09/12/2015 11:53 GMT | Updated 09/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Domestic Abuse and Teenagers: The Coercive Control Offence Must Fulfil Its Promise

I doubt it's a coincidence that on the same day the government announced the new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour was imminently to be enforced, it also announced a new investment in its 'This is Abuse' campaign, aimed at teenagers.

The level of understanding of what coercive control is, its impact on victims, and how to stop it is worryingly low - even (or perhaps especially) among professionals who victims are relying on to help them. There is also evidence that young people are both particularly vulnerable to controlling abuse, and particularly unable to distinguish it from "acceptable" levels of care, affection and jealousy.

Not only that, but young people and teenagers are far less likely than adults to know where to turn for help, and research shows that if parents think they would know if their daughter was being abused by a boyfriend, they are kidding themselves. Only a tiny minority of teenage victims would tell a parent.

The new criminal offence is a significant step forward. It will both empower professionals to offer protection, and encourage victims to seek help. It gives an unequivocal signal that as a society we do not accept that one partner in a relationship has the right to curtail the freedoms of the other, and cause distress and damage.

Unfortunately, that signal may be weak in comparison to the bombardment of messages young people face that objectify and demean women, and promote a man's right to know his partner's every move, objectify her, and treat sex as solely about his own desires. Shows like TOWIE, sexist song lyrics, music videos, advertising, and pornography all reinforce the idea that women are objects. And, in the absence of any compulsory forums in schools for discussion of healthy and happy relationships, the space where young people can safely explore these issues is depleting all the time.

It's simply not enough to leave it to parents, as the government recognised by launching 'This is Abuse' a few years ago. But parents need to know where to start.

It's not easy to open up a conversation about coercive control, particularly when blaming the victim is already commonplace, with girls criticised for not protecting themselves, for what they wear, for what images they share. Not only must the conversation not be about blame, it mustn't feel like blame either. That's why Women's Aid, supported by Avon, has launched a free toolkit to help both parents, teenagers and young people, which can be found here.

Our ability to protect ourselves from abuse, all of us, took a real step forward at the weekend. But we must remember that so many of the problems that victims of domestic abuse face if they come forward spring from a complete lack of understanding of coercive control. Problems such as police officers only seeing isolated incidents and failing to see patterns of abuse; social workers and family courts blaming mothers for not leaving, then pressuring them to facilitate the perpetrator's contact with children; friends and family exasperatedly asking "why doesn't she just leave?"; blaming teenagers for "sexting"; so-called "revenge porn" victims being girls. These are all possible consequences of coercive control. And they are all meted out on top of good old-fashioned sexism, obviously.

If the new offence is to live up to its promise to victims, full-scale cultural change is needed. It can be done. We are horrified at the idea of smoking in public spaces: when I was young it was allowed on planes and the Tube. We abhor drinking and driving; 20 years ago it was the norm. Remember 'clunk click every trip'? Who drives without a seatbelt now?

The difference between these campaigns and 'This is Abuse' is simple: size matters. The law is important but it's just one tool. Now the government must finish the job.

Women's Aid has created a coercive control toolkit, supported by Avon. It aims to help parents, teenagers and young people learn about coercive control, and offers practical guidance to deal with it. Download it here or go to