England Just Criminalized Controlling, Emotionally Abusive Behavior

Using threats, humiliation, and intimidation against intimate relations is now a crime punishable with prison time.

In an attempt to help end domestic violence, the UK Central Government has outlawed “coercive or controlling” behavior in England and Wales. Using threats, humiliation, and intimidation against close family members or partners is now considered a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison.

The ban is largely meant to protect women and girls, who are most often the victims of power and control imbalances in heterosexual relationships. These disparities, as described in a government guidance report released earlier this month, don’t always manifest in obvious ways: Threatening to publish personal information, restricting social media access, and using apps or spyware to keep tabs on people are all forms of controlling behavior, together with more evident forms of abuse, such as repeatedly telling someone they are worthless.

It’s when these coercive behaviors become chronic problems that they constitute criminal behavior. This kind of abuse is especially dangerous because it can often be disguised as playful or innocuous behavior, according to Alison Saunders, the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, who pointed out that restricting a victim’s movement and independence constitutes a violation of basic human rights.

Psychological abuse can have mental effects as devastating as physical abuse and, in some cases, is a signal that physical abuse may follow.

It won’t be an easy thing to police, given the invisible nature of psychological abuse. For the law to be truly helpful, it’ll be necessary for prosecution to be swift and, most of all, dependable — if victims reporting abuse are turned down by the police, their domestic situations would only get worse. Still, there’s no question that offering victims a chance to regain control is inarguably a step in the right direction.

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