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

Sexual assault in relationships requires entirely separate systems of reporting, says professor who coined term ‘coercive control’

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.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

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


Amanda Gearing

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rushed NSW coercive control laws could discriminate against minorities, experts say
Domestic violence advocates warn drafted laws could be discriminatory if pushed through by government

Tamsin Rose

21, Jul, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
NSW passes law to make coercive control a stand-alone offence in an Australian first
Attorney general Mark Speakman said government could have spent years more in consultation but instead acted to ‘save lives’

Tamsin Rose

16, Nov, 2022 @5:17 AM

Article image
More than 33,000 Covid fines withdrawn in NSW after adverse court ruling
Court victory by Redfern Legal Centre prompts government to cancel half of all fines issued for breaching pandemic restrictions

Michael McGowan

29, Nov, 2022 @2:58 AM

Article image
Resourcing for domestic violence policing in NSW lags behind other states, audit finds
Six dedicated staff expected to support 280 domestic violence specialists and advise 12,000 officers

Tamsin Rose

04, Apr, 2022 @10:45 AM

Article image
‘Promise-a-thon’: NSW parties warned tough election talk on domestic violence not enough
Advocates welcome attention on the issue during the campaign but say long-term commitments are what’s needed

Tamsin Rose

11, Feb, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
NSW hotline for women to ask about partners’ past convictions could give false sense of security, critics warn
No new evidence scheme enhances victim-survivor safety and that resources wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere, experts say

Tamsin Rose

23, Jan, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Payment sought for 929 NSW residents who agreed to work off now invalid Covid fines
Redfern Legal Centre calls for compensation after withdrawal of 33,000 pandemic-era fines

Christopher Knaus and Michael McGowan

30, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Former NSW deputy premier John Barilaro charged with assault and malicious damage
The alleged offences were committed during an altercation with a freelance camera operator in Manly on 23 July

Michael McGowan

26, Aug, 2022 @5:49 AM

Article image
Former NSW minister Gareth Ward to contest election with sexual abuse charges still outstanding
The former Liberal minister turned independent says his case will ‘serve as a reminder of why a person is innocent until proven otherwise’

Michael McGowan

13, Feb, 2023 @4:33 AM

Article image
NSW announces new inquiry into Kathleen Folbigg’s conviction over her children’s deaths
Scientists had called for Folbigg’s release after it was discovered two daughters had a genetic variant that can cause sudden death

Michael McGowan

18, May, 2022 @4:35 AM