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A research study on public understanding of coercive control has been released today (Thursday 10 June) by ARK – a joint initiative between Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse also known as emotional or psychological abuse; indirect abuse; or emotional torture. New legislation in Northern Ireland means that coercive control will be an offence, and brings Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland.

The report entitled ‘Public Understanding of Coercive Control’ used data from the 2020 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) Survey.

It was co-authored by a research team from Ulster University, Northern Health and Social Care Trust and Queen’s University: Dr Susan Lagdon, Dr Julie-Ann Jordan, Dr Ciaran Shannon, Professor Mark Tully and Professor Cherie Armour.

In order to address the need for evidence-based knowledge to improve public awareness and victim response to coercive control, a module of questions was included in the 2020 NILT survey.

In the survey, respondents were asked to respond to questions based on a scenario based on an obvious form of coercive control, and a scenario based on a less obvious form of coercive control. Key findings include:

  • Over one third of respondents (36%) showed a lack of understanding of what coercive control means.
  • 18-24 year olds were less likely to recognise the term coercive control and know what it means.
  • For the obvious coercive control scenarios, the vast majority of respondents identified the behaviour as domestic abuse and a crime, and recognised the potential dangers such as physical violence and impact on the victims’ mental health.  Most people agreed that these behaviours were criminal and should be reported to the police.
  • However, for the less obvious scenarios, respondents were less likely to see this behaviour as domestic abuse or a crime, and were also less likely to recognise potential dangers.  This was particularly the case when the victim is male.

Commenting on the survey results, Lead Investigator and lecturer in Psychology at Ulster University Dr Susan Lagdon said:

“The survey findings indicate that a significant number of respondents are not aware of the term ‘coercive control’ and are therefore unlikely to recognise the signs of this type of abuse.  Our results show that male victims of coercive control are perceived as being at lower risk of harm, possibly due to gender biases in what behaviours are considered acceptable in relationships. Although women are at greater risk of victimisation, there needs to be appropriate awareness of risk amongst the wider public and access to support for all victims regardless of their personal demographics.”

Dr Julie-Ann Jordan, co-author of the report and Research Psychologist at the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, noted:

“During 2020, there were 31,848 domestic abuse incidents recorded by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). It is important that the introduction of the coercive control as a criminal offence should be accompanied with a public awareness campaign focusing on what coercive control means and signposting victims and their friends and family to appropriate courses of action and sources of support.  Policy and advocacy services should also receive specialist training.”

Dr Paula Devine, co-director of ARK and from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast, added:

“These survey findings provide important baseline data of what the public think before the coercive control legislation comes into effect.  Since 1998, NILT has recorded public attitudes across a range of important social policy issues.  It was even more important that it did so in 2020, and so we have a vital record of public opinion and behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For more information read the full report.