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Coercive Control - Disrupting the narrative

Luke Hart speaking in February at White Ribbon Conference 2019

Luke Hart speaking in February at White Ribbon Conference 2019

The keynote speaker at the White Ribbon Conference in June was Luke Hart. On 19 July 2016, Claire and Charlotte Hart were murdered in broad daylight, by the family’s father using a sawn-off shotgun. He then committed suicide. Luke and his younger brother Ryan, the two surviving sons, now openly share their story to raise awareness of coercive and controlling behaviour. So far, they have trained police officers, NHS personnel and legal professionals in the Crown Prosecution Service.

Luke opened by saying how easy it is to think that domestic abuse was a women’s problem to mitigate, whereas it’s men’s responsibility to stop doing it in the first place. He went on to demand that we have to move the conversation to be about masculine culture, not a question of constantly trying to empower victims. He described how he and his brother were constantly empowering their mum to leave. But empowering their mum meant their father always increased the abuse one step further to maintain power and control, leading eventually to Claire’s and Charlotte’s murders. Luke attested that we can’t simply expect women to manage their own situations – the only thing that will keep them safe is to become an unquestioning slave to the abuser, which none of us should expect. He believes that we need to be more courageous through substantial interventions with perpetrators. We need to focus far more on prevention; or we’re literally going to be leading more women to their own deaths.

Luke described how coercive control destroys your ‘normal’. He said how after being coerced you can never go back to your previous self because it’s been obliterated – you’ve been changed. He said how coercive control is entirely about disrupting the way you think and destroying your own independent belief system – so that you simply become a puppet to the abuser’s worldview. Overcoming the invisible trauma – effectively, rebuilding a person – takes many years even after the abuse has ended. Language is so important for recovery – being able to speak about your experiences is what helps you to progress. Therefore, it’s important for others to allow survivors to feel comfortable to talk.

For White Ribbon’s focus on challenging negative masculine culture, Luke’s perspective on the way this affects men was very interesting. He said how, ‘men are not masculinity’, that masculinity makes men miserable and what leads to abuse is the entitlement that comes with the masculine desire for power and status. Masculinity breeds ‘self-inflicted male misery’, because abusers may gain power by abusing, but day to day they’re miserable. They create a fragile ego built upon the subjugation of others. When others resist the subjugation, the abuser’s identity crumbles like a house of cards. Abuse is driven by the abuser’s belief in their entitlement to power over others – an entitlement that is disproportionately masculine – meaning the abuser’s expectations on life are extremely, and unrealistically high, so they are always expecting more and always let down. This makes abusers incredibly dependent on their victim’s subjugation for their sense of self and therefore abusers are often depressed and potentially dangerous.

An interesting perspective was Luke’s assertion that ‘the thing with abusers is they genuinely believe they’re victims’. He said that he honestly doesn’t think anyone can just be evil but that you have to convince yourself you’re a victim fighting against an oppressor. Only then can you do something evil or violent. He stated that such men will rationalise their position as a victim, and believe it. Luke believes that what is important is removing the abuser’s justification that they have been victimised. If we do not, then when a victim asserts their independence, the abuser’s identity will crumble and the abuser will blame the victim for their sense of dis-empowerment. Therefore, we must ‘deconstruct the abuser’s moral universe’ which means holding men to account. Parental alienation is one of the things that abusers latch onto to justify their violence through their imagined victim-hood.

Luke stated that if a perpetrator doesn’t want to change, they won’t. They will present how they need to in order to get by, but no amount of training will change them if they don’t want to. He feels that what we really need to do is not stigmatise perpetrators, but instead open up the conversation on dysfunctional masculine belief systems as a societal male health crisis. For a very long time, society has enforced the notion of masculinity on men. This needs to be treated not as an anomaly, but as an expected part of the system we have raised our boys in. He stated that we are not sufficiently addressing the issue of our society forcing masculinity onto men and boys – we need to let men and boys be something more and believe in something more than the limited and violent-inducing doctrine of masculinity. Currently, the approach to domestic abuse primarily focuses on empowering women – which assumes all responsibility to end domestic abuse sits with women – and that this needs to change if we have any hope of ending male violence.

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Luke and Ryan Hart are White Ribbon Ambassadors and Refuge Champions speaking out against male violence towards women and children. They have released their book Remembered Forever, telling their story and challenging myths and stereotypes. An audience member speaking about the book said, “I don’t know how you do it, but you manage to write things in a few short sentences that other people haven’t managed to explain in the same way. It’s incredible, I just wish it had come 20 years ago”.