetrator used control and coercion over the victim.

Prof Stark’s research revealed that coercive control was defined by the high frequency of threats and low-level physical abuse that continued over a long period of time.

Up to 97% of the violence men were using against women was too low level even to cause injuries, he said.

“None of that was in any public records because doctors and police were only looking for physical injuries,” he said.

Public comment on the draft NSW bill is open until 31 August.

  • Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 802 9999. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. Other international helplines can be found at


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