St Mary’s University

TW1’s Richard Mills Spoke to Dr Carole Murphy about her work on coercive control.

Carole Murphy is a Senior lecturer in Criminology and Sociology and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery (CSMS). Carole is committed to raising public awareness about contemporary forms of slavery and exploitation. Recognised nationally as an expert in the field of modern slavery and human trafficking, she is regularly invited to speak on this subject to a wide range of audiences and media outlets. Recent media engagement includes an interview on BBC Breakfast, and expert comment for the Times Higher Education Supplement. Carole successfully launched the MA in Human Trafficking, Migration and Organised Crime  at St Mary’s University in 2017.

Can you tell TW1 about your interest in coercive control? 

I was interested when I read your article in the last issue of TW1 about stalking and it made me think about the whole issue of coercive control and how little people understand about that. Interestingly in 2015, the UK government introduced some legislation and coercive control is now officially recognised as an issue in domestic violence. So, it doesn’t have to be physical violence, there can be psychological coercion. 

How does this relate to your work in Modern Slavery? 

I came across a paper by two academic called Hopper and Hildalgo (2006), when they wrote this paper there was no work on psychological coercive control and modern slavery, so they drew on other studies on prisoners of war, torture victims, cult members and victims of domestic violence. They used this literature and some of the scenarios within that to apply to human trafficking. Humiliation, threats of violence, actual violence and psychological manipulation. 

And Hopper and Hildago’s work has been related to domestic violence. 

After Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act (2015) was published, domestic violence was spoken about more in the news media and in popular culture. There was case of coercive control in a domestic setting represented in Coronation Street this year. Also, you had I Am Nicola (2019) that was on Channel 4, which was about psychological control and recently on The Archers you had an incident of modern slavery where a character was exploited for labour and this character was psychological controlled. These contemporary representations of modern slavery are important as our images of slavery are based on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade where people were controlled by chains, whips, beatings, masks, so it can be really hard for people to understand that modern slavery where people are not being chained or beaten but are controlled psychologically. 

Did you write about this in True Crime and the Media?

Yes, the book is called True Crime and the Media. The working title of my chapter is called ‘Coercive Control: Challenges in Legislation and Human Trafficking Cases’. I’ve focused on media representations of coercive control. I’m talking about the TV programmes I’ve already mentioned and the print media. Coercive control is mentioned in media reports but it’s not really explained. I mean the Coronation Street story this July helped public understating considerably. People were posting on social media comments like, ‘Thank you for doing this story’, ‘Nobody knew what I was going through’ and ‘The woman standing up to the man, I wish I could have done that’. I think it is really important that the issue is explored in popular culture and highbrow forums such as BBC Radio 4. 

You were going to talk about Biederman’s research on coercive control.

Biederman had a framework on coercion which he wrote in 1957. The framework was based on Korean interrogation techniques used on American soldiers in the Korean War.  According to Biederman there were eight methods of coercion used to establish compliance: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced exhaustion, threats, demonstration of omnipotence, degradation, enforcing trivial demands and occasion indulgences.  These tactics are used in cases of domestic abuse, and I heard on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 recently about a woman with a high-powered job, who suffered these abuses but her partner would then buy her presents or take out for a meal. So that adds to the perception that the relationship is not that bad, and people stay in abusive relationships for a long, long time. These tactics are used on immigrants as well, the threat of withholding passports. These people are terrified! It’s what Hildalgo called ‘the invisible chains of modern slavery’.

Of course, this kind of abuse goes on behind closed doors.

When I first moved to the UK on of my neighbours had to answer phone calls from her husband regularly throughout the day, and if she didn’t answer that phone after two or three rings, there would be consequences.   That is absolute psychological coercion. It’s still going on behind closed doors, but one of the points of the chapter is that we need to hear more about it in popular culture representations as well as the news media. If you look at in terms of human trafficking people are motivated by profit. In domestic abuse these people are motivated by power, they have some deep-seated insecurities; they have to control their partner in order to feel OK. You must watch I Am Nicola (UK, 2019) it really captures the subtleties of this type of control.  

Murder and True Crime in the Media (Forthcoming, 2021) Edited by Maria Mellins.