From Domestic Violence to Coercive Control: Towards the Recognition of Oppressive Intimacy in the Family Court

By Elizabeth, Vivienne | New Zealand Sociology, April 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

From Domestic Violence to Coercive Control: Towards the Recognition of Oppressive Intimacy in the Family Court


Elizabeth, Vivienne, New Zealand Sociology


Abstract

Domestic violence is a gendered pattern of interaction that is increasingly viewed as a serious problem in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, a tendency to rely on the domestic violence paradigm (Stark, 2007) means that physical violence, rather than coercive control, is often seen as the defining feature of oppressive family relationships. Through an in-depth examination of a case study selected from 32 interviews collected as part of two projects on post-separation care arrangements, this article investigates the value of coercive control for redefining the aggressive pursuit by controlling fathers' of 50:50 shared care as a pattern of paper abuse (Miller & Smolter, 2011).

Introduction

Over the last twenty years there has been increasing acknowledgement of the dark side of family life in Aotearoa New Zealand. Typically equated with violence, experiences of the dark side of family life have been shown to be widely distributed across New Zealand households (see below). While investigations of and interventions into family violence1 are vital, it is also important to investigate the problems that arise out of making violence the defining feature of oppressive family relationships.

This paper takes up this task through an examination of the struggle middle-class, often Pakeha women face as they attempt to gain recognition by the Family Court of the oppressive nature of their relationships with the father of their children. Many of these women have been subjected to the more subtle and less socially censured tactics of psychological abuse and control by their middle class former partners, men who are linked culturally with civility, respectability, and progressive family practices. I begin by outlining the extent of the problem New Zealand has with domestic violence and factors that have contributed to its recognition as a social problem. I then turn my attention to the work of Stark (2007) on coercive control. The discussion of coercive control prepares the way for an in-depth examination of paper abuse ? the extension of coercive control into the arena of post-separation legal contests ? a discussion that is pursued in the first instance through the examination of a case study.

Family violence as a social problem

There is no doubt that family violence is a significant social problem in Aotearoa New Zealand. Some sense of the relative scale of New Zealand's problem with violence against family members can be obtained through comparative police statistics for 2012 from New Zealand, the Australian state of Victoria, and Scotland. Collated by Herbert and MacKenzie (2014, p. 18), this data shows New Zealand's rate of offences per 100,000 population at 929 to be nearly double that of Victoria at 478 and significantly higher than Scotland's at 571. Because this comparison is based on police statistical data and not research data collected using the same methodology across each site, the picture it paints can only be seen as indicative.2 Nevertheless, the figures are highly suggestive that Aotearoa New Zealand has a much larger problem with family violence than similar Western jurisdictions.3

Other international comparisons also suggest that New Zealand is characterised by relatively high levels of domestic violence. For example, the latest Progress of the World's Women's report (Turquet et al., 2011, p. 134) shows that of the 14 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries providing figures on domestic violence, Zealand women experienced the highest rate of lifetime exposure to physical violence at 30% compared to Australia at 25%, Germany at 23%, and Sweden at 18%.4

Several local research studies also point to the extent of the problem New Zealand has with family violence. The first is a study on witnessing domestic violence conducted through the long-running Dunedin Multidisciplinary and Health and Development Study of 1037 children born in Dunedin in the early 1970s. …

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