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Gaslighting lesbians. Part one. What is coercive control?

In part one of three, our correspondent Nicci Lou discusses coercive control and how it can impact on lesbian relationships.

You can’t read anything political these days without seeing the word ‘gaslighting,’ but what does it mean and where does it come from? The term can be traced back to a 1938 play called ‘Gas Light’ by Patrick Hamilton, although it is the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman which is most remembered. In the production about a married couple the abusive husband manipulates his wife so much that she almost loses her mind. One of the ways he does this is by routinely causing the gas lamps to flicker and convincing his wife that she is imagining it.

So, whether undertaken by well-known politicians, or abusive husbands, it is not a term that is often used when thinking about women. They don’t use coercive control (so the orthodoxy goes)…if they do, according to the tabloids, it is either in reaction to a man, or inflicted on a man. I beg to differ. Stonewall says that one in four lesbians or bisexual women have experienced domestic abuse and that two thirds of the perpetrators were women.

What is coercive control?

It is against the law and the cornerstone of domestic violence. It occurs when a “sustained pattern of behaviour is used to intend to control or invoke fear in another”. The term was first used by Evan Stark PhD, a sociologist and forensic expert. Since 2016 perpetrators in the UK can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined. It doesn’t matter what sort of personal relationship you have with the perpetrator (they could be your father, or sister) or what sexuality, race or colour you are, “if you believe it to be happening then you are probably right”, according to those on social media support groups.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944). Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A person who repeatedly makes unreasonable demands for your attention, wants to make all the decisions, gets angry for no worthy reason, criticises, humiliates or belittles you and repeatedly lies to confuse you is likely to be an abuser and there is nothing that you can do to make them change. The effects of this abuse are serious: Gemma* was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder that was revoked soon after the end of her relationship. Sarah* doesn’t feel safe in her own home and often has the sensation that her partner is standing right behind her, even though the relationship ended three years ago. Living like this affects any children too and could see them being removed from the family.

It is hard to leave when the abuser may also appear as two different people: one charming or loving and the other mean and hurtful as their cycle of behaviours change. While it is likely they blame this change on something you have done, it is actually just them.

Sadly, evidence suggests that change isn’t likely and can only be proven by their actions over time and never by their words alone.

It is important that you do not attempt to confront or leave this person without seeking help from your GP, Women’s Aid or any other local service provider first. You can contact Galop, the LGBTQ+ national anti-violence helpline, on 0800 999 5428

In part two I will ask why woman-on-woman abuse is not a topic of mainstream conversation despite the new law. 

*names have been changed, to protect identity, upon request.

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