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    15 MIN READ

     What is coercive control?

    Understanding the behaviour of coercive control.

    The following is a transcript from episode #03 of the Only Loving Sex podcast, brought to you by Channel Void in partnership with The Society.

    ​​Throughout this 8-part series, certified sexologist, Kassandra Mourikis, and somatic healer, Poppy Sloan, explore consent from every possible angle: from what to do if you’ve had your consent violated to calling out toxic behaviour.

     

    Episode #03: Synopsis

    Poppy and Kass do a deep dive into coercive control, demonstrating why the ‘no means no’ version of consent is so problematic and outdated.

    TRANSCRIPT:

    Welcome to the Only Loving Sex podcast, brought to you by Channel Void in partnership with the Society. This is a shame-free audio space, exclusively built for reimagining reality as a sex-positive utopia.

    But first, a trigger and content warning. This podcast will likely reference and discuss breaches of consent and boundary violations, as well as the associated trauma. If you or someone you know needs immediate support, call 1800-RESPECT – a hotline specialised to help those dealing with sexual assault, domestic violence, or family violence.

    This podcast was recorded on the traditional lands of the people of the Bundjalung, Woiwurung and Wajuk nations. We pay our respects to the elders, past, present, emerging and future.

    VOICE 1.
    There’s such a huge focus on sexuality for the LGBTQIA+ communities, so it feels like pleasuring someone is paramount to forming a connection.

    VOICE 2.
    Growing up, it was always expected that, you know, girls would be the ones who, if a guy walked you around the back of a party and asked you to give him head, you’d say yes.

    VOICE 3.
    A lot of humans want to please other people. We want to make other people happy and you think that by saying, no, it will upset them.

    VOICE 4.
    It doesn’t mean that you have to be in love with that person to be having sex with them. But it means that you need to have some love for that person or some respect for that person, I think, and for yourself at the same time.

    POPPY.
    Hey folks, thanks for joining us here again. Uh, we’re going to continue our discussion on consent and everything related. In the last episode, we touched on coercive control. We touched on this really briefly as a behaviour where someone might keep asking for something until another person gives in out of exhaustion, fear, or just to make them stop asking.

    KASS.
    Yeah. And we wanted to unpack that and maybe delve a little bit deeper into coercive control because it’s a behaviour that is like really easily missed and it’s an unrecognised form of abuse because it’s so subtle, and it’s something that also goes hand in hand with other behaviours like gaslighting or, um, emotional manipulation, which maybe you’re a bit more familiar with, but we’ll talk about those other two in a little bit. So here’s more on coercive control.

    POPPY.
    So what is coercive control?

    KASS.
    Good question Poppy. Coercive control is a form of mental and emotional, sexual, physical, financial, spiritual abuse, and it might involve- you know- isolating someone, controlling people that person can see, controlling where they go or what they can do. But ultimately, I’d really think coercive control is about controlling or humiliating someone to do something that they don’t want to do. But it leaves a person feeling like they have no other choice, but to give in or accept whatever controlling behaviour or requests someone’s making of them.

    POPPY.
    So an example of that might be telling someone that if they don’t have sex with you when you ask, then you’ll leave.

    KASS.
    Yeah. Right. I think like, if you sort of are in a position where you say you don’t want your relationship to end, or if you care and love about that person then saying no, will have such big consequences. So in that sense, “no” doesn’t really feel like an option.

    POPPY.
    Totally. It kind of leaves people really trapped and kind of without agency because of a very controlling dynamic that they might actually not even recognise.

    KASS.
    Mm, yeah. What else comes up for you Poppy when you think about coercive control?

    POPPY.
    Good question. I think the way that coercive control is so normalised, you know, the way that most people assume it’s this normal relationship behaviour when it’s really not and it’s absolutely a breach of consent.

    KASS.
    God yeah, it is so normalised. If we don’t recognise those power imbalances, that sometimes it’s not possible to say no, because of consequences, whether they’re real or perceived, or like a fear of a consequence or negative outcome, then you know, those things do come from coercive control.

    POPPY.
    Um, sometimes there is this idea that a no will always be clear and delivered with clarity, but actually if that no has been met in the past with any kind of emotional manipulation, it will possibly be much harder for that person to be confident in their “no”. Now, this is really important to consider in relationships as it could be a learned behaviour, and this could be from past relationships or previous conversations, which had a less healthy dynamic. So basically even if the “no” is not delivered confidently, it is still so important that it is respected fully.

    KASS.
    So important. It’s like that idea of the no means no version of consent, that was so problematic and outdated because it kind of ignores like the ideas of coercive control and other forms of abuse. Essentially, if you need to hear a clear no, before recognising that consent isn’t even being given then that is a really big problem because Poppy, as you just illustrated, like sometimes you can’t give a “no”, sometimes you don’t have confidence or safety to express a “no” or your boundaries and that doesn’t, you know, even if those things aren’t possible, it doesn’t mean you that you’re consenting.

    POPPY.
    I think about all the different ways that we might learn to do this kind of thing to others or as young people. Maybe we could talk about some examples of this and, and where we kind of learn these kinds of behaviours?

    KASS.
    Okay. Good idea, a really common example that comes to mind is how we might learn that the idea that if we’re persistent, then we can turn a no into a yes. If you think of a little kid who asked their parents for something that they really want, but they ask for it over and over and over again, because their friend had it, or they saw it on TV or whatever- it was in some way, they’d learned that this is something that they can have and they really want. And so that kid might throw a tantrum or make a scene, which are all really embarrassing consequences for a parent who is exhausted and maybe they’re at the supermarket or at the shops, and don’t want a screaming kid next to them, which would be really embarrassing. And so they want it to stop happening. So the parent might actually just give in and say, “All right, fine”. And “All right, fine” is not at all the same as you know, an enthusiastic, “yes, I’d love to”, but it’s agreeing or, or accepting this coercive behaviour and behaviour with lots of negative consequences associated to just get it done and make it end.

    KASS.
    Poppy. Do you have another example of how we might learn coercive control? Or, you know, give into the things that we don’t want?

    POPPY.
    I think that that dynamic with a parent and a child also can play out in the context of coercive control. When you think about, um, the example of a young kid, who’s maybe at a family gathering and doesn’t want to, you know, give that auntie a hug or kiss their granny on the cheek or whatever, and there’s that pressure from a parent or perhaps another family member to be like you know: “You love your granny, go give her a big hug and kiss. You love your uncle, you love your auntie, go give them a hug”. When really that’s actually teaching pretty problematic behaviours around not listening to your body, not listening to what you need, not respecting your boundaries, not teaching that check-in and not encouraging agency in the young person to know what’s best for them, which I think is a learned behaviour that really does display itself in adult relationships as well.

    KASS.
    Absolutely in many ways, it can make people vulnerable to coercive control because it’s like normal behaviour. It’s like you should do this thing because somebody else is expecting it. Someone feels entitled to your affection.

    POPPY.
    Mm, I think expectation is like a really key word. Um, when talking about coercive control, like in the context, in the context of relationships, for example, I think. Is that a classic example? And like, I’ve experienced this, I’ve had many clients that have reported experiencing this, but where, um, a partner makes a sexual kind of come-on or gesture, you know, and that part is totally okay. But when there’s a decline of that gesture or, that perhaps level of, um, sexual activity that they’re wanting to engage with you in and the partner who has come on to you responds by either withdrawing then giving you absolutely no affection or continuing to ask repeatedly. Or somewhere kind of in-between that isn’t showing a level of respect for a “no”, and I think in partnerships, people feel they can get away with this more, but it’s still the exact same thing, and it’s still yeah, about never having an expectation that someone owes you sex or owes you, um, sexual intimacy.

    KASS.
    Yeah, and then what often comes with situations like this is the person that felt really entitled, or they had very high expectations that they probably picked up in society sort of centres, their own feelings. Like they’re the one that’s rejected, and so now they have created a consequence for you because they feel like they’ve been impacted or they’ve been triggered because they’ve missed out on something that they were waiting for or sure that they were going to be able to access.

    POPPY.
    Yeah. Yeah. It always just comes back to, that it should be enthusiastic. And you know, if you’ve worn someone down from the persistence, um, because they realised they weren’t going to be heard or respected and the only way to get it over and done with was to give in or change their “no” to a “yes”, you know, that is not a good foundation for healthy intimacy and healthy connection and trust and all these things, which also, of course, link in with experiencing pleasure.

    KASS.
    It’s also so often marginalised people like queer folks or disabled people or fat folks or women, or you know, black Indigenous people of colour that are the ones that are so often socially conditioned to put other people’s needs before their own, or people please or sacrifice as a way to like, avoid the impact or the harm, essentially.

    POPPY.
    Yeah, and you know, you think about how, when people from these groups assert themselves or, you know, try to push against this social conditioning to bypass their needs that they’re labelled often, these really derogatory, awful things.

    KASS.
    Totally they’re ‘bossy’ or ‘selfish’. They’re ‘bitchy’, ‘rude’ ‘frigid’, like ‘prudish’, the list goes on and that’s so intensely, intensely shamed for putting themselves first or communicating their needs and boundaries, which are their basic right.

    POPPY.
    Um, yeah, or, you know, if they’re at risk of being publicly shamed or rejected from spaces or places that they want to be a part of, the risk of, you know, being abused or even being stalked is also there because there are these very real, very negative consequences that they feel they will receive if they say no, you know, and this really kind of speaks to pretty big structural power imbalances.

    KASS.
    Yeah, totally. Because we do have such a limited or inaccurate or in some cases, completely absent sexual education, and most people just think if someone doesn’t want to do something, they just won’t do it.

    POPPY.
    Yeah. And most people have been taught that if there’s something they want, they can keep asking for it, and if they’re persistent enough, then they’ll get it. So they apply that idea to sex, and I think that particularly applies to men and even more particularly to white CIS hetero men.

    KASS.
    Mmm, and then on the other end, it’s like typically women or queer folks or marginalised people that are told over and over again, and historically that it’s, they can’t say no, it’s not okay to say no, and I think that people who are asking or making requests of others aren’t really looking for, or haven’t learned about an enthusiastic yes. Or they don’t know all the different ways that a no can look. So they really might just miss it.

    POPPY.
    Absolutely. Yeah. I think this is where focusing specifically on, I guess, if there hasn’t been many experiences of this, it’s actually imagining outcomes around what enthusiastic consent really does look and sound like. I think this can be really helpful. And we can apply it then in real-life situations in sex education, this is used a lot. So it’s really imagining, like, what does it look and sound like? To see and feel and hear and observe an enthusiastic “yes”, and looking at practical real-life imaginings of that.

    VOICE 1.
    Consent is consent. You need someone’s permission, whether they are a guy, girl, non-binary or gender fluid.

    VOICE 2.
    The gay community is just so oversexualized that we’re in a pretty shitty place with that way. We think that if we don’t pleasure our partner then, or sexual partner or in a relationship, then the relationship kind of won’t progress.

    VOICE 3.
    I think sometimes I felt like I should put my partner’s needs above my own, just because from a utilitarian perspective, the kind of pain that would cause me is not very much compared to the joy that the other person would feel.

    KASS.
    Very related to coercive control is emotional manipulation. Maybe we can talk about that a little bit.

    POPPY.
    Yeah, absolutely. I think it is inevitable that we kind of start at the point of discussing gaslighting because it is, I guess, very closely linked to coercive control.

    KASS.
    Yeah. It’s way, way too common in intimate spaces, but also in the workplace, and I think even just like going back to media examples, Scott Morrison recently in the last few days gaslit the whole country about something that he said he didn’t say, but he did say.

    POPPY.
    Yeah aha, politicians. Um, yeah, so gaslighting is something that if left unchecked can spiral pretty quickly into a dysfunctional connection or an unsafe situation. Kass I’m interested. How would you define gaslighting?

    KASS.
    Gaslighting is behaviour or maybe a set of behaviours where somebody undermined someone else’s experience by really denying or pretending something didn’t happen when it really did. It might be something like telling someone they’re too sensitive or that they’re overreacting. It’s like you’re really denying their reality and they’re just denying their feelings. Um, or it might be completely denying something that you ever said, or did, you might pretend that they imagined it or they’re making it up and it never happened at all, and this really just leaves people questioning their own reality and whether or not they can even trust themselves.

    POPPY.
    Um, yeah. Yes. Huge red flag for sure. Um, and I think an even bigger red flag is when this behaviour is continuous. After it’s been pointed out, if it continues to occur frequently, you know, there’s obviously some other stuff going on there, which is acting too intentionally to create power and imbalances in a dynamic. Um, I think in the context of reporting, this tactic can be used as a way of making the survivor feel like their version of reality is not correct. And that they’re quote unquote “crazy” when actually anything that is not fully consented to will likely not sit right in our hearts or our belly or our sense of self, and a boundary violation is actually every reason to hold someone accountable and every reason to feel hurt and to request change behaviour.

    KASS.
    Yeah, that’s so true. This is why coming back to the full-body “yes”, and a frequent check-in is vital.

    POPPY.
    Mmm, 100%, as well as trusting our innate sense of when something is not sitting right with ourselves, and then speaking up, you know, someone who respects us will never meet our words with phrases, like,
    “Why can’t we keep going?”
    “I’m not done yet”
    “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

    KASS.
    Exactly. Massive red flags. I think the impact that this has on us is so hard for us to fathom at the moment sometimes the idea that you know, we’re not as valued in our “no” as much as we are in our “yes”.

    POPPY.
    Yeah, actually Janina Fisher, who is a trauma therapist she puts this really well. She says trauma survivors need to feel safe in order to heal. They need to feel some sense of control over their lives now. And they do not need to feel small or less than others or ashamed.

    KASS.
    Mm, I think that’s so important and it really, you know, values and centres, autonomy and choice and safety. When I think about it, it’s just, you know, it is really hard to fathom that someone could just have no idea how their words and their actions could affect another human and how denying somebody their boundaries or their preferences or their “no” is violent and an injustice, and creates long-term harm.

    POPPY.
    It is definitely something that does come up a lot in my work, working with embodied trauma. Often first off involves teaching people that it is actually safe to feel things, anything in their body. And secondly, you know, the way that their numbness is potentially a protective mechanism. I guess another way of phrasing that is also, yeah, numbness is, is still a feeling.

    KASS.
    Mm, there’s the sex educator, Georgia Grace, who asked this really great question that I love, “How does numbness feel?”. Like, “Can you describe the feeling of numbness”. And yeah, I feel like that relates so much to what you said, Poppy.

    POPPY.
    Beautiful. Yeah, I haven’t heard that. That’s great.

    KASS.
    I guess this is also where the teaming up of traditional therapies with more alternative or, you know, a somatic therapist can be so helpful in working from a sort of this bottom-up, um, or somatic body-based therapy that works to process like sensations and emotions. Also the idea of, the top-down approach, which is a cognitive thought, knowledge-based approach, which is like maybe cognitive behavioural therapy used often in like more traditional talk therapy. You know, in addition to these two, different therapy approaches and different somatic approaches, is like the sideways approach, sort of the mindfulness space therapy approaches that you can explore in terms of addressing behaviours or healing with the therapist, coasts or coach or a somatic bodyworker.

    POPPY.
    Yeah. I really believe that in giving the body outlets for expression, being heard, feeling validated, that’s kind of where the magic is for me.

    KASS.
    Yeah. Thanks Poppy, I really think it is so much in the body and being able to feel safe in the body and connect with your body and even build trust with your body so that your body knows that you’re not going to violate its consent, and you know, that you can feel safe and comfortable in your body at the same time.

    KASS.
    That’s all for today’s episode. We do want to wrap it up here because this was such a heavy, heavy episode. Have a look in the show notes for a lot of different support resources on this episode.

    POPPY.
    Yes. So definitely self-care, big time after this one, everyone. Whatever that looks like for you. Drink some tea, cuddle a friend, go for a nice big walk. Some of this content has been heavy, so we really, really encourage you to be kind to yourself.

    POPPY.
    Thanks so much, Kass and thank you to our listeners. Our next episode will be on the concept of rape culture, and you’ll find more details for that at channelvoid.com.au.

    I’m so glad you joined us at the Only Loving Sex podcast. Brought to you by Channel Void in partnership with this Society. To deepen your relationship with sex and self sign up to SELF-SERVICE, it’s our way of showing that we really do give a fuck. It’s a free to use SMS therapy space open every Tuesday from 7 until 8:00 PM, Australian Eastern Standard Time with Kass and Poppy. It’s just like texting a friend, except this is a professionally held space. Ask questions, workshop ideas, and be supported in your healing journey. For more details head to chvoid.com

    Listen to episode #03: What is coercive control? Available on Spotify and iTunes.

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