Day after day, he would turn up at her local cafe just as she was arriving. When she travelled interstate, he knew where she was and what she was doing. He turned up at her hotel, claiming to have coincidentally booked into the same venue.
Finally, Melanie (not her real name) discovered he had been tracking her through a mobile phone he had given her – monitoring her location and text messages, and using the information to manipulate and stalk her.
Coercive control has only recently begun to be understood. Relationships Australia Victoria defines it as a pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviours, which can include isolating and monitoring a partner; denying them freedom and autonomy; gaslighting; name-calling and bullying; and limiting access to money and controlling finances.
New research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows the advent of digital technology has allowed abusers to adopt new strategies and opportunities for intimate partner violence.
For years, police and government agencies have recommended that women subjected to coercive control through technology try to mitigate their exposure to risk by removing themselves from online platforms.
“Log off from your life is what they’re saying,” Melanie said.
“It doesn’t stop it, it doesn’t keep you safe, and it doesn’t help in any way. If anything it exacerbates the issue, which is what it did with me.”
Dr Jasmine MacDonald, a research fellow with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, said this was unreasonable and – in some circumstances – could leave victims even more exposed to harm.
It was also an unworkable demand for women who were sharing parenting with abusive ex-partners.
Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman has introduced the first phase of legislation to combat coercive control.
“Switching off or deleting accounts may not improve safety as some perpetrators make up for this loss of control by becoming more aggressive or violent in person,” MacDonald said.
“It is important to place the responsibility on the perpetrator and not expect victim-survivors to be disconnected from friends and family.”
In new guidelines, the Institute of Family Studies recommends practitioners look for the signs of technology-based coercive control, which it says often accompanies stalking, and sexual and physical violence in abusive relationships.
Women from migrant communities, women who are living with a disability and women who live in remote and regional areas are particularly vulnerable to technology-based coercive control.
The Institute of Family Studies guidelines for practitioners including social workers and psychologists working in the child and family sector recommend women not be pressured to disconnect from technology.
MacDonald said coercive control was a “complex and tricky” form of intimate partner violence, and not well understood – even by professionals.
“Practitioners I’ve spoken to [say] that police don’t take it as seriously [as other forms of abuse] and that families and friends in the community don’t take it as seriously, but this research shows that women experiencing tech-facilitated abuse are probably being stalked in person and probably experiencing in-person financial, sexual and physical abuse,” she said.
While MacDonald argues the onus for changing behaviours should be on the perpetrators of coercive control, she recognises that securing a conviction can be challenging.
“Anything that feels like stalking or is making people feel unsafe should be documented, to develop a bit of evidence and have something tangible to go to police or support services with,” she said.
“And then beyond that, it’s keeping in mind that this could happen to anybody. So [apply] some general hygiene around your privacy and your passwords, making sure you log out of accounts when you’re not using them, keeping PINs secret, not reusing the same kinds of passwords and PINs all the time. And not having internet browsers that auto-save and fill your credentials.”
Support is available from the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).