Open Clasp's Rattle Snake Exposes Why Understanding Coercive Control Is So Important - My CMS

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, Changing Lives has been screening the Open Clasp Theatre Company production of Rattle Snake across a number of our services. After watching this production alongside colleagues, our Executive Director Laura Seebohm urges everyone to see this outstanding piece.

Rattle Snake is a play that is based on the real life stories of women who have faced and survived coercive controlling domestic abuse. It really gets under the skin of what coercive control means, and this has never been more important.

We now know that coercive control is the umbrella under which all forms of domestic abuse sits – including violence (but violence does not necessarily appear).  We are so used to looking at incidents of violence to assess the risks of harm to women, children, families – those we support and people in our lives.  But we now understand that it is the patterns of coercive control, the motivations behind it, which are most dangerous, rather than incidents of clearly defined abuse.  We now know that the patterns played out by perpetrators are the same in almost all cases and that it therefore has absolutely nothing to do with the victim.

In the UK, we have the most progressive laws around domestic abuse.  The 2015 Serious Crime Act created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.  We are increasingly understanding the impact on our wellbeing as a society, and our economy. This is reflected in the amount of work which has gone into the Domestic Abuse Bill, from cross-party MPs and peers.  Whatever happens on 12th December, the Bill is highly likely to be picked up again by the new government.

However, in Changing Lives’ Women’s Services we see time and time again that coercive control is not understood by the people working in institutions – police, courts, children’s services – which have the power to significantly impact what happens to victims, survivors and perpetrators.  Our systems are set up to focus on incidents, and we are struggling to redirect our attention to see patterns of behaviour as the indicator of harm.

With coercive control we exist under a blanket of threat in a constant state of fear and vigilance.  Our lives are controlled by it, and it pervades literally every movement, every thought, every decision of those living within these oppressive walls.  Evan Stark calls this ‘intimate terrorism’ as it fundamentally changes the core of who we are and how we live our lives.  But we repeatedly see a fundamental misunderstanding of how it is manifested in the lives of the women we support.

  • Our IDVA team reported a police officer at a MARAC stating ‘if she was really scared she would leave without the piano’. They were talking about a woman who was a piano teacher when she was offered a house where she could not bring her piano.
  • Our teams talk about Courts refusing to grant women ‘special protective measures’ to have a screen between her and the perpetrator in the court room, because she does not come across as ‘fearful’ or ‘in distress’…
  • We repeatedly experience local housing officers stipulating that victims must produce robust evidence of domestic abuse incidents before a family can be granted priority need.

These kind of ‘misunderstandings’, this lack of understanding of how the trauma of coercive control is manifested means that women withdraw from support which should be so easily accessible.  And the consequences can be life lasting and even life threatening.

This ‘misunderstanding’ is never more life lasting and devastating than when women are faced with Children’s Social Care.  Domestic abuse is the greatest threat to child protection as we see a 53% rise in these cases.  The responsibility and the ‘solution’ to protecting the children is often (usually) placed in the hands of the mother who is victim of coercive control to her male partner.  She is given the ‘choice’ to leave the relationship or risk losing her children.  If she fails to sever all contact with her partner, the father of her children, she is blame-worthy and the state can and does intervene to remove her children.

But all of us who have experienced and/or known women in this situation understand that the fear when he knocks at that door at that moment in time overrides any child protection plan.  And she is absolutely right, because at that point in time, she might know that if she does not let him in, the immediate risk to her and her children is much more pressing – much more life threatening … Yet her ability to make her own very rapid risk assessment each time this happens is not only disregarded, it is used against her.

What this ‘misunderstanding’ is really about is victim blaming.  This is about the most judgemental assumption that ‘we’ would respond differently if living in those circumstances.  This is about an absolute failure in understanding that the pervasive terror and prolonged trauma caused by coercive control fundamentally changes all our behaviours, all our relationships, all our thoughts.

I would urge those of us who work in institutions which might potentially impact on the lives of families who experience domestic abuse to watch this powerful Open Clasp performance of Rattle Snake.  Because by failing to understand coercive control we are not making innocuous mistakes; we are potentially making errors that are in reality about life or death for the very people we are here to protect.

Starting on the UN Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women and continuing for 16 days of activism, Open Clasp Theatre has made their award-winning film available to watch online for free from 25 November – 10 December 2019 .  

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