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Justin Lee Collins and the complex nature of partner abuse

Domestic abuse isn't just about physical violence - there's much more to it, and it leaves a big impact on victims.

Last month the Home Office announced revised definitions of domestic violence, which for the first time specify a pattern of coercive-controlling behaviour.

Judging by the posts I read on comment threads and social media, the most common reaction was confusion. How could non-violent acts be classified as violence? Is the government about to criminalise nagging and arguments?  What is coercive control anyway?

With a sense of timing that has always seemed conspicuously absent from his comedy, along came Justin Lee Collins to answer the questions. The trial and conviction of the hirsute TV presenter made for grim reading. Collins was charged and convicted with harassment intended to cause fear or alarm - not for assault, GBH or any other physically violent offence - and that goes a long way to explaining the apparently lenient, non-custodial sentence.

Yes, allegations of physical abuse were heard in court, but the most horrifying and troubling details were not kicks and punches but the bizarre acts of humiliation and obsessive jealousy, from forcing his former partner Anna Larke to make a list of sexual acts with former lovers in a notebook, to throwing away DVDs starring actors she found attractive, to appalling verbal abuse and intimidation designed to belittle, demean and terrorise his victim.

Experts in domestic abuse, whether academic or frontline workers, have long recognised that this type of controlling, bullying behaviour can often be more damaging than physical violence. In concert with actual or threatened physical beatings, it can leave psychological impacts similar to that observed in survivors of torture

Recognising this type of coercive-controlling behaviour when it is detailed in court is easy. Unfortunately, defining it in the abstract is much less straightforward.

Domestic violence charities have attempted to capture the range of relevant behaviours in various checklists, but they are clumsy instruments. I would challenge anyone in the most healthy long-term relationship to go through a list like this one and not give a resigned nod to at least one or two. The most devastating abuse can be subtle, targeted to the specific weakpoints of the individual, the harm caused not so much by the deed itself as by the interpersonal context in which it occurs and against which it is understood by the victim. That simply cannot be captured in a checklist.

Although charities such as Women's Aid still hold coercive-controlling violence to be the archetype of domestic abuse, and it is indeed often the most devastating form, it is far from the most common. In his influential work the Typology of Domestic Violence, criminologist Michael P.Johnson reported that in survey studies, only 11% of male abusers matched the profile of an 'intimate terrorist'; fewer than half of men appearing in court did so, and even in women's shelters, where one would expect to find victims of the most severe and sustained abuse, the abusers of more than a third of women did not match the description.

While it was long assumed that, unlike situational and mutual violence, coercive controlling abuse was an overwhelmingly patriarchal and male-perpetrated offence, recent studies by researchers like Nicola Graham-Kevan has suggested that female abusers can also display similar characteristics.

The reality is that the phrase “domestic violence” masks a diverse and complex range of phenomena and behaviours. When we quote figures that, say, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be a victim of partner violence, such statistics can be objectively true and yet disguise more than they reveal.

British Crime Survey figures do not differentiate between a drunken slap and a savage beating

Headline British Crime Survey figures do not differentiate between a drunken slap and a savage beating, while other abusive behaviours, which may be more traumatic and psychologically damaging, fail to register at all.

It must be noted that charities and campaigners in the field do not help, regularly conflating the most arresting statistics with the most frightening scenarios to imply that, for example, one in four women will experience the type of systematic, extended abuse committed by Collins, or worse. The reality, thankfully, is that the more extreme cases are comparatively rare.

That said, any and all incidents of violence and abuse, by anyone, against anyone are utterly inexcusable and potentially dangerous, and anyone involved in a violent relationship should be aware of the risks and able to access support. With devastating cuts to domestic violence services unfolding nationally, that may soon be impossible.

Debates on domestic violence have long been marked by bitter dispute between those who understand it to be an expression of patriarchal dominance and those who see it as a product of family conflict and individual criminality. The truth is that both are correct, but are describing different phenomena in the same terms. Until we can develop a more nuanced, evidence-based understanding of the true nature of domestic abuse, the arguments are destined to continue and both victims and perpetrators who sit outside the expected pattern will be denied the interventions they need.

I'm not going to thank Justin Lee Collins for anything, but in seeking assistance and pursuing justice, Anna Larke should be applauded, not just for her courage, but for helping to bring the complex, messy nature of intimate partner violence into much needed public view.