Coercive Control: He Hit Me… (& It Felt Like A Kiss)

While true crime is enjoying something of a spike in popularity, let’s not treat it like a recently discovered, previously untapped mine of compulsive entertainment.  People have been getting their kicks from vivid descriptions of gory violence and proximity to psychopathy since the true crime section sprang up in WH Smiths.

I know. I was there.

But while the lens through which we view these acts has changed beyond recognition, the format they’re presented in has remained largely the same over time. Whether you’re reading Emlyn Williams semi-fictionalised account of the Moors Murders, Beyond Belief, or binge-watching Netflix’ groundbreaking documentary ‘Making A Murderer’, perpetrators are the central pivot around which the stories revolve. The victims and their families are at best pitied, at worst, depersonalised to the point of objectification.

From an entertainment perspective, it’s easy to see why. A victim’s role in a murder is limited. Virtually every other aspect of a crime, from initial detection through police procedure, jury selection, trial, verdict and aftermath can be examined from several viewpoints; a sort of Rashomon Effect that enables interpretation and subjectivity to come into play and gives us, the viewers, a role.

Adherence to these parameters in pursuit of viewing/listener figures should reinforce the victim’s lack of importance to the narrative, but ironically it may well be the proliferation of ‘traditional’ true crime entertainment along those prescriptive lines that finally addresses the imbalance.

In order to differentiate themselves from the competition, content producers are being forced to approach their subject from a fresh angle. It could be personality driven like True Crime Garage, or based on exceptional research like Casefile. Or, if you have the experts at your disposal, it can be a collision of academia and experiences that changes the way you look at crime entirely.

Presented by retired FBI profiler Jim Clemente, former New Scotland Yard behavioral analyst and advocate Laura Richards and Criminal Minds casting director Lisa Zambetti, Real Crime Profile addresses the inequality and further, raises the idea that cultural norms in Western society not only enable criminals, but actually create the circumstances in which they can proliferate.

It’s a controversial notion, not least because many of the cases discussed are acts of violence committed by men on women. For many internet dwellers the mere mention of a woman acting on her own agency demands three days of crywanking, which really cuts into the time they spend trolling. Let’s assume, for efficiency’s sake, they got bored after I said ‘spike’ and the only people still reading this aren’t afraid of tampons.

Instead of examining each case using a linear narrative (a method that minimises the role of the victim by its very nature) Real Crime Profile calls upon each presenter’s specialisms to interpret information. For example, the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent convictions of Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede are examined over nine, hour long episodes and includes focussed analysis of their behaviour before and after the murder, crime scene assessments and the conduct of the investigating officers and media.

In this specific case, the inaccuracies of media reports, assumptions made by law enforcement, public pressure and general ineptitude on the part of the department tasked with examining the scene, caused Meredith’s family untold suffering and two people to be convicted of a crime forensic evidence states it would have been impossible for them to commit. These assumptions, as articulated by prosecutor Giuliano Mignini himself in the Netflix documentary ‘Amanda Knox’  and recorded by the heroic Daily Mail reporter Nick Pisa (above) served to prejudice the case from the start and conclude in the harrowing mess we now know off by heart.

A similar approach is applied to The People vs. OJ Simpson, Making A Murderer and Reeva Steenkamp’s death at the hands of her partner Oscar Pistorius and eventually, a recurring theme emerges. A theme that, upon review, has been hiding in plain sight the whole time.

In the Netflix documentary ‘Amanda Knox’, Rudy Guede’s attorney, Valter Biscotti makes the following statement:

“It bothered me that the American media lectured us about the law. This courthouse, in 1308, housed the first faculty of law in Europe. In America in 1308, they were drawing buffaloes in caves.”

We take it as read that the justice system was created by men. Not all men, but privileged, almost certainly white men. It is therefore riven with the presumptions of that group of people. It’s not an attack on a specific group of people, it just is.

We make an assumption that today, the law has shifted its viewpoint to encourage diversity and inclusion, but while (in most cases, definitely not all) we know it’s wrong to ask a woman what she was wearing on the night she was attacked or assume that she’s being hysterical, is overreacting or pre-menstrual, the DNA of everything it implies remains in the bones of our society.

Through her contributions, Laura Richards reiterates how victimology – the study of victims of crime and the psychological effects of their experience –  is vitally important to any criminal investigation and yet remains one of the most overlooked areas of analysis. It addresses the tropes that weigh down and skew investigations and propel police into the kind of assumptions that lead to a murder suspect being allowed to drive up and down a public highway for hours while armed with a shotgun.

Having dedicated her professional life to advocacy and developing anti-stalking legislation, it would be easy to categorise Richards’ work as feminist, which is generally what our society tends to do when cultural norms are pointed out to be detrimental to women. But to dismiss her work is to assume injustice only affects women; something that events in recent years have disproved repeatedly and dramatically.

At the heart of Laura Richards’ findings is coercive control, defined as a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away a victim’s liberty or freedom. Tiny acts that in isolation raise no flags or are even seen as a perfectly normal part of life but when viewed as a whole reveal themselves to be components in the systemic breakdown of the victim’s mental and emotional strength.

In Real Crime Profile, the subject is explained extensively and comprehensively during an episode about Nicole Brown Simpson, but you don’t have to be a genius to see coercive control operating throughout society in the guise of ‘traditional’ behaviours. Is it ok for your partner to express a preference for how you dress or comment on how much of your money you spend? It depends. Do you feel comfortable with it? Do you have a friend who used to be present but now you rarely see them? Dare you say anything?

Our society represses and minimises these feelings with callous efficiency while domestic abuse charities estimate 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience violence at the hands of a partner.

It’s so insidious, so utterly engulfing that many people fall victim to it without knowing. Perhaps you feel as though a partner has a little too much to say about how you spend your free time but he or she has never hit you, so how can it be wrong? Who knows how many people are moving through their lives towards an horrific end that we could prevent if only we weren’t so embarrassed to ask?

Coercive control is now a criminal offence in the UK, largely thanks to Laura Richards‘ work. But that’s just one step. In order for the law to operate properly, awareness of its existence and how it manifests itself is essential, particularly for those at risk. Help and support is available through a number of charities as well as checklists you can use if you feel uncertainty about your current situation or that of a friend.

We are trained to suppress suspicion and fear for the greater good but in doing so, we’re enabling abuse and allowing lives to drift towards terrible danger unchecked. We can’t change the infrastructure overnight but if every one of us was better informed, there would be fewer investigations for judicial systems of the world to cock up.

Admittedly Netflix would have less to do, but I can live with that.

Useful Links: The Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign

Women’s Aid Domestic violence checklist More info on Laura Richards and her work

RealCrimeProfile Podcast episodes



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