The Invisible Prison: Coercive Control and Young Women

By Polly Neate, Former Chief Executive, Women's Aid

You’d think it’s impossible to ignore the double-bind that we as a society force upon our girls and young women, so pervasive are its messages, contradictory in everything except that they’re powerful and they’re everywhere. But apparently for the retail, fashion, media and advertising businesses, with a few honourable exceptions, it’s easy to ignore - or its effects are at any rate.

Look like this! Don’t look like this when you go out, you might be attacked! Don’t send sexy photos or videos to anyone! Sexy photos and videos can make you admired, rich and famous! Being jealous and possessive means he loves you! Be yourself, don’t let anyone push you around! Work hard and have a great career! Look at this poor celebrity, on the shelf! Have kids before it’s too late! Don’t get pregnant! Your sex life should be fantastic! Don’t get branded a slut!

On every level, from the personal to the most public, we are messing with our girls’ heads. And meanwhile, though some pretend to do so – or perhaps, to be kind, genuinely believe they are doing so – very few of the messages received actually make girls safer.

Meanwhile, in the world of the criminal justice system, it has just become illegal to subject your partner to a pattern of coercive control. A golden opportunity for society to take a stand for genuine freedom of choice, to say that everyone must have the space to live their day to day life free from fear, no-one should have to live in an invisible prison. The law makes that prison visible.

Or it should. Bearing in mind that apparently the impact of the double-bind young women are trapped in is invisible to those with power, there is every risk that one of the groups most affected by coercive control – and yes, research shows that young women are especially vulnerable – will go unprotected.

That’s why Women’s Aid and Avon teamed up to publish a toolkit on coercive control specifically aimed at young people and their parents. It doesn't blame girls and young women, it’s free, and it can be found here.

We would be the first to admit that far more is needed. We must all keep up the pressure on those who continue to put up the bars of that invisible prison day after day. And it’s not only commercial interests: how many police forces publish posters aiming to prevent rape, but actually implying that young women can stop rape by dressing differently, not drinking, sharing a cab?

And even if controlling any of this is beyond the government, as it appears to be, there is something government can do. Make education on healthy relationships compulsory in all schools. We’ve called for it before and we’ll keep doing so. This kind of knowledge is a right, for both boys and girls. It’s time.

You can donate to support the work of Women’s Aid here.

You can support the campaign for statutory PHSE including relationships and sex education here.